I don’t accept that Peter Casey is, as he claims, the voice of ‘Middle Ireland’. Yes, 34% of the people voted against repealing the Eighth Amendment and yes, 51.9% voted against Repeal in Casey’s home county of Donegal.
No, these voters do not currently have any credible political leadership. Yes, 38% voted against marriage equality and there was probably a big overlap between those two groups of no-voters. It’s true that they have every right to their views, yet they are largely unheard by politicians and media.
Many of these people would regard themselves as traditional Catholics. Many were horrified by what they viewed as the negative response of the media to Pope Francis’ visit.
I have spoken to several people who have completely given up reading newspapers out of protest at what they perceived as the media’s insulting coverage of that event, which was a highlight in many believers’ lives.
I hear them. The political and media class have been engaged in class warfare against traditional Catholics for a very long time now. It’s a useless war deriving from a basic lack of tolerance. It was always going to end badly.
Let no-one think, however, that Peter Casey represents that traditional Catholic ‘Middle Ireland’. If Pope Francis’ priorities can be judged as those of that Ireland, then Peter Casey’s views are wholly at odds with it.
When Casey let loose his anti-Traveller comments in a successful effort to break free from the presidential candidate underclass and get back his deposit, I kept thinking about Missy Collins standing in front of Pope Francis, a live audience of 77,000 and a TV audience of which at one point reached 570,000.
She declared, “We got our ethnicity after 30 year. It’s a step but we’ve a long way to go. We need better health care, better education, better accommodation, and end to discrimination.”
Travellers were, she said, only reaching the standards reached by Irish settled people in the 1940s. As a “grand-mummy and a great-grand-mummy”, she begged the Pope to pray for Traveller young people, particularly sick Traveller young people. The Pope thanked her for her testimony and said: “In God’s house, there’s a place at the table for everyone. No-one is excluded.”
I was stuck to the couch watching the speech because the music coming from the telly had drawn me out of the kitchen. I had a ticket for the concert at Croke Park but passed it on to another family member and stayed home. Now here I was, riveted to the screen by that extraordinary spectacle.
Maybe you could stay dry-eyed when you saw Traveller singer Bridgie Collins standing in front of that audience with Maire Brennan, Lucia Evans and Eimear Quinn to sing ‘Mná na hÉireann’
Me, I was bawling. To hear that veteran Traveller woman raising her strong, gravelly voice with Brennan, a diva of Irish music who has spoken of overcoming many challenges, Evans, a young Irish-African singer, and blonde, silvery-voiced Quinn was as big a statement about the strength and diversity of Irish women as I’ve ever seen.
I, too was initially sceptical about the ethnicity claim made by Irish Travellers. It is scientifically valid, however — Travellers diverged from the general population when farming was introduced in the second century — and they want their ethnic status. The granting of this status should mark the beginnings of a decoupling of lack of education and poor health from Travellers’ identity. Providing houses in the country which have grazing and stables is exactly how we need to help build a strong Traveller identity which does not include disadvantage.
As Michael D Higgins said during his campaign, Travellers have a life expectancy 11 years shorter than that of settled people. Their suicide rate is six times the national average. Ireland has just ranked second among developed nations for educational equality but Unicef points out that Travellers are the exception: 57% of boys go no further than primary education as opposed to 13% of boys in general. Only 13% of Traveller girls complete secondary as opposed to 69% of girls in general.
Clearly the ability to discriminate is part of our make-up, as it is in all human populations. But it is not part of our traditional culture. You don’t have to be a Christian to be part of that traditional culture, and indeed, the culture of tolerance is common to most major world religions and many ethical systems.
In Ireland, it is undeniable that the traditional culture of tolerance and the requirement to care for the poor and marginalised are expressed in Christian terms, however. They are strongly expressed. Slagging Travellers has no place in our traditional culture.
Traditional Fianna Fáil is the other cornerstone of our culture which Casey says he wants to rebuild. His views are totally at odds with the core traditions of that party. Many allegations could be levelled against the party, including its clientelism, its populism, its tendency to spend what it doesn’t have. However, the Fianna Fáil party believes in providing welfare.
There is some factual basis to Casey’s claim that we are a welfare-dependent state. The Department of Finance issued a report in August which showed that half the population received some welfare payment while almost everyone in Ireland benefited directly or indirectly from a payment, in an annual spend of about €20bn.
What we have to ask, however, is how well that investment performs? The same report showed our welfare payments typically reduce the risk of poverty in the population by around 50%, one of the best success rates in the EU, reflecting, as it says, “the progressive and targeted nature of the social transfers”.
An Irish Examiner editorial made the valid point that the main reason for so-called “welfare dependency” were low wages. A person working a 40-hour week on the minimum wage would not even bring home €20,000.
We have the highest wage inequality in the EU. We also pay for services, including health, education and childcare which would be free in many other countries. Attention to wages and to services is how the department’s report suggests welfare dependency might be addressed.
What nobody adds is that the provision of social welfare benefits everyone, not just the recipient.
The welfare of every citizen is impacted by people who can’t house or feed or clothe themselves. Without social provision, our country could not have weathered one of the worst banking crashes on record without massive social disturbance to reach number four in the world of the latest UN Index of developed countries.
With all its faults, our culture is founded on the Christian values of inclusion and the political tradition of the welfare state.
Middle Ireland is, by any comparison, a very good place in which to live. Let’s not allow Casey and his followers to wreck it.