The President of Ireland is largely a ceremonial position with little power over governing the State. However, the role creates a symbol of modern Ireland both at home and abroad, reflecting our history.
Here we recount 5 examples of when Irish Presidents used their position to bring attention to a wider issue.
Mary McAleese’s letter to the New York Times
After the Berkeley tragedy where 6 Irish J1 students died because a balcony they were standing on collapsed, the New York Times wrote a piece on the tragedy. They implied the Irish students should be blamed for the incident as over the years j1 students became a “source of embarrassment for Ireland, marked by a series of high-profile episodes involving drunken partying and the wrecking of apartments.”
McAleese responded with a letter to The New York times stating “the New York Times should be hanging its head in shame at how outrageously and without the remotest evidence it has rushed to judgment on those deaths.” McAleese signed the letter of with: “Mary McAleese, ex-President of Ireland, 1997-2011; J-1 visa student in San Francisco summer of 1971.” Though not serving as President at the time, the letter carried so much weight because she once held the position.
Michael D. Higgins’s subtle comments
The last number of years have been marked by an ever growing refugee crisis, met with apathy internationally. However, many leaders, such as our current President, have spoken out about being more welcoming.
“We can open a dialogue with the ‘cos muintir’ of the world, the excluded, the disappointed, the angry. Above all, we cannot abandon the excluded, the confused, to the predatory abuse of those who seek the exploitation of difference, of race, ethnicity, culture or gender. There can be no room for such abuse. We have in Europe and elsewhere experienced the consequences already,” said Michael D. Higgins.
While visiting New York, Higgins also spoke about the sexism which exist in the world and how “in Ireland, as across the world, the exclusion of women led to the impoverishment of our public policy and our body politic”.
Mary Robinson and controversial Bills
A record breaking President, Mary Robinson became the first female elected head of state in Ireland. At a time when Ireland was still relatively conservative, she broke the mould. Mary Robinson was also at the helm when signing Bills which she had fought for during her political career and prior to her Presidency. These included decriminalising homosexuality, providing an equal age of consent and liberalising the law on contraception.
She also shook up the Presidency, showing how beneficial it could be. Robinson did her first interview as President with puppets Zig and Zag on the children’s programme: The Den. She would later go on to become the United Nations High Commissioner of Human Rights.
A friendly visit
In 2011, for the first time ever, the Irish President hosted a British monarch, when Mary McAleese welcomed Queen Elizabeth II. Their visit to Croke Park stadium was controversial, as in 1920 the British army officers including those in the Auxiliary Division and the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) open fired on innocent people on the grounds during a GAA match. This event later became known as Bloody Sunday.
While giving a speech, the Queen began in Irish with “A Uachtaráin agus a chairde” (Translated from Irish: President and friends) which was met with applause, started by McAleese. The visit and welcome showed how it was possible to begin to heal after a conflict.
Michael D. Higgins’ way with words
Our current President, being a poet has a way with words. He once told the European Union leaders they need a “radical rethink” on how they’re handling the economic crisis. He also called for more rental accommodation to be made available in Ireland and called the housing situation a crisis. The most memorable moment of Higgins’ outspoken presidency so far could be his comments during the campaign for repealing the 8th Amendment which criminalised abortion in Ireland.
When speaking about the death of Savita Halappanvar who died from a septic miscarriage in Ireland in 2012 because she could not access abortion, Michael D Higgins said he: “expressed my sympathy to her husband and her extended family and I was joining the thousands of Irish people in the streets saying the same thing.”