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Casey doubles down on anti-Traveller rhetoric in an otherwise unsurprising TV debate

We can expect Casey’s controversial stance to dominate coverage of the campaign again today.

HOST PAT KENNY didn’t waste any time getting to the topic that had dominated headlines all day as he kicked off the first six-way TV debate of this year’s presidential campaign. 

Peter Casey, who’s rock bottom in the opinion polls at 2%, threw a grenade into the national discourse in comments to the Irish Independent’s politics podcast, saying that Travellers should not be recognised as an ethnic minority because they are “basically people camping in someone else’s land”.

The podcast went online in the early hours of yesterday morning. Traveller and equality groups were forthright in their criticism – as were the rest of the presidential field – once everybody woke up and processed what the businessman had said. 

Rather than back down, however, he expanded on his comments in an appearance on RTÉ’s Six One yesterday, having earlier releasing a Thursday campaign schedule that would include a visit to a housing estate at the centre of a dispute between a Tipperary-based Traveller family and the local council.

The debate 

Then-Taoiseach Enda Kenny announced last year that Ireland was to formally recognise Travellers as a distinct ethnic group within the State – a move described yesterday by President Michael D Higgins as a “very important step”. 

Casey, asked again about his comments at the Virgin Media One debate, insisted Ireland was now a “melting pot”, and that one group shouldn’t be chosen as “special” by having their ethnicity officially recognised.  

“You can’t please all of the people all of the time” Casey said, when Kenny pointed out that Travellers were unlikely to want him as President in the wake of his incendiary remarks. 

g Sean Gallagher accuses Peter Casey of making racist remarks about Travellers. Source: Virgin Media One

There were smatterings of applause for Casey’s comments as he continued to double-down on his anti-Traveller rhetoric – even after he used the phrase “like giving chocolate to a diabetic”, apparently in response to a suggestion that he spend more time with the Traveller community and educate himself a little. 

There was applause too though for Sean Gallagher, who accused the Derry man of making racist remarks. All of the candidates taking part in the debate once again criticised him for the comments. 

For his part, Casey accused the other five of being “disingenuous” after they responded with positive answers to a question on whether they’d be happy to live near a Traveller encampment. 

The Casey controversy aside, there were no shocks or surprises over the course of last night’s 90 minute debate as the various challengers aired by-now familiar arguments.

Higgins came under sustained attack over his salary and expenses – arguing at one point that security concerns dictated he needed to take a jet to an engagement in Belfast, where his presidential car was waiting to whisk him from the airport. 

The incumbent, who has for the most part tried to stay above the mud-slinging, won applause after he decided to lay into Casey, accusing him of having a “fantasy list” of expenses allegations. 

Sinn Féín’s Liadh Ní Riada took aim at Higgins for failing to address the Houses of Oireachtas as President, and at Sean Gallagher for keeping such a low profile on the political front over the last seven years. 

Gallagher, attempting to respond, began his answer by harking back to the aftermath of the 2011 contest – but was cut of by Joan Freeman before he could say much more. 

Freeman, meanwhile, lambasted the “four millionaires” she was sharing the stage with (Higgins and the three Dragons), insisting that the fact she had to resort to a loan to fund her Áras effort underscored the importance of her campaign. 

Gavin Duffy, who has years of experience as a media trainer, made a number of effective interruptions and again raised his opposition to any government plan to sell-off AIB.

Meanwhile host Pat Kenny attempted to keep up the pressure, at one point accusing Duffy of being “the posh boy” of the campaign because of his association with hunting groups. 

The veteran presenter also engaged in a long interaction with Ní Riada on why she wouldn’t classify IRA atrocities as terrorism. 

The Sinn Féin candidate eventually attempted to turn the tables on Kenny, asking whether he’d call Nelson Mandela a terrorist. There was a long pause before Kenny said he’d call him a freedom fighter. 

Based on the latest poll, one of the challengers will need to pull off a major shock in the next eight days to turn the result of this race into anything other than a foregone conclusion. 

None managed to do so last night. 

Its unlikely they’ll get much of a chance in the next 24 hours either. Casey will (again) be using up all the oxygen as he visits that housing estate on the outskirts of Thurles this afternoon. 

Local Travellers have said they’ll stage a silent protest during that hastily-arranged campaign stop, and there’ll be a large media contingent along to document what happens. 

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