The office of President was established in 1937, in part as a replacement for the office of Governor-General that existed during the 1922–37 Irish Free State. The seven year term of office of the President was inspired by that of the presidents of Weimar Germany. At the time the office was established critics warned that the post might lead to the emergence of a dictatorship. However, these fears were not borne out as successive Presidents played a limited, largely apolitical role in national affairs.
Head of state from 1937 to 1949
During the period of 1937 to 1949 it was unclear whether the Irish head of state was actually the President of Ireland or George VI, the King of Ireland. This period of confusion ended in 1949 when the state was declared to be a republic. The 1937 constitution did not mention the king; but nor did it state that the President was head of state, saying rather that the President “shall take precedence over all other persons in the State”. The President exercised some powers that could be exercised by heads of state but which could also be exercised by governors or governors-general, such as appointing the Government and promulgating the law. However, in 1936 George VI had been declared “King of Ireland” and, under the External Relations Act of the same year, it was this king who represented the state in its foreign affairs. Treaties, therefore, were signed in the name of the ‘King of Ireland’, who also accredited ambassadors and received the letters of credence of foreign diplomats. Representing a state abroad is seen by many scholars as the key characteristic of a head of state. This role meant, in any case, that George VI was the Irish head of state in the eyes of foreign nations. The Republic of Ireland act 1948, which came into force in April 1949, proclaimed a republic and transferred the role of representing the state abroad from George VI to the President. No change was made to the constitution.
After the inaugural presidency of Douglas Hyde, who was an interparty nominee for the office, the nominees of the Fianna Fàil political party won every presidential election until 1990. The party traditionally used the nomination as a reward for its most senior and prominent members, such as party founder and longtime Taoiseach Èamon De Valera and European Commissioner Patrick Hillery. Most of its occupants to that time followed Hyde’s precedent-setting conception of the presidency as a conservative, low-key institution that used its ceremonial prestige and few discretionary powers sparingly. In fact, the presidency was such a quiet position that Irish politicians sought to avoid contested presidential elections as often as possible, feeling that the attention such elections would bring to the office was an unnecessary distraction, and office-seekers facing economic austerity would often suggest the elimination of the office as a money-saving measure.Despite the historical meekness of the presidency, however, it has been at the center of some high-profile controversies. In particular, the fifth President, Cearbhall Ò Dàlaigh, faced a contentious dispute with the government in 1976 over the signing of a bill declaring a state of emergency, which ended in Ó Dálaigh’s resignation. His successor, Patrick Hillery, was also involved in a controversy in 1982, when then Taoiseach Garret Fitzgerald requested a dissolution of the Dàil. Hillery was bombarded with phone calls from opposition members urging him to refuse the request, an action that Hillery saw as highly inappropriate interference with the President’s constitutional role and resisted the political pressure.
The presidency began to be transformed in the 1990s. Hillery’s conduct regarding the dissolution affair in 1982 came to light in 1990, imbuing the office with a new sense of dignity and stability. However, it was Hillery’s successor, seventh President Mary Robinson, who ultimately revolutionized the presidency. The winner of an upset victory in the highly controversial election of 1990, Robinson was the Labour nominee, the first President to defeat Fianna Fáil in an election and the first female President. Upon election, however, Robinson took steps to de-politicize the office. She also sought to widen the scope of the presidency, developing new economic, political and cultural links between the state and other countries and cultures, especially those of the Irish diaspora. Robinson used the prestige of the office to activist ends, placing emphasis during her presidency on the needs of developing countries, linking the history of the irish famine to today’s nutrition, poverty and policy issues, attempting to create a bridge of partnership between developed and developing countries.
Douglas Hyde 25/6/1938 – 24/6/1945
Sean T. O`Kelly 25/6/1945 – 24/6/1959
Èamon De Valera 25/6/1959 – 24/6/1973
Erskine Childers 25/6/1973 – 17/11/1974
Cearbhall Ò Dàlaigh 19/12/1974 – 22/10/1976
Patrick Hillery 3/12/1976 – 2/12/1990
Mary Robinson 3/12/1990 – 12/9/1997
Mary McAleese 11/11/1997 – Incumbent