STRAW IN THE WIND?
One of the intriguing aspects of the Twenty First Century Irish political scene has been the absence up to now of any significant right wing populist political movement along the lines of those to be found elsewhere in Europe and the USA. Last month’s Presidential election gave just a hint that this may be about to change. Certainly the PC Brigade, from the Taoiseach on down, has not been slow to express alarm outrage and condemnation about the support shown for the runner up candidate Peter Casey. Most commentators consider that Casey’s support was a once-off and he a lightning rod for transient political frustrations, but there is no doubt that the election outcome has given pause for thought.
First the facts, which should give considerable comfort to those opposed to Casey and his supporters. On 26 October 2018 Michael D Higgins was re-elected President of Ireland – largely a ceremonial office with mainly residual powers – by an overwhelming majority, polling 822,566, almost 56% of the votes cast and winning every one of Ireland’s forty electoral districts. The turnout at 43.9% was the lowest in any contested Presidential election, probably reflecting in part Higgins’ position as overwhelming favourite (the bookies had him at 25 to 1 on). Despite the lower poll, Higgins actually increased his vote over 2011 by 17%. His vote represented the largest personal mandate in the history of the state.
That Higgins was overwhelming favourite was no surprise. He was popular, had done a good job and avoided major faux pas, with the exception of his remarks in praise of Castro. The only strikes against him were his 2011 statement that he would be a one term President and his age- 77, though De Valera had been 83 when he ran in 1966. The expectation early on was that, should Higgins decide to run, he would be returned unopposed, as had been the case with three of his eight predecessors. He was endorsed by all the major political parties except Sinn Fein, which spoiled the “unopposed” scenario by announcing it would field a candidate.
Once a contest was on the cards, four independent candidates entered the field, each endorsed by the requisite number (four) of local authorities. The four included anti-suicide activist Joan Freeman, the 2011 runner up businessman Sean Gallagher, and two other businessmen, all three known to the public from their appearances on the TV show Dragon’s Den” in which wannabe entrepreneurs make pitches to the wealthy panellists for funding in exchange for an equity share if the idea makes money. Yet from the start Higgins was overwhelming favourite and as the lacklustre campaign unfolded, his position solidified, something which undoubtedly helps also explain some of the low turnout – with Higgins a shoe-in why bother?
The chief outside interest for much of the campaign was how well the Sinn Fein candidate would perform, given the party’s role in precipitating the election and its yo-yo showings in various opinion polls – 14% in September, down from 24% in the summer. This time the Sinn Fein candidate was Liadh Ni Riadha, daughter of the legendary Irish composer Sean O Riada and an elected MEP. The immediate question was whether she could better the vote of 243,030, 13.7% of the total, secured in 2011 by Martin McGuinness, with all his Provo baggage, or the 13.8% Sinn Fein secured in the 2016 general election, thus giving the party a boost in advance of the pending general election.
The campaign, overshadowed by the far more important Brexit negotiations, suddenly ignited just over a week before polling. Higgins appeared to be extending his lead (one poll gave him 68%) with the challengers nowhere and, at the tail of the field Peter Casey, registering around two (2!) percent. Then Casey, a businessman who has spent much of his career outside Ireland, attacked Irish Travellers in a radio interview, disputing official recognition of them aa a separate ethnic group, criticising some travellers in Tipperary who were refusing to move into new social houses built specially for them and castigating Travellers as a whole as “basically people camping in someone else’s land” who were “not paying their fair share of taxes in society”.
The remarks provoked outrage and condemnation from the other candidates and politicians of every hue. There were numerous calls from politicians and pressure groups for Casey to withdraw from the election, with his comments being attributed to a desperate attempt to garner some support. Casey refused to withdraw, stood his ground in a TV debate with the other candidates and went on to broaden his remarks by stating that he would campaign on his belief that Ireland had become a “welfare dependant state” which had led to “a sense of entitlement that’s become unaffordable.” He hijacked one of Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s pet phrases, that he stood for “those who get up early in the morning” paying for everything and getting little back. Cue further condemnation and outrage from across the political and social spectrum. The only support expressed for his views came on the social media.
Days later Casey came second to Higgins, romping home with 342,727 votes, 23% of the total and more than the other four rivals combined. Cue dismay and disbelief. For Sinn Fein the result was a disaster, with Ni Riadha beaten into fourth place with 93,987 votes, a mere 6.4%. When the dust had settled the Taoiseach warned against “turning a loser into a winner” – a phrase that could yet come back to haunt him. Subsequently the media closed ranks, with commentators almost universally condemning Casey as racist, deploring and denigrating his support, pointing out that 77% did NOT vote for him and that in a low poll it was to be expected that those holding strong views (i.e. Casey supporters) would be the ones to vote, thus giving a misleading cast to the result. The general line was that attention should more properly focus on Michael D’s achievement in securing the largest and most comprehensive victory in Irish political history, with views known to be totally opposed to those of Casey.
One commentator noted, however, that, deplorable or not, 10% of the electorate voted for him and pondered whether that could be ignored? The nine constituencies where Casey polled over 30% were all in areas in the West and Midlands with visible Traveller populations (but not critical mass; after all the Traveller population is considerably less than one per cent of the total!). And in only a handful of constituencies, chiefly around Dublin, was his vote below his national average. The post mortems are likely to continue for some time. What does the vote say about public attitudes to Travellers? Was Casey an opportunist? Did he stumble on a vote winner? Was he Machiavellian? Is he a one-trick pony?
And what will he do next? He is still very much around and has signalled his intention to get involved in Irish politics, making not very profound populist suggestions for future policies. He has floated the idea of joining, even leading, Fianna Fail. Not surprisingly this has met with a stony reaction. Will he find a niche somewhere? Or seek to create his own?