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President of Ireland

The President of Ireland (Irish: Uachtarán na hÉireann) is the head of state of the Republic of Ireland. The President is usually directly elected by the people for 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 at her absolute discretion. The office was established by the Constitution of Ireland in 1937. The President's official residence is Áras an Uachtaráin in Dublin. The current office-holder is President Mary McAleese.



Main article: Irish presidential election

The President is formally elected by the people once every seven years, except in the event of premature vacancy, when an election must be held within sixty days. The President is directly elected by secret ballot under the form of the Single Transferable Vote system known as the Alternative Vote1. While both Irish and UK citizens resident in the state may vote in elections to Dáil Éireann (the lower house of parliament), only Irish citizens, who must be at least eighteen years of age, may vote in the election of the President. The presidency is open to all citizens of the state who are at least 35. A candidate must, however be nominated by one of the following:

  • At least twenty members of the Oireachtas (national parliament).
  • At least four county or city councils.
  • Themselves (in the case of an incumbent or former president).

Where only one candidate is nominated, he or she is deemed elected without the need for a ballot. For this reason, where there is a consensus among political parties not to have a contest, the President may be 'elected' without the occurrence of an actual ballot. No one may be elected as President more than twice.

Duties and functions

The Constitution of Ireland provides for a parliamentary system of government, under which the role of the head of state is largely a ceremonial one. 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 her discretion. Unlike the presidents of many other republics, the President of Ireland is neither the nominal nor de facto chief executive officer of the state. Rather, executive authority is expressly vested in the Government (cabinet). The Government is obliged, however, to keep the President generally informed on matters of domestic and foreign policy.

Ceremonial functions

  • 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 Dáil Éireann (the lower house of parliament), and the remainder of the cabinet upon the nomination of the Taoiseach. Ministers are dimissed 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. On the advice of the Government, the President also appoints members of the judiciary.
  • Convenes and dissolves Dáil Éireann: Save where exercising the right, under her reserve powers, to refuse a dissolution in certain circumstances, this power is exercised on the advice of the Government.
  • Signs bills into law: The president is formally one of three tiers of the Oireachtas (national parliament). The President may not, unless exercising one of her reserve powers, veto a law that the Dáil and the Senate have adopted.
  • 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 of foreign diplomats. Ministers sign international treaties in the President's name. This role was not exercised by the President prior to 1949, see Irish head of state from 1937-1949.
  • Is supreme commander of the Defence Forces. This is a nominal position, the powers of which are exercised on the advice of the Government.

Special limitations

  • The President may not leave the state (the 26 counties) 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, presidents 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.

Discretionary powers

The President possesses the following powers which she may exercise at her absolute discretion. It is required that, before exercising certain reserve powers, the President consult the Council of State. However, the President is not compelled to act in accordance with the council's advice. The two reserve powers in italics are those that have actually been invoked since 1937.

  • Reference of bills to the Supreme Court: The President may, upon consultation with the Council of State, refer a bill to the Supreme Court to test its constitutionality. The Supreme Court then tests its constitutionality in toto and the President may not sign the bill into law if it is found to be unconstitutional. This is the most widely used reserve power, but may not be applied to:
    • A money bill.
    • A bill to amend the Constitution.
    • An urgent bill the time for the consideration of which has been abriged in the Senate.
  • Reference of bills to the people: If requested to do so by a petition signed by a majority of the membership of the Senate, and one-third of the membership of the Dail, the President may, after consultation with the Council of State, decline to sign a bill (other than a bill to amend the constitution) she considers to be of great "national importance" into law until it has been approved by either:
    • The people in an ordinary referendum.
    • The Dail reassembling after a general election, held within eight months.
  • Refusal of a Dáil dissolution: President may refuse to grant a dissolution of Dáil Éireann to a Taoiseach who has "ceased to retain the support of a majority" in house. In such an event, the Taoiseach must resign immediately. This power has never been invoked but the necessary circumstances existed in 1944, 1982 and 1994.
  • Abridgement of the time for the consideration of bills in the Senate: The President may, at the request of Dáil Éireann, and after consultation with the Council of State, impose a time-limit on the period during which the Senate may consider an bill. The effect of this power is to restrict the power of the Senate to delay a bill that the Government considers urgent.
  • Appointment of a Committee of Privileges: The President may, if requested to do so by the Senate, and upon consultation with the Council of State, establish a Committee of Privileges to solve a dispute between the two Houses of the Oireachtas (parliament) as to whether or not a bill is a money bill.
  • Address to the Houses of the Oireachtas: The President may, upon consultation with the Council of State, and provided the text is approved en bloc by the Government, address, or send a message to, either or both Houses of the Oireachtas. This power has been invoked on four occasions: by President de Valera once, by President Robinson twice, and by President McAleese once.
  • Address to the Nation: The President may, upon consultation with the Council of State, and provided the text has been approved en bloc by the Government, address, or send a message to, the 'Nation'.


