The President of Ireland is the head of state of Ireland. The President is usually directly elected by the people for a term of seven years, and can be elected for a maximum of two terms. The presidency is largely a ceremonial office, but the President does exercise certain limited powers with absolute discretion. The President’s official residence is Àras an Uachtaràin in Dublin. The office was established by the Constitution of Ireland (Bunreacht na hEireann) in 1937, and became internationlly recognised as head of state in 1949 following the coming into force of the Republic of Ireland Act, which declared the state a republic.
The current president is Mary McAleese, who took office on 11 November 1997.
The constitution provides for a parliamentary system of government, under which the role of the head of state is largely a ceremonial one. The President is formally one of three tiers of the Oireachtas (national parliament), which also comprises Dàil Èireann and Seanad Èireann.
Unlike many other republics, executive authority is expressly vested in the Government (cabinet). Thus, the President is not even the nominal chief executive. The Government is obliged, however, to keep the President generally informed on matters of domestic and foreign policy. Most of the functions of the President may only be carried out in accordance with the strict instructions of the Constitution, or the binding ‘advice’ of the Government. The President does, however, possess certain personal powers that may be exercised at his or her discretion.
- Appoints the Government
- The President appoints the Taoiseach (head of government) and other ministers, and accepts their resignations. The Taoiseach is appointed upon the nomination of the Dáil, and the remainder of the cabinet upon the nomination of the Taoiseach and approval of the Dáil. Ministers are dismissed on the advice of the Taoiseach and the Taoiseach must, unless there is a dissolution of the Dáil, resign upon losing the confidence of the house.
- Appoints the judiciary
- The President appoints the judges to all courts in the Republic of Ireland, on the advice of the Government.
- Convenes and dissolves the Dáil
- This power is exercised on the advice of the Taoiseach; government or Dáil approval is not needed. The President may only refuse a dissolution when a Taoiseach has lost the confidence of the Dáil.
- Signs bills into law
- The President cannot veto a bill that the Dáil and the Seanad have adopted. However, he/she may refer it to the Supreme Court to test its constitutionality. If the Supreme Court upholds the bill, the President must sign it however if it is found to be repugnant the constitution, the President will decline to give assent.
- Represents the state in foreign affairs
- This power is exercised only on the advice of the Government. The President accredits ambassadors and receives the letters of credence to foreign diplomats. Ministers sign international treaties in the President’s name. This role was not exercised by the President prior to the aforementioned Republic of Ireland act.
- Supreme commander of the Defence Forces
- This role is somewhat similar in statute to that of a commander in chief. An officer’s commission is signed and sealed by the President. This is a nominal position, the powers of which are exercised on the advice of the Government.
- Power of pardon
- The President, on the advice of the Government, has “the right of pardon and the power to remit punishment”. The current procedure is specified by Section 7 of the Criminal Procedure Act, 1993. There were plans in 2005 for paramilitary “on the runs” to receive pardons as part of the Northern Ireland peace process to supplement the 1998 early release of serving prisoners after the Good Friday Agreement. This was controversial and was soon abandoned along with similar British proposals.Power of commutation and remittance are not restricted to the President, though this was the case for death sentences handed down prior to the abolition of capital punishment .
- The President may not leave the state without the consent of the Government.
- Every formal address or message “to the nation” or to either or both Houses of the Oireachtas must have prior approval of the Government. Other than on these two (quite rare) occasions there is no limitation on the President’s right to speak. While earlier presidents were exceptionally cautious in delivering speeches and on almost every occasion submitted them for vetting, Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese have made much more use of their right to speak without government approval, with Mary McAleese doing many live radio and television interviews. Nonetheless, by convention Presidents refrain from direct criticism of the government.
Absence of the President
The President has no vice president. In the event of a premature vacancy a successor must be elected within sixty days. In a vacancy or where the President is unavailable, the duties and functions of the office are carried out by a collective vice-presidency known as the Presidential Commission, consisting of the Chief Justice, the Ceann Comhairle (speaker) of the Dáil, and the Cathaoirleach (chairperson) of the Seanad. Routine functions, such as signing uncontentious bills into law, have often been fulfilled by the Presidential Commission when the President is abroad on a state visit. The government’s power to prevent the President leaving the state is relevant in aligning the diplomatic and legislative calendars.
Technically each president’s term of office expires at midnight on the day before the new president’s inauguration. Therefore, between midnight and the inauguration the following day the presidential duties and functions are carried out by the Presidential Commission. The constitution also empowers the Council of State, acting by a majority of its members, to “make such provision as to them may seem meet” for the exercise of the duties of the president in any contingency the constitution does not foresee. The Council of State can therefore be considered the third in the line of succession. However, to date, it has never been necessary for the council to take up this role.
Vacancies in the presidency have occurred three times: on the death of Erskine Childers in 1974, and on the resignations of Cearbhall Ò Dàlaigh in 1976 and Mary Robinson in 1997.
Removal From Office
The President can be removed from office in two ways, neither of which has ever been invoked. The Supreme Court, in a sitting of at least five judges, may find the President “permanently incapacitated”, while the Oireachtas may remove the President for “stated misbehaviour”. Either house of the Oireachtas may instigate the latter process by passing an impeachment resolution, provided at least thirty members move it and at least two thirds support it. The other house will then either investigate the stated charges or commission a body to do so; following which at least two thirds of members must agree both that the President is guilty and that the charges warrant removal.