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Prof. Robert Elgie

Robert Elgie: 1965 - 2019

On behalf of my colleagues, our students and alumni in the School of Law and Government at DCU and indeed the Irish and international political science communities I would like to say a small few words about Robert as we gather here today to say goodbye to him. I used to often joke with Robert that his email signature was so long if you read it to the end you’d forget what his mail was actually about. That email signature told you so much about Robert but also said very little about the extraordinary professional life he led and the impact he had on the profession, our university, our school, his colleagues and his students. It told you that Robert was the Paddy Moriarty Professor of Government and International Studies at our School and University where he had come to take that position in 2001 having previously worked in Loughborough, Limerick and Nottingham, that he had received Ireland’s highest academic honour by being elected a member of the Royal Irish Academy, that he had a preposterously large H index for one working in the social sciences and that he had a variety of websites, facebook pages and twitter accounts dedicated to semi presidentialism, presidential power and French politics. He was the founding head of the School of Law and Government, the founding co-editor of the journal French Politics and his life was indeed littered with firsts and founding achievements.

Robert was a global figure and a leading authority in comparative politics. After gaining First Class Honours from Oxford University in 1987 in Politics, Philosophy and Economics, he received his PhD from the London School of Economics in 1992. Almost uniquely Robert became a world-leading expert in a number of areas of politics, most especially French politics, political leadership, presidentialism and semi-presidentialsim, and was the author of 17 books and over 50 articles. He was sometimes referred to as the God of semi presidentialism a title he would have decried to hear in public but was secretly delighted with. The contributions he made to any one of these fields far exceeds what most scholars could ever hope to achieve; and he did it across three sub-fields. His depth, excellence and breadth of research reflects just how many parts of the political science community from around the world were in shock last week when they heard of his passing. One of his last acts was to send a signed copy of his latest book, the just published the Politics of Presidential Term Limits with our DCU colleague Alex Baturo to the President of Ireland Michael D Higgins and we are very grateful to President Higgins who is formally represented here by his Aide De Camp, Pol O’Domhnall and we welcome you here Pol. One of Robert’s proudest days was when a number of us presented a copy of the book The Irish Presidency:  power, ceremony and politics to President Higgins in December 2013 in Aras an Uachtaran edited by our friends John Coakley and Kevin Rafter. I fondly remember Robert gently sparring with President Higgins that afternoon about whether Ireland was semi presidential or not.

Robert enjoyed worldwide external recognition in political and civil society circles. Amongst many other things this included briefing British Ambassador designates to France and providing ongoing advice to the Kenyan Committee of Experts that drafted a new constitution for Kenya. He also provided a briefing report on the Constituent Assembly of Nepal’s proposed system of government. He was regularly consulted by a variety of Taiwanese think tanks and spoke there on a number of occasions. As Art O’Leary the secretary general to the president reminded me last night Robert was an expert at the first meeting of the Irish Constitutional Convention. He was also a vital Member of the Expert Advisory Group to the Irish Citizens’ Assembly who described him in a tribute as an intellectual powerhouse. His role at the assembly went well beyond the intellectual, however, with one of his fellow experts telling me that he was probably of more importance in his contribution at meetings on the organisation of the weekends, the framing of questions and the offering of solid, sensible advice to the Secretariat. As a DCU colleague remarked last week he was very big not only in Japan but in Ireland, France, UK, US, Australia and yes, even Taiwan.

Robert had the rare gift of having a unique mastery of the discipline and an ability to see through all the noise and to get straight to what was important. His intellectual contribution was enormous - he was a true polymath. But aligned to that extraordinary output was something far more important and that was the fact that Robert was a kind, thoughtful, giving friend to many of us and amongst the most generous of scholars. He supported and elevated so many to their highest potential. Many of us know of and have benefitted from that giving nature. As his first ever PhD student and great friend Shane Martin told me “I would not be where I am today in my career without Robert’s patience, advice, council and support. Of that, I am certain”. That pertains to so many of us. But it wasn’t just to academic colleagues that this generosity of spirt was so apparent. We have been inundated with a vast number of tributes to Robert from students past and present. The comment of one will suffice for what Robert meant to so many: “I had Robert Elgie more than any other lecturer in DCU. No one shaped my time there quite like him. Without fanfare, airs and graces, or pretensions, he performed the most noble service of all. A gentleman of remarkable intellect, lucidity and above all, untold decency”. However even that decency was stretched by the student who every time he passed Robert in the corridor, would look up and without missing a beat, say “Hi Bob”. At first, Robert was nonplussed by this, but then began to look forward to crossing this student’s path. Every time he received the “Hi Bob”, he would chuckle to himself. To this day I know of no one else who ever called Robert Bob. Another student said on twitter that Robert was a “brilliant and encouraging lecturer whose ability to make every class a positive and comforting experience made DCU a better place.” And indeed DCU is a better place for having Robert at its heart for close to two decades.

Comparative politics has lost one of its giants as one of Robert’s international colleagues said but that mentorship which cannot be quantified in an H index or the REF will live on in the deeds of all who were influenced by him.

But there was way more than Robert the academic. He loved music, and was an aficionado who had all sorts of eclectic taste. He often combined conference attendance with music events. His former PhD student Dave Doyle tells a story of how at APSA in San Francisco one year they both walked together for over an hour across San Francisco to the very famous music store Amoeba records and managed to watch Family of the Year playing live in the store which was far more exciting than any of the papers on offer.

He loved cricket and had that sort of love hate relationship with the English cricket team snatching defeat from the joys of victory. It is profoundly sad that he didn’t live to see England’s great victory in the cricket world cup but he would have enjoyed the irony of the game ending in a draw but England winning anyway and being led by an Irishman. He loved Notts Forest and would talk in minute detail of the famous European cup triumphs over Malmo and Hamburg in 1979 and 80. He loved Apple Macs and indeed pretty much every Apple product although he wasn’t sure of the watch’s ability to measure one’s every move. He loved science fiction telling me the Apple Watch was like something from Star Trek and perhaps more traditionally he loved Shakespeare.

In essence Robert was a great friend of the old school variety. If you needed wise counsel you went to Robert. If you needed help you went to Robert or if you just needed coffee you went to Robert. We bonded over the sporting disasters of our relative teams, exchanged various crime and science fiction novels. He introduced me to Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven which triumphantly mixed the apocalypse and Shakespeare. We took Harry Potter quizzes in our respective offices when we should have been discussing important matters of university bureaucracy.  With our DCU colleague Adam McAuley we disagreed on the relative quality of various episodes of the classic cult spy series The Americans, particularly the ending. We disagreed on the current state of British and American politics and Robert was looking forward to embarking on a new career as a pundit on US politics for the 2020 election. It had only taken me two decades to persuade him that Irish audiences needed to hear his political wisdom. Alas it was not to be.

Robert Elgie was one of life’s gentlemen. It should give all of us here today great solace and consolation that we had the privilege of knowing him and we say goodbye to him heartbroken and sad but still happy in that knowledge. Sleep well my friend.

Many thanks.

Gary Murphy


29th July, 2019
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