The President of Ireland has no vice president. In the event of a premature vacancy a successor must be elected within sixty days. In the interim 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 of the Supreme Court, the Ceann Comhairle (speaker) of Dáil Éireann, and the Cathaoirleach (chairperson) of the Senate. Since 1937 the Presidential Commission has taken the place of the President on a number of occasions.

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.

List of Presidents of Ireland

# Name Took Office Left Office Party
Presidential Commission December 29, 1937 June 25, 1938 {interim}
1. Douglas Hyde June 25, 1938 June 24, 1945 {all-party nomination}
2. Seán T. O'Kelly June 25, 1945 June 24, 1959 Fianna Fáil
3. Eamon de Valera June 25, 1959 June 24, 1973 Fianna Fáil
4. Erskine Hamilton Childers June 25, 1973 November 17, 1974 Fianna Fáil
Presidential Commission November 17, 1974 December 18, 1974 {interim}
5. Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh December 19, 1974 October 22, 1976 Fianna Fáil
Presidential Commission October 22, 1976 December 2, 1976 {interim}
6. Patrick Hillery December 3, 1976 December 2, 1990 Fianna Fáil
7. Mary Robinson December 3, 1990 September 12, 1997 Labour
Presidential Commission September 12, 1997 November 10, 1997 {interim}
8. Mary McAleese November 10, 1997 present Fianna Fáil

Living former Presidents

After a President leaves office he or she can go on to a successful post-presidential career. The best example of this is Mary Robinson who became UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. Currently, there are two living former Presidents, something which has never happened before. They are:

Official residence, anthem, style and address

  • The official residence of the President of Ireland is Áras an Uachtaráin, located in the Phoenix Park in Dublin. The ninety-two room building formerly served as the 'out of season' residence of the Irish Lord Lieutenant and the residence of two of the three Irish Governors-General: Tim Healy and James McNeill.
  • The President is formally styled as: 'President', rather than 'Mr/Madam President' or 'Uachtarán'. Sometimes people use the version 'Your Excellency' or, its Gaelic equivalent: 'A Shoilse'. The President's style is normally His or Her Excellency.
  • The Irish presidential anthem is taken from the Irish National Anthem, Amhrán na bhFiann, and consists of the first two and last two lines of the anthem.

Presidential declaration

Under the constitution, in assuming office the President must subscribe to a formal declaration, made publicly and in the presence of members of both Houses of the Oireachtas, Judges of the Supreme Court and of the High Court, and other "public personages". The inauguration of the President takes place in St Patrick's Hall in Dublin Castle. The declaration is specified in Article 12.8:

  • In Irish: I láthair Dia na nUilechumhacht, táimse á ghealladh agus á dhearbhú go sollúnta is go fírinneach bheith i mo thaca agus i mo dhidín do Bhunreacht Éireann, agus dlíthe a chaomhnú, mo dhualgais a chomhlíonadh go dilís coinsiasach de réir an Bhunreacht is an dlí, agus mo lándícheall a dhéanamh ar son leasa is fónaimh mhuintir na hÉireann. Dia do mo stiúradh agus do mo chumhdach.
  • In English: In the presence of Almighty God I do solemnly and sincerely promise and declare that I will maintain the Constitution of Ireland and uphold its laws, that I will fulfil my duties faithfully and conscientiously in accordance with the Constitution and the law, and that I will dedicate my abilities to the service and the welfare of the people of Ireland. May God direct and sustain me.

