The president is expected to be above party politics, but three of the seven have a clear party affiliation: Gay Mitchell and Michael Higgins from the parties of the current governing coalition, Fine Gael and Labour respectively, and former IRA leader Martin McGuinness from Sinn Fein. There are also four independents, although one of them, Sean Gallagher, has previously been an adviser to the main opposition party, Fianna Fail, which for the first time has no candidate of its own.
Most international interest in the race has centred on McGuinness and his background in terrorism. It’s certainly a striking reminder of how much Ireland has changed in the past 20 years: McGuinness’s success as a peacemaker in Northern Ireland has meant that his past, while not actually forgotten, can perhaps be discreetly veiled. As he says, “the past is a very, very dark place for everybody”.
For an Australian audience, however, Ireland has a more direct relevance. It provides the most notable example of a Westminster system combined with a directly elected head of state — just the model that the majority of Australian republicans appear to support.
The Irish system, like that in most of Britain’s former colonies, clearly shows its Westminster origins. Executive power resides in the prime minister and cabinet, responsible to parliament; the head of state has largely formal and ceremonial functions, plus some residual “reserve” powers for exceptional situations.
Heads of state in that system usually fall into one of two types: either a hereditary monarch, or a president indirectly chosen by some sort of electoral college (most commonly a joint sitting of parliament, often with a special majority required). In 1999 Australia voted against changing ours from the first to the second — helped by much propaganda against the idea of a “politicians’ republic”, where the president (it was said) would be just another politician chosen by politicians.
The reason for indirect election is usually given as the need to avoid giving the president too much credibility as an independent centre of power, lest it should encourage them to go beyond their ceremonial powers and meddle in politics. Indirect election was therefore pushed here by the Australian Republican Movement, but received only a tepid voter response. Polls consistently show a big popular preference for direct election.
Memories are probably fading, but for a time the opposition to direct elections was fuelled by the experience of Weimar Germany, where the directly elected presidency failed to prevent the rise of Hitler and may even have helped to create instability. Postwar West Germany switched to indirect election as a result — a lesson that was lost on Australia’s monarchists, who effectively told us that indirect election would put us on the road to dictatorship.
The Irish experience, however, demonstrates that direct election need not create problems. Its presidents, who are generally held to have acquitted themselves well, tend to be respected former politicians — in fact, very much the same sort of people who get elected in countries with indirect election. They seem no more prone to scandal or political controversy than leaders in any other country.
Ireland also shows just how direct election can work. Not just anyone gets to run for president — candidates must be nominated either by 20 MPs or by four local councils. (Scaling that to Australia’s figures, it would be the equivalent of about 13 MPs or about 64 councils.) The winner serves a seven-year term, with a maximum of two terms; there is no vice-president, so if a president dies or resigns a fresh election is held.
Our republican debate is currently in limbo, but given the large number of Australians with Irish ancestry, it’s a little strange that the Irish model is not more often referred to. A vigorous, democratic process that nonetheless produces a non-threatening head of state seems to be just the thing we’re looking for. If Ireland can do it, why can’t we?