Category Archives: Ireland

Happy New Year? Christmas and New Year’s addresses by European presidents for 2017

This post marks the third time that I have written about selected presidential Christmas and New Year’s addresses by European presidents (see 2015 and 2016 here), so that it is now becoming a tradition of its own. This year’s speeches differed only little in focus from last year, as the refugee crisis and security concerns continue to determine the public debate, yet speeches took a more political tone in a number of countries. At the same time, this year also saw some ‘firsts’ – newly-elected Estonian president, Kersti Kaljulaid, gave her first New Year’s address and Austria (for the first time in decades) had no New Year’s address at all.

Slovak president Andrej Kiska reading out his New Year´s Day Address | © prezident.sk

Presidential Christmas and New Year’s Addresses tend to be a mixture of reflections on the political and societal events of the last year and general good wishes for the festive period or the new year. While the previous year had already seen an increase in political content, this year even more presidents referred to concrete events and policies – first and foremost the terrorist attack in Berlin on 19 December 2016. German president Gauck’s Christmas message was clearly dominated by the attack, yet stressed the need for compassion, highlighted efforts by volunteers both after the Berlin attacks and in helping refugees, and called for unity over sweeping judgments. Slovak president Andrej Kiska dismissed xenophobic sentiments in his New Year’s address even more directly, acknowledging a deviation from usual end-of-year reflection and highlighting his disagreements with the government over the issue. The Slovak government has not only strongly opposed taking in any refugees, but also includes the far-right Slovak National Party (SNS) and recently passed a more restrictive church law specifically targeting Muslims (which was promptly vetoed by Kiska). Quite in contrast to these conciliatory words, Czech president Zeman used the opportunity claim a ‘clear link between the migrant wave and terrorist attacks’. In his 20-minute address – far longer than any other presidential holiday speech – from the presidential holiday residence at Lany, he also attacked the governing coalition, spoke about banning internet pornography and expressed his admiration for Donald Trump and his ‘aggressive style’.

The Christmas speech of Polish president Andrzej Duda also took an unusually political turn as it started off with much praise for government reforms. Although the Polish government, too, refused to accept refugees under the EU compromises, references to EU crises remained relatively vague. Remarkable, however, was Duda’s call to ‘respect the rules of democracy’ which was clearly aimed at the parliamentary and extra-parliamentary opposition which criticised what they in turn perceived as the unconstitutional behaviour of the governing party (see here). The address by Duda’s Croatian counterpart, Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic, was also in remarkable as she devoted the entirety of her speech to condemning recent increases in intolerance and the simultaneous glorification of past fascist and communist regimes which she then linked to the fact that “busloads of young people are leaving the country each day” and called the government and all parties to action. Italy’s president Sergio Mattarella likewise urged parties to take action  to avoid the ‘ungovernability’ of the country, yet mostly focussed on listing the concerns of citizens and various tragic deaths rather than providing a very positive message.

Bulgarian president Rosen Plevneliev used his last New Year’s address as president to highlight more positive achievements, such as the ten year anniversary of EU accession (also mentioned by Romanian president Iohannis in his very brief seasons’ greetings), a rise in GDP and successful completion of the presidency of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe. While stressing the need for further reform, President of Cyprus Nicos Anastasiades also provided a more positive message focused on the progress in the negotiations about a reunification of the island, also thanking people for their sacrifices in implementing the financial bail-out completed in 2016.

Hungarian President Ader with sign language interpreter (left); Latvian president Vejonis with his wife (right)

On a different note, Hungarians and Latvians might have been surprised to see additional faces in the recordings of presidential messages: Hungarian president Janos Ader’s speech was simultaneously interpreted into sign language by deaf model and equality activist Fanni Weisz standing in the background, whereas Latvian president Raimonds Vejonis even shared parts of the address with his wife. For those interested in ‘pomp and circumstance’, the address by Maltese president Marie-Louise Coleiro is highly recommended as the recording features a praeludium and a postludium by a military band in gala uniform inside the presidential palace (Youtube video here).

Last, for the first time in decades Austria lacked a New Year’s address by the president. Although Alexander Van der Bellen was finally elected president in early December, he will only be inaugurated on 26 January 2016. His successor, Heinz Fischer, finished his term already on 8 July 2016 and the triumvirate of parliamentary speakers (which incidentally include Van der Bellen’s unsuccessful challenger, Norbert Hofer), who are currently serving collectively as acting president, did not provide any New Year’s greetings.

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A full list of speeches is available for download here.

Ireland – The problems of government formation

This is a guest post by Gary Murphy from the School of Law and Government at Dublin City University

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The Irish general election of 26 February 2016 has thrown up an inconclusive result which has made government formation extremely difficult. A month on from the election we know that when the Dáil reconvenes for the second time since that election (today 22 March) a new government will not be formed. The new Dáil originally met on Thursday 10 March and with no new government or Taoiseach elected on that day a caretaker Fine Gael Labour government led by a caretaker Fine Gael Taoiseach Enda Kenny continues in office. The intervening two weeks have seen no substantial progress made on forming a government and in that context we can expect that the caretaker government will continue in office for some more weeks yet.

The result of the general election continued the trend of austerity governments in Europe being rejected by their electorates. The two party coalition government of Fine Gael and Labour elected in 2011 with a massive majority of 30 seats in the 166 seat parliament was roundly rebuffed by the Irish voters. Fine Gael’s vote fell from 36.6 per cent in 2011 to 25.5 per cent in 2016 and they lost twenty six seats since 2011 falling to 50. Their coalition partners Labour did even worse collapsing from a record high vote of 19.6 per cent in 2011 to a record low of 6.6 per cent while recording a crushing loss of thirty seats going from thirty seven to just seven.

