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What is the long-term impact of Peter Casey's result on Irish politics, if there is one?

Ireland may be resistant to the temptations of populism but we are not immune, writes Larry Donnelly.

Larry Donnelly Law lecturer, NUI Galway

THE CAMPAIGN THAT even the most dedicated of Irish political watchers desperately wanted to end has finally reached its denouement. A very low turnout across the country confirms that it was a wholly uninspiring and rather unedifying affair.

The outcome was as expected. It is important to spend a moment assessing an extraordinary triumph in historical and other terms for the incumbent, Michael D Higgins. No one, including his opponents, has claimed that his first seven years in the Áras were anything but praiseworthy. That the electorate by an overwhelming margin decided to again back President Higgins is testament to the high esteem in which he is held.

Nothing could change our collective mind about the man who, in his own words, has been “turning up since 1969.” Questions regarding his age, expenses and transparency – among others – were raised by the media and the other candidates, yet apparently dismissed out of hand by the Irish people. It will be interesting to see what themes emerge and which matters are prioritised in the second half of President Higgins’ tenure – especially in the wake of the scrutiny upon the office itself in recent months.

The Peter Casey factor

Early on, the theatre that ensued from utilising a relatively newfound mechanism for garnering a spot on the ballot was widely ridiculed. And perhaps to amplify the points about process that were made then and are being reiterated currently, three of the candidates who received support from county councils – Gavin Duffy, Joan Freeman and Seán Gallagher – ultimately bombed. Moreover, the downright abysmal performance of the Sinn Féin candidate, Liadh Ní Riada, will provoke some soul-searching and finger-pointing in her party.

Nonetheless, most of the oxygen over the past ten days, and nearly all of it since the Irish Times and RTÉ exit polls were released last night, has been sucked up by the surprisingly strong second place showing by the heretofore unknown businessman, Peter Casey. Casey, then on 2% in the opinion polls, disputed Traveller ethnicity and attacked what some would allege is a culture of entitlement both within the Travelling and settled communities.

It clearly struck a chord. I, like so many others, had numerous conversations with friends and acquaintances – in the neighbourhood, in pubs, at the golf club and elsewhere – who argued that Casey had only said “what everyone thinks.” Indeed, anti-Traveller sentiment is widespread and anecdotes concerning people who don’t merely survive, but actually thrive, on social welfare abound. Before yesterday, however, virtually nobody guessed that it would lead to roughly one in five voters giving the outsider a first preference. Most estimated that 10% would be the approximate ceiling for Casey.

Now that we know the extent to which this worked politically for him in a presidential election, the question becomes what the long-term impact on Irish politics, if there is one, may be? Onlookers at home and further afield have marvelled at the extent to which Ireland seemingly remains impervious to populism in light of what has happened on both sides of the Atlantic. No one can deny that Peter Casey’s performance dents that enviable standing.

But many here now seek to minimise it. While they are absolutely correct for myriad reasons that it would be a mistake to extrapolate too much from a low-octane, low-turnout election for a chiefly symbolic position, they are wrong to the extent they say it is of little or no consequence. Peter Casey’s support catapulted ten-fold in just days solely because of a couple of comments made in his off-the-cuff style. By any objective measure and leaving to one side the viability of whatever future intentions he may have, that is extraordinary.

Downplaying Casey’s result

There are two broad groupings engaged in this exercise to blur reality.

The first are some “wise old heads” who have been around Irish politics for a long time and understand well the crucial nuances and telling benchmarks of precedent. According to them, this was a protest vote and Casey became a vehicle for those who always have and always will hate the system. The mainstream parties, which repel the politics of hate and blame, have a huge advantage in general elections and will not countenance this type of rhetoric. His vote tally wasn’t as potent as at first glance and this will prove just a footnote in the end.

The second are leftists who are open to the accusation of living in a bubble. They may not know or run in the same circles as people who have a quite opposite view of this country in 2018 and whose lives are very different to their own. Some on the left are unfamiliar with people who still go to Mass every week, who prefer the pub to a dinner party or a play, who pay a pretty penny for everything they struggle to get and who aren’t enamoured of the changes to a country they no longer fully feel is theirs.

The “wise old heads” are wrong insofar as they presume that political dynamics can’t change. The leftists are incorrect to assume that right-thinking people invariably agree with them – and even more wrong to label those who sincerely disagree. This occurs far too often in a group think that prevails in the mainstream media at times and usually dominates in social media.

Ireland is not the United States or the United Kingdom. But as the MEP Marian Harkin sagely opined on Twitter last night, Peter Casey “raised issues that many people feel should be aired. Like the migrant issue across Europe, if we sweep it under the carpet it will come back to bite us.” She is right. We may be resistant, but we are not immune to the temptations of populism.

If anything, the resonance of these controversial comments with a large swathe of the Irish people should engender an open and honest airing of “what everyone thinks.” In truth, albeit ironically on the surface, there is probably no better person to help facilitate this necessary discussion than President Michael D Higgins, an avowed democratic socialist who for decades was entrusted to represent a conservative constituency. If we decline to have it, there could be more efficacious and electorally successful messengers than Peter Casey.

Larry Donnelly is a Boston lawyer, a law lecturer at NUI Galway and a political columnist with TheJournal.ie

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About the author:

Larry Donnelly  / Law lecturer, NUI Galway

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