Elaine Loughlin: Are we in a new era of intolerant politics?

Verona Murphy performed well in the by-election, with no mass voter boycott of her after controversial migrant remarks, says political correspondent Elaine Loughlin.

Verona Murphy received 9,543 first-preference votes in the Wexford by-election, coming in third, and apparently unhindered by her claims that asylum seekers should be ‘deprogrammed’. Picture: Eamonn Farrell/RollingNews.ie
Verona Murphy received 9,543 first-preference votes in the Wexford by-election, coming in third, and apparently unhindered by her claims that asylum seekers should be ‘deprogrammed’. Picture: Eamonn Farrell/RollingNews.ie

WHILE she did not win the seat, Verona Murphy’s strong performance in the Wexford by-election will force all political parties into uncomfortable internal conversations.

Far-right, anti-immigrant rhetoric has been dismissed by the mainstream political parties as the preserve of maverick candidates who sparked debate, but gained little support at the ballot box.

But Ms Murphy’s remarks during the by-election campaign, coupled with recent utterances by elected TDs in the Dáil and at public events, has shifted things significantly.

The cynical exploitation of those who come here seeking asylum, and the targeting of other minorities for political gain, has become a concern among the established parties. And so it should be.

“If she gets it, we are all fucked; every candidate will be looking to go after someone or some group just to get attention,” one Fianna Fáil source said of Ms Murphy, ahead of Friday’s vote.

Perhaps Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, Labour, Sinn Féin, and other parties should have taken more notice of the traction gained by Peter Casey in the 2018 presidential elections.

The 23.25% of first-preference votes he received was too easily cast aside as a blip, an entertaining diversion that didn’t reflect a shift in public attitude.

Ms Murphy, who came third in the weekend’s by-election, secured 9,543 first-preference votes and gained transfers across the board.

Of course, we can never determine how many, if any, of Ms Murphy’s votes were garnered, or lost, as a result of her controversial remarks about asylum seekers, for which she apologised.

But, the figures show that there was no mass boycott of the Fine Gael candidate.

Because she performed well, it will be extremely difficult for Fine Gael to remove her from the general election ticket, and, given her support, would they even want to?

She will be back canvassing ahead of the general election.

Asked about this at the Wexford count centre, Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan, who acted as party director of elections in the constituency, ruled out any change to the Fine Gael ticket ahead of the next election.

“She is the selected candidate for Fine Gael for the general election, along with ministers of state Paul Kehoe and Michael D’Arcy,” said Mr Flanagan.

But the acceptance, or tolerance, of remarks that promote an ‘us-and-them’ mentality is not only a problem for Fine Gael: it must be addressed by all parties going into the next election.

Labour leader, Brendan Howlin, said there is now an onus on parties to act and to ensure that candidates who peddle racism and division do not get near a party ticket.

“There is a responsibility on party leaders to ensure that we don’t have the type of discourse that is now coming on populist parties across some parts of Europe. We’ve escaped that, because there’s been a very clear understanding, among all parties, that there’s no room for hate speech, there’s no room for marginalising vulnerable people, and that we take a firm line on that.

“My judgment on it is that in this by-election, that line was crossed. I think that Fine Gael tolerated it; they stood shoulder to shoulder with it in a way that I was surprised at. And I think we need to have a conversation to ensure that that is not the norm,” Mr Howlin said.

Otherwise, I think we have significantly shifted the dial on political discourse in a very bad way.

The Murphy controversy has also raised issues around candidate selection and what vetting process, if any, people go through before they are chosen to run for public office.

Mr Howlin said anyone wanting to stand for the Labour party in a local, national, or European election must first sign a declaration on hate speech and the understanding of minorities. He said this should be the norm across all parties.

Similarly, Fianna Fáil’s newest TD, Malcolm Byrne, who topped the poll in Wexford, said: “I think there’s an obligation on all political parties to speak out against hate speech, and to speak out about discrimination.

“It’s concerning, when candidates make remarks as part of a strategy that just is a dog whistle strategy. It’s never been the kind of politics that I think is appropriate and I don’t think that the voters in Co Wexford thought it was appropriate.”

Speaking immediately after his election, Mr Byrne said: “Racism, and the language of hate and division, has no place in Wexford politics. Wexford is better than that.”

Appropriate or not, 10,000 people living in Wexford didn’t feel horrified enough to turn their backs on Ms Murphy, when they cast their vote.

As a result, Fine Gael are now faced with an immediate dilemma. Do they absolve the sins of a popular candidate, or do they take a stand to show that remarks which target some of the most vulnerable in our society can never be tolerated?

While she may have apologised, this will not be the end for Verona Murphy and she made clear, at the count centre over the weekend, that she would be standing for Fine Gael in the next general election.

“I’ve raised the vote of Fine Gael in Co Wexford, so we have another six months in which to prepare for a general election,” she said of her intention to run for the party.

“What I am most looking forward to, now, is getting down to the issues that the people raised on the doorsteps and getting to work,” she said.

However, her political ambitions may yet be stymied by party HQ. Taoiseach Leo Varadkar told reporters, over the weekend, that none of the candidates who ran in the by-elections are now guaranteed a place on the general election ticket.

“Under the normal course of events, under our party rules, after an electoral contest, we review the result. And it is always open to the executive council, on my recommendation, to add candidates or delete candidates,” the Taoiseach said.

Democracy is fragile and must always be preserved.

All political parties have a responsibility to protect it.

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