Electing a President – Irish Presidential Politics

Few things make you feel more isolated, non-assimilated, and, at times, deeply amused, than watching a presidential election take place in your new home when you have nearly as much at stake as any other local resident, and absolutely no voice/choice in the matter.

Shortly after we arrived in July, we began to hear vague rumblings about this or that celebrity or public figure being a good candidate for the “Áras”.  What we came to learn is that “Áras” is shorthand for the President of Ireland, and refers to the Áras an Uachtaráin, the official residence of the Irish President.  Located in Phoenix Park, one of Europe’s largest public parks, the “Áras” is the symbol of the Office of the President in Ireland.  In many ways the building seems to be at least as highly regarded as whoever happens to hold the office at any given time.

To be fair, the Office of the President is, in Ireland, primarily a public relations, and global outreach posting.  According to the Áras an Uachtaráin website, the President “who does not have an executive or policy role”, exercises their powers and functions (as enumerated in the Constitution) “ on the advice of the Government”.  In essence this means that they appoint the Taoiseach (Prime Minister) and other officials, but only after other members of the Irish government have chosen them.  Still, it seems that everybody wants to be the Áras.

For the next four weeks the radio was full of, “will they or won’t they run” punditry.  Mercifully, official nominations were opened on September 1st, and closed just a few weeks later (on the 28th).  The election itself was held barely a month later, and suddenly, blissfully, the sea of possible candidates had been narrowed to Michael D. Higgins (known simply as “Michael D.”).  It was, to be honest, a tremendously underwhelming campaign, and, to date, the new President’s most potent pledge seems to be his promise to acquire a new Bernese Mountain Dog before moving into the park.

While the campaign seemed fairly trivial, with slogans like “He’ll do us proud”, and “Pride at home, and respect abroad”, it was all but impossible to get a read on the candidates beyond their party affiliations.  But, even there, many of the candidates spent their campaign time backing way from party affiliations, and clinging desperately to the life raft of independence. And, in fact, the official sloganeering paled in comparison to the debate, chat show, and sound bite rhetoric, which reduced one candidate’s PR efforts to “Well, I wasn’t the gunman, per se.” and another’s to “Yeah, I took an envelope full of cash, just not that envelope full of cash.”

As bizarrely impotent as the Irish presidential elections seemed at times, I found myself longing for the time (years from now) when I might feel truly vested in Ireland, and relish being able to cast my vote (at least once) for the candidate of my choice.  And, I must say that having lived through the social proctoscope of an American Presidential election.  There is no multi-year winging, and jockeying for position at the expense of the people’s business.  The whole thing is over and done with in the political blink of an eye.  Yet it was immensely helpful.

As a recent immigrant, the thing I found most instructive about the election was not what I learned about any one candidate.  If you (as a new long term resident anywhere) really want to learn what people value, and what issues are important in the day-to-day lives of ordinary citizens, the best way to figure that out is to listen closely to your radio, read the news, and talk to cabbies and people on the street in the run up to a major election.  It doesn’t matter if you can’t vote and aren’t well and truly vested in the outcome yet.  Politicians, being politicians, invariably pander to the masses.

At heart what every elected official wants is to keep the angry mob from breaking into the palace. And, reductionist as it may be, there’s often a core of consensus behind the screaming mob at the gate.  That’s what politicians focus on:

‘What do I have to do right now to make you go away?’

That’s the issue of the day.  Look for it in some form on campaign posters, flyers, and in sound bites. Typically it’s what matters most to the people.  And as a newly minted resident, it’s likely to be important to you too, if for no other reason than that it will doubtless come up in conversation with friends, neighbors, co-workers, and cabbies.

Things to look forward to in upcoming posts:
– Dublin Cabbies  – the mobile public opinion survey

About Glenn Kaufmann

I'm an American freelance writer, photographer, and web publisher. I specialize in writing about travel, food, arts, and culture. I also write dramatic scripts for stage and screen. I'm based in Ireland.
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2 Responses to Electing a President – Irish Presidential Politics

  1. cluster says:

    Something to not about the President is that while the role is largely ceremonial, the incumbent wields a certain amount of discretionary power as a watchdog – referring legislation to the supreme court, putting a time limit on delaying by the Seanad, refusing to dissolve the Dail etc. The President also has a sort of bully pulpit.
    This all means that the Presidential election is generally approached with a very different attitude than General elections by most voters.

  2. Dez says:

    “What we came to learn is that “Áras” is shorthand for the President of Ireland”
    Not quite. It’s shorthand for the President’s Residence, or literally “Residence of the President”

    There is added potency in that it was previously the summer lodge of the Viceroy, the most powerful representative of the British establishment in Ireland.

    Michael D, as the President is affectionately known as, is a most interesting incumbent, being a passionate socialist, a poet, university lecturer and general good guy. 😉

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