President McAleese may have one remaining vital task to perform….
14 July, 2011
The discretionary powers of the President of Ireland are said to be very limited. In fact, our President does have important powers, and our lack of appreciation of this is attributable to the fact that (thankfully) we have enjoyed relative political, economic and social stability since the Constitution was enacted. Accordingly, the constitutional “safeguards” of which the President is guardian have only rarely been used, if at all.
These safeguards include: referring a bill to the Supreme Court under Article 26 to test its constitutionality; convening a meeting of either or both of the Houses of the Oireachtas (after consultation with the Council of State); deciding whether to accede to a request under Article 27 (joint petition by a majority of the members of Seanad and not less than one-third of the members of Dáil requesting the President to decline to sign into law a Bill before a referendum or election is held).
But there is one additional power which I feel may become relevant at some time in the near future. I refer to the right of the President (under Article 13.2.2) to refuse to dissolve the Dáil when requested to do so by the Taoiseach of the day. This request would arise where that Taoiseach has ceased to retain the support of a majority in Dáil Éireann, usually evidenced by the loss of a vote of confidence. The President can refuse the request if she believes it to be in the interests of the State that the Taoiseach instead goes back to the Dáil and attempts to form a different government.
In the economically and politically stressful months that lie ahead, it may well become appropriate for the next President to exercise her (or his) discretion in this manner. I can readily foresee a breakdown in relations between the Fine Gael and Labour partners in the current coalition government. In a situation where the next budget is set to make cuts of, and/or increase taxes by, a total of €3.6 billion or more, there is plenty of scope for the two parties to fall out. In particular, it is yet to be seen whether Labour have the stomach for the sort of cuts that are necessary for our economic recovery. The signs are not good.
So how about this for a scenario: Enda Kenny’s government falls apart after Labour withdraw their support for certain cutbacks; Enda goes to the Park to look for a dissolution and a general election; President McAleese (or her successor) says “Hang on a minute, we don’t need an election, and in fact it would be bad for the country to hold an election given the prevailing economic crisis. There are 19 Fianna Fáil TDs on the opposition benches and you should go and talk to them. With FG and FF combined, there is a comfortable majority, and FF under Micháel Martin can surely be persuaded to do the right thing by the country and allow the economy to be sorted out, however difficult the short-term pain might be. So, on your bike, Enda”
And with that, civil war politics might just come to an end.