President of Ireland
The President is elected directly by the people of Ireland and serves a 7 year term in office. No President can serve more than 2 terms.
This document provides information on the role of the President of Ireland. It includes detail on:
- The President’s term in office
- The functions and powers of the President
- The legislative role of the President
- Support for the President
The President’s term in office
After a presidential election, the candidate who has won becomes President of Ireland by publicly making the declaration set out in Article 12(8) of the Constitution. If a former or retiring President is re-elected unopposed, they make the declaration for a second time. This happened when Mary McAleese became President for a second term in 2004.
The President is inaugurated in St Patrick's Hall in Dublin Castle and makes the declaration in the presence of members of both Houses of the Oireachtas, the judges of the Supreme Court, the Court of Appeal and the High Court and other public persons.
End of the President’s term
The President’s full term of office is 7 years and no President can serve more than 2 terms. Under Article 12(3) of the Constitution, a presidential election must take place by the date on which the current President's term of office expires but may not take place more than 60 days before this.
However, the President can choose to resign at any time during their term in office. This happened when Mary Robinson resigned in 1997.
There are also 2 situations when the President may be removed from office:
- Where at least 5 Supreme Court judges decide that the President has become permanently incapacitated.
- Where the President is impeached by either House of the Oireachtas for stated misbehaviour. Stated misbehaviour might include a criminal offence or a misuse of the President's powers. Article 12 (10) of the Constitution sets out the procedures for impeachment.
If the current President resigns, becomes incapacitated, is removed or dies, then an election must be held within the following 60 days.
The functions and powers of the President
The formal powers and functions of the President are prescribed in the Constitution.
Many of the powers of the President can only be exercised on the advice of the Government. For example, the Government must approve all Presidential communications, messages or addresses, both to the Oireachtas (the Irish parliament) and to the public.
However, there are a limited number of areas in which the President has absolute discretion, such as in referring a Bill to the Supreme Court for a judgment on its constitutionality or in refusing to dissolve Dáil Éireann (lower house of parliament) on the advice of a Taoiseach (Prime Minister) who has ceased to retain a majority..
The President's powers include:
Representing the people
As a representative of the Irish people, the President makes State visits abroad and receives other Heads of State on visits to Ireland. The role also includes receiving the credentials of foreign diplomats accredited to Ireland, undertaking a wide range of public engagements, and organising awards such as the Gaisce and the Centenarian Bounty.
Summoning and dissolving the Dáil
Article 13 (2) of the Constitution gives the President the power to summon and dissolve (end) Dáil Éireann. Following a general election, the President summons the Dáil on the advice of the Taoiseach (Prime Minister).
The President also has the power to dissolve the Dáil on the advice of the Taoiseach. If the Taoiseach has the support of a majority in the Dáil, the President cannot refuse to dissolve it.
Under Article 13 (1) of the Constitution, the President has an important role in appointing people to various offices of State. In addition to appointing the Taoiseach nominated by Dáil Éireann, for instance, it is the role of the President to appoint the TDs nominated by the Taoiseach as Government Ministers.
The President also appoints the Attorney General, the legal adviser to the Government (who is nominated by the Taoiseach) and the Comptroller and Auditor General, who is nominated by Dáil Éireann. The Government nominates judges for the various courts throughout the State and the President then appoints them.
Command of the Defence Forces
The President is Supreme Commander of the Irish Defence Forces. Officers in the Defence Forces hold commissions from the President.
Under the Defence Act 1954, the Government exercises military command through the Minister for Defence, who manages and controls the Defence Forces.
Convening the Oireachtas
The President can convene a meeting of either or both Houses of the Oireachtas, after first consulting with the Council of State (for further information, see ‘Support for the President’ below). This power might be used in an emergency situation. It has never been exercised to date.
At the meeting of either or both Houses of the Oireachtas, the President may communicate a message or address on any matter of national or public importance. The message or address must first be approved by the Government.
The legislative role of the President
The President has an important role in enacting Government legislation. These and other rules on legislation are set out in Articles 20-27 of the Constitution.
Signing bills into law
When a Bill, a proposal for legislation, has been passed by both Houses of the Oireachtas, it is presented to the President for signature. It will only become law when the President has signed it.