Impeachment and removal from office

The constitution provides for just two ways in which the President may be removed from office prior to the expiration of their term. The President can be removed from office if the Supreme Court, in a sitting of at least five judges, finds that they have become "permanently incapacitated". Alternatively they may be removed from office by the houses of the Oireachtas, but only for "stated misbehaviour". Either house of the Oireachtas may impeach the President but only by a resolution approved by a majority of at least two-thirds, and a house may not consider a proposal for impeachment unless requested to do so by at least thirty of its members. Where one house impeaches the President, the remaining house investigates the charge or commissions another body or committee to do so. The investigating house can remove the President if it decides, by at least a two-thirds majority, that the President is guilty of the charge of which they are accused, and that the charge is sufficiently serious as to warrant their removal. To date neither procedure for the removal of the President has yet been invoked.


The office of President of Ireland was established in 1937, in part as a replacement for the office of Governor-General that existed during the 1922-1937 Irish Free State. The seven year term of office of the President was inspired by those of the presidents of Germany and Austria. However the head of state of neither of those two nations serves a seven year term today. 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.

Many argue that Mary Robinson, the seventh President of Ireland, liberalised what had previously been a conservative office during her term from 1990-1997. Robinson sought to develop a new sense of the states's economic, political and cultural links with other countries and cultures. She placed emphasis during her presidency on the needs of developing countries, linking the history of the Great Irish Famine to today's nutrition, poverty and policy issues, attempting to create a bridge of partnership between developed and developing countries.

Robinson was the first head of state to visit Rwanda in the aftermath of the 1994 genocide there. She was also the first head of state to visit Somalia following the crisis there in 1992, receiving the CARE Humanitarian Award in recognition of her efforts for that country.

Issues of controversy

Problems over the term 'President of Ireland'

The original text of the Constitution of Ireland, as adopted in 1937, in its controversial Articles 2 and 3, mentioned two geopolitical entities, a thirty-two county 'National Territory' (i.e., the island of Ireland) and a twenty-six county 'state' formerly known as the Irish Free State (Articles 2 and 3 have since been amended). The implication behind the title 'President of Ireland' was that the President would function as the head of all Ireland. However this implication was challenged by the Ulster Unionists and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland which was the state internationally acknowledged as governing Northern Ireland, a fact enshrined in the Government of Ireland Act, 1920, which created Northern Ireland and Southern Ireland, the latter of which became the Irish Free State in 1922, Éire in 1937 and the Republic of Ireland in 1949.

Ireland in turn challenged the proclamation by the British parliament of Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom|Queen Elizabeth II in 1952 as 'queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The government of the Republic of Ireland refused to attend royal functions as a result; for example, President Hillery (1976–90) declined on Government advice to attend the wedding of the Prince of Wales to the late Lady Diana Spencer in 1981, to which he had been invited by Queen Elizabeth, while President Sean T. Ó Ceallaigh declined on government advice to attend the Coronation Garden Party at the British Embassy in 1953. Britain in turn insisted on referring to the President as 'President of the Republic of Ireland' or 'President of the Irish Republic.' Letters of Credence from Queen Elizabeth, on Her Majesty's Government's advice, appointing United Kingdom ambassadors to Ireland were not addressed to the 'President of Ireland' but to the president personally (e.g., 'President Hillery'.)

This dispute has largely been forgotten in recent years. President Robinson (1990–97) chose unilaterally to break the taboo by regularly visiting Britain for public functions, frequently to do with Anglo-Irish Relations or to visit the Irish emigrant community in Britain. In another breaking of precedent, she was invited to Buckingham Palace by Queen Elizabeth II. Interestingly, the Palace accreditation supplied to journalists covering the history-making visit referred to the visit of the President of Ireland. In recent times, both Presidents Robinson and her successor Mary McAleese (1997— ) have visited the Palace on numerous occasions, while the Prince of Wales, Duke of York, Earl of Wessex and Duke of Edinburgh have all visited successive presidents of Ireland in Áras an Uachtaráin (the presidential palace). Presidents have also have attended functions with the Princess Royal. Her Majesty the Queen and Her Excellency the President even jointly hosted a reception in St. James's Palace in London in 1995, to commemorate the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the foundation of the Queen's Colleges in 1845 (the Queen's Colleges are now known as Queen's University, Belfast, University College Cork - National University of Ireland, Cork and National University of Ireland, Galway (formerly University College, Galway).).