The main beneficiaries of these catastrophic losses for the government were the main opposition parties, Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin and a plethora of independents ranging from those on the far left of Irish politics to a number of former members of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil known colloquially as gene pool independents.

Fianna Fáil the party which has dominated governance in the Irish state since it first entered government in 1932 performed a Lazarus like resurrection in the 2016 election. Dumped unceremoniously out of office after the economic crash by an angry electorate in 2011, Fianna Fáil’s vote fell to 17 per cent in that election down from 41.5 per cent in the previous 2007 election. They also lost a barely believable 58 seats going from 78 in 2007 to just 20 in 2011. Many (but not the present writer) predicted that Fianna Fáil was in terminal decline and would no longer be a major force in Irish politics. But despite being somewhat becalmed in opinion polls for the past twelve months on between 17 and 19 per cent of the vote Fianna Fáil had an excellent campaign and ended up polling 24.4 per cent of the vote and winning 44 seats, just six behind Fine Gael. In fact the 2016 general election results mirrored the 2014 local election results giving lie in an Irish context at least to the view that second order elections are meaningless come a general election.

This was nevertheless Fianna Fáil’s second worst general election since the foundation of the Irish state. Just over three decades ago the three main parties of Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Labour received 94 per cent of vote. Now it stands at barely 55 per cent and the combined vote of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael is less than 50 per cent. As recently as 1977 Fianna Fáil received over 50 per cent of the vote on their own. The stability of the party system that was the hallmark of Irish politics since the foundation of the state was originally diluted by the collapse of Fianna Fáil in 2011 and has surely been finished off by the Fine Gael result in 2016.

For their part Sinn Féin won 13.8 per cent of the vote, up 4 per cent since 2011, and increased their seat total from 14 in 2011 to 23 in 2016. Yet while this result on the surface looks impressive there can be little doubt that Sinn Féin, running on an anti-austerity agenda will be ultimately disappointed that both their vote and seat tally did not increase more substantially, particularly given the levels of dissatisfaction the electorate clearly felt towards the governing parties.

The fragmentation of Irish politics and the anti-party sentiment that has been pervasive within Irish society since the Troika of the European Union, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund arrived to bailout the Irish state in November 2010 was crystallised in 2016 by the rise of independent candidates who won 23 seats and received seventeen per cent of the vote. We can also add in the new Social Democrats party into this independent mix as their three existing TDs, all independents prior to the party’s formation in July 2015, were re-elected and they managed to have no other candidate elected. The People Before Profit – Anti Austerity Alliance can be included here as well as party cohesion has never been a strong point for those of the far left of Irish politics.

Given that Fine Gael were 30 seats short of being able to govern and Fianna Fáil 36 seats, as the new Dáil contains 160 seats, down from 166 in 2011, government formation has proved exceedingly difficult since the election. The only plausible coalition option is one between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil yet for that great Rubicon to be crossed in Irish terms will take a great leap. The antipathy both parties feel for each other is very great indeed. The alternative of a minority government led by either main party and tacitly supported by the other aided by help from like-minded independents and smaller parties seems far-fetched at this stage. The difficulty here is that any Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil led minority government which doesn’t have some sort of binding agreement by both parties would be very difficult to make work. Such a government would most likely fall and pretty quickly at that as it simply couldn’t govern effectively knowing that the main opposition party could bring it down at any opportunity. An added difficulty here is that the third main party in the Dáil, Sinn Féin, refuses to have any input into government formation at all, seemingly content to grow in opposition while those in government wither.

But government formation and the difficulties therein were not on the minds of the Irish voter when they went to the polls on the last Friday in February. The RTE exit poll showed that just nine per cent of voters viewed government stability as the most important issue when casting their ballot. Further data from that exit poll shows that just 13 per cent of voters viewed a Fine Gael Fianna Fáil grand coalition as their preferred governmental option. Only 15 per cent of Fine Gael voters and 20 per cent of Fianna Fáil voters wanted it when they went to the polls and it’s most likely probably even less now given Fianna Fáil’s resurgence and Fine Gael’s retrenchment.

In a previous post I wrote on the limitations of the role of the President in the Irish system. One of the few substantive powers the Irish president does have is the absolute discretion to refuse a dissolution of Dáil Eireann – Article 13:2:2 of the Irish Constitution Bunreacht Na hEireann. There has been much talk in the Irish media of the possibility of a second election in the next short number of months if a new government cannot be formed. In that context it might yet fall on President Michael D. Higgins to play a far more central role in government formation in Ireland if those TDs elected to Dáil Eireann cannot agree on a new government. By the power vested in him by the Constitution he will be fully entitled to refuse to dissolve the Dáil and to thus insist that some form of government be formed. These are strange days in Irish politics and they could become even stranger in the fraught weeks ahead.

Gary Murphy is Professor of Politics and Head of the School of Law and Government at Dublin City University. His latest book Electoral Competition in Ireland since 1987: the politics of triumph and despair will be published by Manchester University Press in March. Twitter @garymurphydcu

Gary Murphy – The Irish President and the Council of State

This is a guest post by Gary Murphy, Professor of Politics at Dublin City University

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In comparative terms the Irish presidency is essentially a weak office. Presidents have very few constitutional powers of which to avail and so limited are these powers that a president has essentially no room for independent action. Yet the President does have one significant power, which is the ability to refer bills to the Irish Supreme Court for a judgment on its compatibility with the constitution. The president usually signs bills into law as a matter of course, but can decide to refer bills to the Supreme Court. This is a significant power on the grounds that if a bill is referred to the Supreme Court and is found to be constitutional, then the validity of that bill may never again be questioned by any court no matter how that bill affects society and individuals over time. In essence the bill is immune from all further challenge.

