Thirty years after he handwrote the Irish constitution, President Eamon de Valera found himself having to justify the role of president he had created.

The occasion was a visit from a newly appointed British ambassador, Sir Andrew Gilchrist. “I’m rather ignorant about the Irish constitution,” Gilchrist admitted. “Does the Cabinet write you a sort of Queen’s speech for opening parliament with?”

“Certainly not!” retorted de Valera. “I don’t open parliament, and I write my own speeches.

“Of course, I wrote most of the Constitution myself,” he added, and recalled how he had considered opting for an American-style presidential system, but had rejected it as being effectively a “dictatorship”.

“Besides, I wanted to prepare a nice quiet job without too much work for my old age… Still, I admit I was tempted – look at the way de Gaulle rules France, (with) absolute rule – very efficient.”

De Valera’s tongue was firmly in cheek – in contradiction to the prevailing dour image of the Long Fellow. (The memo of this meeting is reprinted in Diarmuid Ferriter’s ‘Judging Dev’.) And yet, ironic or not, his description of the presidency was unflatteringly accurate. Dev, who was nearly blind, had just been re-elected, at 84, and would continue in the office till the age of 90. The job was certainly quiet, and seemingly dull; a contemporary memo, recording a typical “day in the life of the president”, notes that a key activity was “visits (to) friends in hospitals”.

This was the dominant figure in Irish politics across five decades, a man whose opponents had feared would use first government, then his new constitution, and finally the presidency, to establish just the thing he joked about rejecting: dictatorship. Was his intention for the presidency really that it be merely a sinecure? And if it has become that, could it still be something greater?

The Irish presidency is not, on paper, an expansive role: the president’s two key areas of executive privilege are the powers to refer bills to the Supreme Court and, more intriguingly, to refuse to dissolve the Dáil upon a Taoiseach’s request.

This power has never been used, but it has been invoked. In February 1982, Garret Fitzgerald dramatically lost a budget vote, and was forced to seek a dissolution of the Dáil. Senior members of Fianna Fáil, including Brian Lenihan, attempted to contact the President, Paddy Hillery, to persuade him to refuse the dissolution, so that Charlie Haughey could put together a minority government. But Hillery was elusive; the Dáil was dissolved, and the most significant consequence was that, when this story eventually broke, in 1990, it derailed Brian Lenihan’s own bid at the presidency.

Then, after the 1987 general election, Hillery was again the subject of behind-the-scenes manoeuvring, though this time by Garret Fitzgerald. The general election had left neither Fitzgerald nor Haughey in a position to form a majority government, and independent TD Tony Gregory appeared to hold the balance of power. But Gregory was threatening to vote against both possible taoisigh, which would have left the country in constitutional limbo. Fitzgerald agreed with Hillery that, if this happened, he would go to Hillery to resign as Taoiseach (having failed to be re-elected in the Dáil), but Hillery would refuse, and send him back to the Dáil to try to break the deadlock. In the event, Gregory voted for Haughey, and their ruse was never needed.

Hillery’s actions (or careful inaction) embodied the defining characteristic of the Irish presidency: moral authority. This stems in part from the constitution: the president “take(s) precedence over all other persons in the State”, and pledges to “dedicate my abilities to the service and welfare of the people of Ireland”. It stems also from the fact that all our presidents have been well-respected eminences (and mostly éminences grises) in Irish life. And it can derive (though it didn’t in Hillery’s case) from the fact that the president has a unique popular mandate, being directly elected by the nation.

This is key to understanding the actual power of the presidency, as opposed to the limited powers defined in law, and one way to test it is through a thought experiment. What would happen if there were a coup d’état in Ireland? The president has no power to intervene in politics without the sanction of the government. But what if the government was seized by military junta?

This may sound like a paranoid fantasy of Ned O’Keefe, but it’s precisely what happened in a fellow European democracy, Spain, just thirty years ago. A rebel army leader, Lieutenant Colonel Tejero, stormed the Cortes (parliament) with a force of 200 soldiers and armed police, and held the entire parliament, and cabinet, hostage, while other generals moved to take up strategic positions elsewhere.

But Tejero hadn’t reckoned on the 43 year old king, Juan Carlos I. Juan Carlos had overseen the transition from fascism to democracy in Spain, and in the process had stripped himself of executive power. But he had earned great respect, and he remained titular head of the armed forces. At one am the next morning, he appeared on television, dressed in full military uniform, and forcefully rejected the coup. It collapsed shortly afterwards.

The constitution gives our president “supreme command of the Defence Forces”. It’s clearly not intended that the president might use it. But if such a situation arose, would the incumbent president have the moral authority to do so?