In general, the President must sign a Bill on the fifth, sixth or seventh day after it is presented. However, if Seanad Éireann agrees, the Government may ask for the Bill to be signed sooner. Once the Bill has been signed, the President must publish a notice in Iris Oifigiúil (the official State gazette) stating that the Bill has become law.
Referring bills to the Supreme Court
Under Article 26 of the Constitution, the President can decide to refer a Bill to the Supreme Court (within 7 days of receiving it) to determine whether or not the Bill conflicts with the Constitution. The President must first consult with the Council of State, but the decision to refer the Bill is the President's alone.
If the Supreme Court holds that the Bill is unconstitutional, the President cannot sign it. However, if the Court holds that the Bill is constitutional, the President signs the Bill and it becomes law. In this situation, under Article 34 of the Constitution, the constitutionality of this legislation (or of any part of it) cannot be challenged at a later stage.
The power of referral to the Supreme Court has been used several times – see decisions on supremecourt.ie.
Before the Constitution can be amended, both Houses of the Oireachtas must pass a Bill to amend it. The Irish people must then approve the Bill in a constitutional referendum. If the Bill is approved in a referendum, the President must then sign it so that the Constitution can be amended.
The President has 2 further powers in relation to legislation, which have never been exercised to date.
Proposals of national importance: Under Article 27 of the Constitution, the President may refuse to sign a Bill if a majority of the members of the Seanad and at least one-third of the members of the Dáil petition the President not to sign it, on the grounds that the Bill contains a proposal of such national importance that the will of the people should be found out. The President must consult with the Council of State before deciding whether or not to sign the Bill.
In this situation, if the President decides not to sign the Bill, an ordinary referendum is held. To date, no ordinary referendum has taken place.
Referring Money Bills: The President also has a power in relation to possible Money Bills, which are Bills that relate to taxation or to Government spending.
Under Article 22 of the Constitution, if the Dáil and Seanad disagree about whether or not a particular Bill is a Money Bill, the Seanad may ask the President to refer the question to a Committee of Privileges. This is a special committee appointed by the President, consisting of an equal number of members of the Dáil and Seanad and a chaired by a Supreme Court judge.
The President must consult with the Council of State before deciding whether or not to appoint a Committee of Privileges.
Support for the President
There are two main institutions that function to support the work of the President: the Council of State and the Presidential Commission.
The Council of State
Article 31 of the Constitution provides for a Council of State, to help and advise the President when consulted. The Council of State has 3 categories of members:
- Ex-officio members: these are members by virtue of their office. They are the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste, the Chief Justice, the President of the Court of Appeal, the President of the High Court, the Ceann Comhairle (Chairperson) of Dáil Éireann, the Cathaoirleach (Chairperson) of Seanad Éireann and the Attorney General.
- Former office-holders: these include every former President, Taoiseach and Chief Justice who is able and willing to act.
- Members appointed by the President: the President can appoint up to 7 members, whose term on the Council of State can last for as long as the President is in office. The President can decide to end the appointment of any of these members.
The President must consult with the Council of State before exercising certain functions. For example, they must consult with the Council of State before convening a meeting of one or both Houses of the Oireachtas. The President must also consult with the Council of State in order to exercise some of their powers in relation to legislation.
Read more about the Council of State.
The Presidential Commission
Article 14 of the Constitution provides for a Commission to perform the functions of the President in certain situations – if the President is absent, becomes incapacitated, resigns, is removed from office, dies or fails to perform their functions.
The members of the Presidential Commission are the Chief Justice, the Ceann Comhairle of the Dáil and the Cathaoirleach of the Seanad. If any member is unable to act, the President of the Court of Appeal, the Leas (Deputy) Ceann Comhairle and the Leas (Deputy) Cathaoirleach, respectively, can act as a member instead. Any 2 of the members can carry out the President’s functions when required.
The Commission frequently acts when the President is abroad - for example, by signing Bills into law. It has also appointed members of the Government (on the nomination of the Taoiseach and after approval by Dáil Éireann). It can also dissolve Dáil Éireann on the advice of the Taoiseach – this happened in 1992, when the President was abroad.
Read more about the Presidential Commission.