Before referring a Bill to the Supreme Court the President must convene the Council of State. Article 26.1.1 of the Constitution states:

‘The President may, after consultation with the Council of State, refer any Bill to which this Article applies to the Supreme Court for a decision on the question as to whether such Bill or any specified provision or provisions of such Bills is or are repugnant to this Constitution or to any provision thereof.’

In December 2015 President Higgins decided to convene a meeting of the Council of State to discuss the government’s International Protection Bill 2015. This Bill dealt with the provisions for asylum seekers. In this case, the question put to the Council was:

Whether the International Protection Bill 2015 should be referred by the President to the Supreme Court for a decision on the question as to whether the Bill or any specified provision or provisions thereof are repugnant to the Constitution or to any provision thereof.

In particular

  1. Whether section 56 and section 57 of the International Protection Bill 2015 should be referred by the President to the Supreme Court for a decision as to whether either Section or any specified provision thereof is repugnant to the Constitution or to any provision thereof.
  2. Whether the Bill or any of its provisions are repugnant to the Constitution in light of Article 42A (Children)

iii. Whether section 78 of the Bill is repugnant to the Constitution in light of Article 29.6.

Article 42A was approved by the Irish people in a referendum in November 2012 and concerns itself with protecting the rights of children. Article 29.6 for its part states that ‘No international agreement shall be part of the domestic law of the State save as may be determined by the Oireachtas’ (both houses of parliament).

The current Irish coalition government of Fine Gael and Labour is its last days of office and most political commentators expect an election to be held in late February. In November 2015 this government’s International Protection Bill was passed by the Irish parliament and presented to President Higgins for signing. The principal purpose of the International Protection Bill is the introduction of a single procedure for the examination of applications for international protection (or asylum) in Ireland, incorporating eligibility for refugee status and eligibility for subsidiary protection status.

In essence its aim is to reduce the length of time asylum applicants spend in the direct provision system through establishing a single applications procedure for international protection. Currently applicants can spend literally several years waiting for a decision on their asylum applications and in the meantime live in a system known as direct provision  where the state houses them in residential institutions. The average wait on a decision is three years while some applicants have been waiting for up to seven years.

To its supporters this bill creates a more efficient application process by introducing a single procedure mechanism and appeals process for new applicants and demonstrates the Government’s commitment to ensuring that asylum seekers are given the respect and dignity they deserve while their application is being considered. To its critics the bill is more concerned with making quick decisions which will inevitably lead to deportation as it is with early identification of refugees and will thus be used as a means of enforcing immigration control.

Michael D. Higgins was elected in November 2011 polling 39.6 per cent of the first preference vote from a total of six candidates and has proven to be a very popular president.  He has what one might call the common touch. He is routinely seen in the stands at League of Ireland football games where attendance tends to be low as a matter of course, and has been memorably photographed queuing up to take out money from a bank machine in a busy city centre street. While he initially stated he would only serve as president for the one seven year term there has been much speculation that he will seek a second term in 2018. The only obstacle to that second term might perhaps be his age as he is currently 74 years of age. In fact were to declare that he would seek a second term it is likely that he would be an agreed candidate across the political spectrum. Long associated with left-wing causes both internationally and domestically Higgins has been an outspoken critic of austerity but as Costa Lobo, Elgie, and Passarelli point out in their recent post he has not been critical of specific government policies and has clearly caused much less difficulty for this government than some of his predecessors did for theirs. In fact while Higgins has made various speeches as president questioning the whole neoliberal project and has long voiced concern at what he sees as the triumph of the market over social solidarity, he has not in reality crossed the line into public policy which is the prerogative of the government.

It seems to me that President Higgins summoned the Council of State to discuss the International Protection Bill out of a long-standing passion for social justice, a genuine concern for the plight of refugees and the possibility that this bill did not go far enough in the pursuit of either. The Council of State has few functions and meets rarely. This was only the thirtieth time since the constitution was inaugurated in 1937 that it had actually met. Its one true power; the requirement to make provision for the exercise of the president’s powers in any area not covered by the Constitution, has never arisen.

The Council of State eventually met on 29 December 2015 to discuss the International Protection Bill and the president’s twitter account (@PresidentIRL) issued a message that day simply stating that President Higgins has concluded the meeting of the Council of State. The following day the account tweeted that ‘In accordance with the terms of the Constitution, President Higgins has today signed the International Protection Bill 2015 into law.’ Press reports speculated that all but one of the members of the Council of State had suggested that the bill be signed by the President, but that he himself had given no indication at the end of the meeting as to what he would do, but that he would announce his decision the following day. By deciding not to refer the bill to the Supreme Court President Higgins continued down a path he has trodden since his inauguration; that of raising his doubts in public about various aspects of government public policy, but in effect being happy on consideration to stand by them.

Gary Murphy is Professor of Politics and Head of the School of Law and Government at Dublin City University. His latest book Electoral Competition in Ireland since 1987: the politics of triumph and despair will be published by Manchester University Press in March. Twitter @garymurphydcu

Happy New Year? Christmas and New Year’s addresses by European presidents for 2016

In the first blog post of 2015, I explored the origins of and various customs and conventions surrounding the Christmas and New Year’s addresses by European heads of state. This year, I will look more closely at the content of these speeches (although focussing – for the sake of brevity – only on presidents, i.e. non-hereditary heads of state this time).