Though the president's title implicitly claimed authority in Northern Ireland, in reality the Irish President needed government permission to visit Northern Ireland, it being treated as a 'foreign visit.' (The Irish state in Article 3 explicitly stated that its authority was limited to the twenty-six counties and did not apply to the six counties of Northern Ireland. Presidents up to the presidency of Mary Robinson (1990–97) were regularly refused permission by the Government of the Republic of Ireland to visit Northern Ireland.)

However, since the 1990s and in particular since the Good Friday Agreement, the president has regularly visited Northern Ireland. The current president, Mary McAleese, who is herself the first President of Ireland from Northern Ireland, continues on from Mary Robinson in this regard. In a sign of the warmth of the modern Anglo-Irish Relationship, she has been warmly welcomed by leading Unionists. At the funeral for a child murdered by the Real IRA in Omagh she symbolically walked up the main aisle of the Roman Catholic Church hand-in-hand with the Ulster Unionist leader and First Minister of Northern Ireland, David Trimble, MP. Similarly when Queen Elizabeth II visited the Stormont Parliament Buildings on a trip to Northern Ireland as part of her Golden Jubilee Tour in 2002, and spoke of the sense of Irish identity of Northern nationalists, Sinn Féin chose not to launch any public pickets or protests, stating that the Queen, as a symbol cherished by unionists, was entitled to visit.

Despite the changes to Articles 2 and 3 of the Constitution as part of the Good Friday Agreement the title of the office remains the "President of Ireland", though there is now little dispute that the Presidency only has juristiction over the Republic of Ireland.

Who was head of state from 1937-1949?

Main article: Irish head of state from 1936-1949

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. 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 was 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, 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.

Presidential facts

  • Two women have been Presidents:
  • One President died while in office:
  • Two Presidents resigned from office:
  • Three Presidents were elected without a contest:
    • Dr. Douglas Hyde, received an all-party nomination in 1938
    • Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh, received an all-party nomination in 1974 following the death of President Childers
    • Dr. Patrick Hillery, received a Fianna Fail nomination in 1976 following the resignation of President Ó Dálaigh. The Fine Gael-Labour coalition chose not to nominate a candidate of its own, resulting in Hillery's election without a contest.
  • Three Presidents were re-elected without a contest:
  • Two Presidents were Anglicans:
  • Three Presidents served two full terms of office:
  • Among those who wanted to become president but were not nominated were:
    • Alfie Byrne — Lord Mayor of Dublin (1938)
    • Eoin (the Pope) O'Mahony — satirist (1966)
    • Rita Childers — widow of President Erskine Childers (1974)
    • Sean MacBride — Nobel & Lenin Peace Prize winner (1983)
    • Carmencita Hederman — Lord Mayor of Dublin (1990)
    • Michael D. Higgins — Poet and Labour T.D.
    • Dana Rosemary Scallon — Former singer and religious activist (2004) - she was nominated in 1997, but was unsucessful; she failed to be nominated in 2004
    • Eamon Ryan — Green Party T.D. (2004)
    • Vincent Salafia — Heritage campaigner
  • Favourite candidates unexpectedly defeated in elections:
  • Miscellaneous:
    • Eamon de Valera was the oldest person to hold the Presidency. He was 76 years old when he was elected President and 91 years old when he retired. He was the oldest ever head of state in the world when he retired.


  1. The Single Transferable Vote (STV) is also used in elections to Dáil Éireann, when it is known as proportional representation by means of the Single Transferable Vote (PR-STV). However, when, as in a presidential election, it is used for the election of just a single candidate, STV is one and the same as the Alternative Vote system. There are important differences between PR-STV and the Alternative Vote. The term the "Alternative Vote" is, however, rarely used in Ireland. The President is usually simply said to be elected by STV or, incorrectly, by "proportional representation". While the constitution itself states that the President is elected under the system of "proportional representation by means of the single transferable vote" (Article 12.2.3) this is arguably technically incorrect, because the term proportional representation can only meaningfully be applied to an election in which more than a single candidate is returned.

Related topics

Historical Irish heads of state

External links

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