Our presidents have typically been people of moral authority, but have been slow to use it. Douglas Hyde was the first president, elected unopposed in 1938. The founder of the Gaelic League, and a leading Irish-language poet, he established an enduring association of the role of president with cultural prestige (evident again in Fine Gael’s bid to persuade Seamus Heaney to run). Aged 78 when elected, and debilitated for much of his term by a stroke, he also established the precedent that the presidency be a quasi-retirement.

The second president, Seán T O’Kelly, was another veteran, aged 62 when elected, and 76 on retirement, as well as a close colleague of de Valera (who succeeded him), and hence a safe pair of hands. Erskine Childers, who succeeded de Valera, was an energetic 67, but died of a heart attack after just a year in office.

The death of Childers led to the agreed nomination of Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh, a former attorney general and chief justice. In July 1976, the IRA assassinated the British ambassador, Christopher Ewart-Biggs; in response, Liam Cosgrave’s government brought forward an Emergency Powers bill. Ó Dálaigh referred the bill to the Supreme Court; the Minister for Defence, Paddy Donegan, called him “a thundering disgrace” for doing so; Donegan then offered his resignation to Cosgrave, but Cosgrave refused it; and Ó Dálaigh quit instead.

Ó Dálaigh quit “to protect the dignity and independence” of the presidency, but the effect, arguably, was the reverse. By walking away from criticism, instead of facing it down, he helped cement the idea that the president should be aloof from ordinary politics. After decades of the presidency being effectively a retirement home, the idea became entrenched that the role should be purely ceremonial.

This is an extraordinarily conservative idea, a legacy of the monarchical mindset that sees the head of state as overseeing a divine-ordered status quo. A more robust, republican interpretation (within the established confines of the constitution) could easily cast the president instead in a role of social and cultural leadership.

Ironically, Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh set an example of just this, albeit in a modest way, in another controversy that has been largely forgotten in the shadow of his resignation. This was around Tom Murphy’s 1975 play The Sanctuary Lamp, at the Abbey Theatre. The play was met with vitriolic criticism from the Catholic hierarchy and in the press, and Ó Dálaigh publicly defended it, calling it one of the greatest achievements of the Abbey. It was a brave judgement, and a sound one, and suggested a way in which a president could enhance the discourse of the nation without fomenting conflict with the government.

Patrick Hillery’s second term (which he accepted only reluctantly) revived the image of the presidency as a golfing holiday: he was reputed to have achieved the lowest handicap of any world head of state. And then came Mary Robinson: the first woman, and, at 46, the youngest to hold the office. She opened up the Áras, was a prolific and provocative speechifier, and pushed her remit with state visits where she sought to champion human rights. (In Argentina in 1995, a planned visit to a poor barrio was aborted after complaints from the Argentinean government; Robinson subverted them, in part, by receiving a visit from the residents in her hotel.)

Mary McAleese, arguably, pushed the role even further (albeit indirectly), through her husband Martin’s role as an emissary to Loyalist paramilitaries – an extraordinary initiative of her presidency, for which there is no provision whatsoever in the constitution. And in defying the Catholic hierarchy over the issue of the Eucharist, McAleese took up the mantle of Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh in taking a public stand on an issue that may not have been political, but resonated in the wider culture.

But time is the great equaliser: 14 years in the job have dulled us to McAleese’s achievements and talents, and her rhetorical flair has been blunted by far too many banal speeches. She was a Fianna Fáil president who allowed herself become a travelling consul for the Celtic Tiger. For more than two years, as Brian Cowen’s government flailed in the eye of the economic storm, and political legitimacy, and then sovereignty, steadily drained away from it, we had as head of state a person of unchallenged integrity, a legal scholar, a brilliant orator. Yet we heard little of note.

McAleese’s failure – a failure to invoke her undoubted moral authority in offering leadership during the recent crisis – should be salutary. If the point of the presidency is to sit tight and stay mum during a crisis, then there is no point. If the point is to go out and tell the world we’re open for business, then the role is not that of president of Ireland, but president of Ireland Inc.

This, then, should be the point of departure for this coming campaign, the first in 14 years, and one with over half a million new voters. With the general election out of the way, and economic policy irrelevant, there is a unique opportunity for a political campaign that concentrates on values. The new president could win a mandate to forcefully articulate those values in office.

Such a mandate, combined with the shrewdness to leverage it when dealing with the government, could make for a transformative presidency. These are not quiet times. The last thing the presidency should be is a nice quiet job.

Published in the Irish Daily Mail, March 2011