Finnish Niinistö records his New Year's speech for 2016 | photo (c) Office of the President of the Republic of Finland 2016

Finnish president Sauli Niinistö records his New Year’s speech for 2016 | (c) Office of the President of the Republic of Finland 2016

As I noted in my post last year, Christmas and New Year’s addresses rarely rarely belong to the most important political speeches in European democracies and often include a short summary of the last year’s events in the country. Common themes (apart from holiday wishes) are relatively rare. This year, however, many presidents directly addressed the refugee crisis in Europe. The presidents of Austria and Germany who have had to deal with extraordinary refugee streams both called for compassion and tried to strengthen the ‘can do’-spirit that has so far characterised the reactions of Federal Chancellors’ Merkel and Faynmann and volunteers in both countries. Presidents of other countries hit by the surge of refugees did not address the issue so clearly. Hungarian president Ader referred to it among other unexpected events of 2015, while the Slovenian and Croatian presidents Pahor and Grabar-Kitarović in their – significantly shorter seasons’ greetings – did not raise the issue at all apart from vague references to difficulties.

The refugee crisis featured more prominently on the other hand in the speeches of Slovak president Kiska and Czech president Zeman – yet taking almost diametrically opposed positions. Kiska largely downplayed the issue stating Slovakia was much less affected than other countries and the issue should not dominate the national agenda. Zeman on the other hand, called the influx of refugees as “an organized invasion” and called for young male refugees to return to their country to fight ISIS. Given Zeman’s previous statements this is hardly surprising, yet it is generally unusual for a Christmas message to include such controversial material. The refugee crisis also took centre stage in speeches by Finnish president Niinistö as he justified the steps taken by the government to limit the number of people receiving help.

Another theme in presidential speeches were national tragedies and the security. The Paris attacks featured strongly in French president Hollande’s speech, so did the Germanwing air crash in German president Gauck’s Christmas message. The ongoing Ukrainian crisis and potential conflict with Russia as well as the war in Syria were included in a number of speeches. Yet presidents also focussed on the economic situation and way of the recession – most prominently included in the messages of the presidents of Greece, Portugal and Iceland. The latter’s speech was however mostly reported on due to the fact that president Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson announced that he would not run for a sixth term as president.

Overall, this once again highlights that presidential Christmas and New Year’s addresses can be important indicators of the political situation or the importance of particular events throughout the year. Until now, there has nevertheless been only very limited academic research on presidential statements on these occasions. So far, I could only find an analysis of the role of religion in new year’s addresses by Swiss Federal Presidents – showing an overall decline in biblical references throughout the years. [1] In most European republics appear to follow this trend – explicit biblical references beyond a mere reference to the holiday can only be found in the speeches of the presidents of Malta and Hungary.

Christmas - NY presidents 2016 + Wulff 2011

From top left to bottom right: Presidents Higgins (Ireland), Duda (Poland), Wulff (Germany; 2011), Coleiro Preca (Malta), Iohannis (Romania).

Last but not least (and partly inspired by the DailyMail’s analysis of the photographs on Queen Elizabeth II’s desk), I think it is worth looking at the setting of presidents’ speeches. Where speeches are broadcast on TV (or recorded and then put on youtube), the setting is surprisingly similar with the president usually sitting or standing in front of flags or a fireplace. In Germany, this set-up had so much become the norm that Christian Wulff’s walking speech among a group of surprisingly diverse citizens (see centre image of above collage) caused great excitement among editors trying to fill the seasonal news slump. More unusual however was Swiss Federal President Adolf Ogi’s address of 2000 – he stood in front of a railway tunnel (watch the video here).

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[1] Kley, Andreas (2008). ‘”Und der Herrgott, Herr Bundespräsident?” Zivilreligion in den Neujahrsansprachen der schweizerischen Bundespräsidenten’. In: Kraus, Dieter et al. Schweizerisches Jahrbuch für Kirchenrecht. Bern, Switzerland, 11-56.

A list with links to the 2015/2016 speeches can be downloaded here.

Gary Murphy – Referendum on the minimum age of the President of Ireland

This is a guest post by Professor Gary Murphy of the School of Law and Government, Dublin City University, Ireland

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The decision by the Irish people to overwhelmingly endorse same-sex marriage in the referendum on 22 May 2015 generated headlines all across the world and induced extraordinary scenes of celebration rarely seen in democracies after popular votes whether at general elections or referendums. As the first country to introduce same sex marriage by dint of popular vote in a referendum that meant so much to so many, Ireland took a decision after a robust debate where both political parties and civil society groups ran vigorous campaigns. The result was a citizenry which took an informed vote.

If only the same could be said for the other referendum. How the Irish people ended up voting to change the age of eligibility for running for president from 35 to 21 will go down in history as one of the great mysteries of Irish politics. And yet when in future years those assessing this referendum analyse it, they will note that the turnout at 60.51 per cent was extremely high for referendums; the eleventh highest of the thirty five referendums that have taken place since the constitution was introduced in 1937. There is one simple answer for this high turnout and that is that it was held in conjunction with same-sex marriage referendum which itself had a turnout of 60.52 per cent. 1,949,725 voted in the same-sex marriage referendum and 1,949,438 people voted in the presidential age referendum. High turnout, however, should not be mistaken for high interest.

Changing the constitution in any democracy is a serious business and theoretically speaking the Irish coalition government of Fine Gael and Labour went through a very deliberative process before deciding to propose that the Irish Constitution be amended. The reality is completely different.

The proposal to reduce the age of eligibility for President from 35 to 21 was one of 19 recommendations that came from the Constitutional Convention. This convention was charged by the government with considering a variety of aspects of the constitution to ensure that it best reflected Ireland in the twenty first century and with making recommendations to the Oireachtas on future amendments to be put to the people in referendums.

The convention was an initiative of the government whereby in 2012 it established a decision-making forum of 100 people, made up of 66 citizens, randomly selected and broadly representative of Irish society, 33 parliamentarians, and the independent chairman. It heard evidence from a range of experts and engaged in serious debate on nine specific issues mandated by the government. None of these included the age of eligibility for president, although the convention did also have the power to debate other potential constitutional amendments. On the presidency the convention was asked to initially discuss whether the president’s term should be reduced from seven years to five. It ultimately decided to reject such a view by 57 votes to 43. It also overwhelmingly rejected the idea of a one-term presidency, but it did substantially endorse a proposal that citizens should be able to nominate presidential candidates.

Currently the situation whereby candidates can get on to the presidential ballot is rather byzantine and is dominated by the political parties. A candidate must either get the backing of twenty member of the Oireachtas, which consists of 166 members of Dáil Eireann (the lower house) and 60 members of Seanad Eireann (the upper house), or four of the country’s 31 city and county councils. On the proposal that eventually found its way on to the ballot paper of reducing the age of eligibility from 35 to 21 the convention voted 50 to 47 to endorse such a position. Given the narrowness of this vote the question must be asked as to why the government then decided to put this question to the people above others which were overwhelmingly approved by the convention. For instance the government initially agreed to put the convention’s proposal that the voting age in general elections be reduced from 18 to 16 to a referendum in but later reversed this decision arguing that other referendums should take priority.

And these priorities seemingly included the referendum that even the constitutional convention itself was pretty much split on. Giving citizens who are resident outside the State the right to vote in presidential elections was one of the nine priorities suggested by Dáil Éireann when it approved the establishment of the constitutional convention to consider various reforms to the then seventy five year old document. But once the convention did indeed suggest that Irish citizens resident outside the state should be given the right to vote in presidential elections, it was reckoned by the government to be too radical and so instead it plumped for the rather innocuous proposal to reduce the eligibility age of the presidency.

In comparative terms the Irish presidency is essentially a weak office. Presidents have very few constitutional powers of which to avail and so limited are these powers that a president has essentially no room for independent action. In that context reducing the age of eligibility was deemed by the government as being the perfect referendum accompaniment to the controversial same-sex marriage proposal; a safe proposal dressed up as a significant reform where the government could frame the change in the constitution as being indicative of inclusion and equality for a younger generation. Thus the proposal to amend the constitution, one of the gravest decisions a government can make, was decided upon by the Irish government who then decided not to bother campaigning on it.

The Tánaiste and leader of the Labour party, the junior partner in the coalition government, Joan Burton suggested during what campaign there actually was that the referendum was the result of a recommendation from the constitutional convention which had delivered its final report in March 2014. This of course was not only incorrect but also highly misleading. It was the government which decided to have this referendum. The Labour party then took the even more bizarre decision to declare it was staying neutral on the issue and would not campaign on it which was to in effect treat the constitution with disdain and contempt.

The major coalition party Fine Gael ran a campaign so desultory that it can hardly even be described as that and none of the opposition parties did anything beyond make the most rudimentary appeals to their supporters to vote yes. Ultimately the only real campaigning on a government proposal to amend the constitution was done by a number of youth advocacy groups. There was no real organised opposition to the proposal. A number of individuals were vocal on the issue but taking to Twitter to complain about the paucity of the campaign as a whole, one ‘no’ advocate, the public affairs consultant Gerard Howlin, was forced into asking whether only he and two others could be bothered to advocate a ‘no’ vote. One of those two others was my Dublin City University colleague Prof Colum Kenny who enthusiastically campaigned for a ‘no’ vote issuing no fewer than 37 press releases to the media and making numerous appearances in the print and broadcast media. And yet despite the individual nature of the ‘no’ campaign the proposed amendment was defeated by 73.06 per cent to 26.94 per cent with all 43 geographical constituencies voting no; the largest defeat for a referendum proposal since the constitution was introduced in 1937.

Writing just a day after the results were declared it is difficult to offer anything but the considered view that the reason 1,412,602 people voted against the proposal was simply because no convincing case was made that they should change their constitution. The Irish people are on the whole quite protective of their constitution. They are not opposed to changing it and doing so quite dramatically as in the same-sex marriage vote. They do need persuading, however, that it needs changing. Since 2002 they have twice rejected European treaties and in 2013 they rejected a populist proposal to abolish the second Oireachtas chamber, the Seanad, when the government again failed to make the case that it was necessary. On the same day that the Irish gave an overwhelming yes to same-sex marriage they also reminded their government that they know that changing the constitution is an important matter. It is something their government certainly needs reminding of.

Gary Murphy is Professor of Politics at Dublin City University where he has worked for the past two decades. He has published extensively on the politics of modern Ireland. His latest book, a major reinterpretation of modern Ireland, entitled A brief history of continuity: Ireland since 1987 will be published by Manchester University Press later this year. He is a prominent contributor to political debates in Ireland in the print and broadcast media.

Ireland – Referendum on the minimum age of presidential candidates

In May, Ireland will hold two referendums. One is on marriage equality, or same-sex marriage. The other is on the minimum age of presidential candidates. Here, the focus is on the second issue.

In January 2013 the issue of the length of the president’s term was debated at the first session of Ireland’s Constitutional Convention. There was a long discussion as to whether the president’s term should be reduced from seven years to five years. In the end, this proposal was rejected by 57 votes to 43. However, a number of other presidential issues emerged during the course of the main debate and some were also put to a vote. A one-term presidency was overwhelmingly rejected. The proposal that citizens should be able to nominate presidential candidates was almost unanimously adopted. In addition, a proposal to reduce the minimum age for presidential candidates from the current figure of 35 was narrowly adopted by 50 votes to 47.

Following the Convention’s proceedings, the official report of the meeting was sent to the government. Now, it has been decided that the one presidential issue that will go forward to the people is the reduction in the minimum age of the president. The proposal is that the minimum age should be reduced to 21.

So, where do things stand at the moment? These tables compare the minimum age of presidential candidates in European countries for which I have been able to find information. If you have information about other countries, or if I have made any errors, then please let me know.

Among the set of countries with directly elected presidents, here is the situation:

Country – Direct election Constitution or Law Age
Austria Constitution 35
Bulgaria Constitution 40
Croatia Law 18
Czech Republic Constitution 40
France Law 18
Georgia Constitution 35
Iceland Constitution 35
Ireland Constitution 35
Lithuania Constitution 40
Macedonia Constitution 40
Montenegro Law 18
Poland Constitution 35
Portugal Constitution 35
Romania Constitution 35
Serbia Law 18
Slovakia Constitution 40
Slovenia Constitution 18
Turkey Constitution 40
Ukraine Constitution 35

This is the situation for the set of countries with indirectly elected presidents:

Country – Indirect election Constitution or Law Age
Albania Constitution 40
Estonia Constitution 40
Germany Constitution 40
Greece Constitution 40
Hungary Constitution 35
Italy Constitution 50
Latvia Constitution 40
Moldova Constitution 40

So, by reducing the age to 21 Ireland would move out of line with most countries, though it wouldn’t be the country with the lowest minimum age. That said, whether or not a country is out of line in this sort of issue is probably irrelevant anyway.

Last night, the Taoiseach announced that the referendum would be held on 22 May. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the referendum has yet to stir passions. There have been opinion pieces for and against in The Irish Times, but little more.

In these pieces, the main arguments for were that any minimum threshold above the voting age is arbitrary. There is no evidence that people are more mature at 35 than 40 or any other age, if maturity is the reason for having a higher threshold. There is also an argument that lower age thresholds generally increase participation in political life.

The main arguments against were that a younger president would lack experience to handle political crises and that a younger president might be more party-dependent than an older, more confident politician.

From my experience of the Constitutional Convention on the presidential issue, I came away with the feeling that people really respected the presidency, that they did want to open up the nomination procedures and weaken the grip of political parties in that regard, but that, most importantly, they didn’t want to do anything that would either make the presidency more party political in office or that would change the president’s current figurehead role. Certainly, there was no desire to increase the president’s powers.

If I am right, then this might lead to a feeling that 21 is just too young to be president. People might agree that there is little difference in maturity, even political maturity, between someone who is 35 and someone who is 40. However, presumably there is some sort of maturity threshold, otherwise babies would be allowed to vote! If there is a maturity threshold, then it is arbitrary in one sense, but my guess is that many people will consider 21 to be just a little too young for a president and think that a 21 year-old president might bring disrespect to the office in some way. Of course, one person’s bringing disrespect to the office might be another person’s shaking up the political system a little. For some, this might be a good thing in general, but I didn’t pick up any sense that this was a particular desire in relation to the presidency.

For what it’s worth, I am sceptical that a 21 year-old would ever be elected president. No party can be guaranteed of having its candidate elected. So, no party could select a young candidate safe in the knowledge that they would win. Any candidate would have to go through a very public grilling both on talk shows and in debates. This might prove difficult for a less seasoned political figure as previous candidates have discovered to their cost. So, if the fear of the election of an immature president is the main worry, then I suspect that the cost of reducing the voting age is small. If that’s right, then you might want to vote yes in the hope that it still increases participation somehow. Whether this reform really would increase participation is open to debate. I am not convinced that it would in any meaningful way. For sure, there are better ways of doing so if that is your main aim.

With no overwhelming argument in favour and with what I would think of as a pretty conservative set of attitudes in relation to the presidency, then I would be surprised if this issue passes. I haven’t seen any opinion polls yet, though.

To the extent that there is a consensus, then it is based a certain puzzlement as to why the government has chosen to focus on this issue rather than many of the others that came out of the Constitutional Convention. There is no doubt that the marriage equality referendum is likely to generate a good voter turnout, which at least means that people might also decide to cast a vote on the presidential age issue as well. However, it is unlikely to be an issue that ever fires up the political passions.

…and a happy New Year! Christmas and New Year’s addresses by European heads of state

Every year millions of Britons gather in front of their ‘tellies’ to watch the Queen’s annual Christmas message. This year, over 7.8m viewers saw and heard her speak on the topic of reconciliation in the light of the WW I centenary and were delighted by references to her visit to the set of ‘Games of Thrones’, making it the UK’s Christmas TV highlight (it attracted 1.5m more viewers than the ‘Doctor Who’ Christmas special and 2m more viewers than the Christmas episode of the period drama ‘Downtown Abbey’). Given that this blog deals with presidents, i.e. non-hereditary heads of state, writing about the Queen’s Christmas message might be peculiar for some readers. Nevertheless, the tradition of addressing the nation has – in the European context – first been documented for monarchs, with presidents continuing this tradition.

Queen Elizabeth's (left) Royal Christmas Message is one the most watched Christmas address by a head of state worldwide; German president Gauck (right) is one of only two presidents in Europe to deliver his holiday address on Christmas.

Queen Elizabeth’s (left) Royal Christmas Message is one the most watched Christmas addresses by a head of state worldwide; German president Gauck (right) is one of only three presidents in Europe to deliver his holiday address on Christmas Day.

British monarchs have only addressed the nation at Christmas since 1932 (on proposal of the BBC’s founding director). Earlier examples of public addresses to the nation on the occasion of Christmas or the New Year have been documented for Kings of Denmark and the German Emperor since the late 19th century. Starting with general well-wishes for the New Year and/or Christmas, holiday addresses have now developed into more elaborate speeches which are designed to reach a wide audience. Apart from general remarks about the holiday season and a short review of the last year, heads of state also often highlight specific themes in their message. Thereby, the degree to which the content is ‘political’ tends to vary with the constitutional position of the head of state. In the European monarchies the content is often coordinated with the government (although much this process – like so many interactions between constitutional monarchs and elected representatives – remains shrouded in secrecy) and themes or highlights tend to be rather uncontroversial. Likewise, indirectly elected presidents – with some exceptions – only rarely include strong political statements or use speeches to express entirely new opinions. In Switzerland, New Year’s Day coincides with the inauguration of a new Federal President (the head of the collegial executive), so that the president’s New Year’s Address is simultaneously an inaugural address and does not necessarily follow this pattern. Popularly elected presidents are generally more likely to use this annual tradition to talk about (specific) policy. For instance, French president Francois Hollande spoke about economic reforms (several of which take effect 1 January 2015) and Cypriot president Nikos Anastasiadis outlined plans for modernisation of the state.

Map_of_EU_presidents-monarchs-xmas-ny

Apart from this divide, a less relevant albeit interesting division between presidents and monarchs appears in Europe. Apart from Germany, the Czech Republic and Malta, presidents address the nation on New Year’s Eve/New Year’s Day (the Irish president provides a combined message), while the majority of monarchs (with Norway, Denmark and Monaco being the exception) deliver their message on Christmas Day. Hereby, it needs to be noted that German presidents until 1970 delivered their speech on New Year’s Day (which means they switched with the Chancellor). Czech presidents also gave New Year’s addresses until president Zeman returned to the pre-1949 tradition of delivering his speech at Christmas after his inauguration in 2013. I have tried to find reasons for the divide between presidents and monarchs, yet have not found any palpable evidence. Monarchs’ tendency to deliver Christmas messages might be related to their role in national churches (although this does not explain the Danish and Norwegian exceptions). Presidents on the other hand, deliver messages on the relatively world-view-‘neutral’ New Year’s Eve/Day. In Central and Eastern Europe, Communist leaders naturally avoided giving speeches on or related to Christmas Day. After the fall of Communism, this tradition was retained by the new democratic leaders. The Lithuanian and Romanian president form the general exception from all other European heads of state. While both issue short press statements to wish their citizens a happy Christmas and New Year, neither gives a specific speech. The Prince of Liechtenstein does not even that.

Although Christmas and New Year’s messages rarely belong to the most important political speeches in European democracies. Nevertheless, they reflect – although in varying degrees – not only the institutional arrangements of European democracies. Furthermore, they shed light on how political traditions develop (be it formally or informally) and can carry on from one regime to another (monarchy to republic; autocracy to democracy).

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A list with links to this year’s Christmas and New Year’s Addresses can be found here (if available the link is to an English version) –> Links to speeches 2014-2015
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Should you know more about the history and practice of Chrismas/New Year’s messages by heads of state in the countries discussed above, please let us know in the comment section below.

Presidents and Paupers I: How much do Western European presidents earn?

Presidential salaries – particularly during and after the European financial crisis – have been a hotly debated topic in a number of European republics and several office holders have voluntarily taken a pay cut. Last year, I wrote two blog posts about the earnings of Western and Central and Eastern European presidents or my old blog (presidentialactivism.com) which proved to be highly popular and generated some media attention. The posts which are reproduced here today and tomorrow try to answer the questions How much do presidents actually earn? Did the crisis have an impact on presidential salaries? And how do their earnings relate to other factors?

Austrian president Heinz Fischer is the highest paid president in Western Europe (if you do not count the Chairman of the Swiss Confederate Presidency) | photo by GuentherZ via wikimedia commons

Presidents’ absolute salaries in comparison

Given different regulations about salaries, lump sums and other benefits it is difficult to establish universally how much presidents actually earn. For this post I tried to ascertain (accurately, I hope) presidents’ yearly gross annual income exclusive of benefits. However, I decided to include so-called 13th/14th salaries as these are part of the taxable income and many presidents were either entitled to receive those or were recently deprived of them (see more under the penultimate subheading). Although the national gross average income would certainly be easier to interpret as a point of reference, I had chosen the 2012 GDP per capita for the sake of reliability. I was also not able to find reliable data for Cyprus (please leave a link in the comment section if you know a reliable source).

Western european presidents_absolute annual salary_presidentialactivism.com_

The bar chart shows that there is a huge variety in presidents’ salaries in Western Europe. The top-earner is the Swiss Federal President, i.e. the chairperson of the seven-person collegiate presidency that is elected ‘President of the Confederation’. Members of the Federal Council receive €360,358 annually, the president receives an additional €9,735 (i.e. 370,093 annually). The runner-up and top earner among the ‘normal’ presidents – the Swiss-type collegiate presidency is worldwide unique – is the Austrian president. Current incumbent Heinz Fischer receives a gross annual salary of €328,188 which consists of 12 regular monthly salaries + two additional monthly salaries (not benefits) of €23,442 each. George Abela, the president of Malta,, on the other hand earns the least with just €56,310 and thus almost six times less than the Austrian counterpart. The average presidential gross annual salary is €191,149, the average GDP per capita (2012) is €30,860. There are only few presidents who earn a similar absolute gross yearly salary, although this looks different for relative yearly salaries.

Setting earnings into perspective

Absolute numbers are always present a somewhat distorted image in cross-country comparisons, which is why it is good to set presidents’ gross annual income into perspective. As mentioned above, I use the respective country’s GDP per capita from 2012 as a point for comparison.

Western european presidents_relative annual salary

There is a lot of change of positions when comparing absolute and relative gross annual income. While the Maltese presidents is still the lowest paid democratically elected head of state in Europe with 350% of the GDP per capita, previous front-runner Switzerland is with 606% of the GDP/capita only 12 percentage points above the Western European average. Greek president Karolos Papoulisas – in absolute earnings rather on the lower end of the spectrum – now finds himself in third position as his annual gross salary is more than eight times more than the GDP per capita (and this even though his salary had already been halved last year – more on this below). The top-earners in relative terms are by far the presidents of Italy and  Austria. Their gross annual salary amounts to almost nine times more than the nominal GDP per capita.

Western european presidents_scatterplot

The correlation between GDP per capita and presidential salaries is surprisingly high (R=0.8) and Switzerland is the only real outlier. The plot also shows that Finnish president Niinistö earned less than one could have expected from the GDP per capita – even before his salary cut.

The crisis and its consequences

The crisis has certainly taken its toll on presidential salaries in Western Europe as several presidents experienced a pay cut or voluntarily cut their own salary. French president Hollande cut his salary by 30%, Irish president Higgins voluntarily waived 23.5% of his salary, Finnish president Niinistö waived 20%. In Greece, parliament cut the president’s salary by 50% (and abolished a €6,240/month  representational allowance) after president Papoulias had suggested it. Papoulias had previously already waived his salary for a whole year as well as his right to a 13th and 14th monthly salary. Cypriot president (who could not be included in this ranking because of missing data) also waived his additional monthly salaries and cut his salary by 25% after his predecessor had already seen a 20% salary cut.

On the other hand, German president Gauck and Austrian president Fischer recently saw an increase in their income. In 2012, Gauck’s gross yearly income went up from €199,000 to €217,000 while Fischer receives has a modest €411 more in his bank account every month since the beginning of this year (this increase also applies to his two additional monthly salaries so that overall the gross yearly income went up by €5,754). At least in the case of Germany, this increase should not be seen too controversial. The president’s earnings are still rather average (see also scatter plot above) and had not been increased for almost a decade (furthermore, the salary is indirectly tied to the income of federal clerks).

Powers and mode of election

With relation to presidential powers and the mode of presidential election, the results contrast those from Eastern Europe. Nevertheless, the absolute results depend on whether Switzerland is included or not. Directly elected presidents have a gross yearly income of €183,355 (573% of the GDP per capita), while indirectly elected presidents (Switzerland included) earn €202,061 (664%) and thus more in absolute and relative terms. However, if one excludes Switzerland (which might be sensible due to the exceptionalism of the Swiss collegiate presidency) the gross yearly income is only €160,511 (703% of GDP per capita) which in absolute numbers is less but significantly more in relative terms.

When it comes to the relationship between presidential powers (measures taken from Siaroff 2003) and presidential income the correlation is R=0.0002 and thus non-existent.

***Sources (click on the country names)***
*AustriaFinlandFranceGermanyGreeceIcelandIrelandItalyMaltaPortugalSwitzerland*

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This post first appeared on presidentialactivism.com on 1 August 2013.

Presidential term lengths and possibilities for re-election in European republics

I recently read up on the amendments made to the Czech constitution to allow for popular presidential elections and stumbled across Art. 57 (2) – ‘No person may be elected President more than twice in succession’ (which already applied to indirectly elected presidents) and wondered how it looks in other European republics and how it relates to term length. The results of my study of each country’s constitution are summarised in the bar chart below.

While Maltese president Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca (left) can only serve a single term of five years, Italy’s Giorgio Napolitano (right) has recently been elected for his second 7-year term and there is no term-limit |photos via wikimedia commons

While Maltese president Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca (left) can only serve a single term of five years, Italy’s Giorgio Napolitano (right) has recently been elected for his second 7-year term and there is no term-limit | photos via wikimedia commons

Term length

Term length is relatively uniform across European republics – in all but six countries a president’s term is five years. Exceptions can only be found in Iceland and Latvia (4 years), Austria and Finland (6 years), and Italy and Ireland (7 years). Interestingly, all presidents serving terms of six or seven years are popularly elected; yet, so is the president of Iceland who is only serving a four-year term.

Presidential term lengths and re-election provisions in the EU member states_presidentialactivism.com

Term limits

A limitation to two consecutive terms can be found in twelve out of 22 European republics, i.e. a former president who has already served two consecutive terms could theoretically be re-elected for a further two consecutive terms after ‘taking a break’. In Latvia, the constitution states that an individual may not serve as president longer than eight consecutive years (which equates to two terms in office). In Portugal, the constitution specifies that a president who has already served two consecutive terms can only be re-elected as president after a break of at least five years. In other countries with a limit of two consecutive terms no such provision exists.

In seven out of the ten remaining republics, presidents can only be elected for two terms – irrespective of consecutiveness. In Malta, a president can even only be elected for one term (although the constitution is rather imprecise on the subject). In Iceland and Italy, there are no regulations on re-election. While it is the norm in Iceland that presidents serve several terms – since 1944 all presidents have served at least three consecutive terms (the current president Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson is in his fourth term at the moment), Italian president Giorgio Napolitano is the first Italian president to be re-elected.

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This post first appeared on presidentialactivism.com on 22 August 2013.