Comment: Peter Casey has desensitised the public conversation

In the fall-out from the presidential election, the Traveller community needs a champion of Taoiseach stature, but the concerns of the one in five people who voted for a dangerous and incoherent man full of contradictions must also be addressed, says Alison O’Connor.

Comment: Peter Casey has desensitised the public conversation

In the fall-out from the presidential election, the Traveller community needs a champion of Taoiseach stature, but the concerns of the one in five people who voted for a dangerous and incoherent man full of contradictions must also be addressed, says Alison O’Connor.

THE people voted in the presidential election and gave a resounding answer as to who they wish to see in Áras an Uachtaráin for the next seven years.

But a significant number also used their vote to raise questions that we will only have the answers to in the course of time.

It was a stunning electoral success for Michael D Higgins, with 55.8% of the vote, and the President rose magnificently to the occasion in his acceptance speech in Dublin Castle.

In fact, it must have irked him throughout Saturday, as the votes were being counted and he was so far ahead, that there was so much concentration on the performance of the candidate that came in a distant second — Peter Casey.

There has been an element of “calm down dear” in some of the analysis of Casey’s performance, where 23% of people voted for him.

Fellow candidate Gavin Duffy said Casey is not an “evil genius”, saying his remarks about the Travelling community were just Casey “throwing grenades and one of them was going to explode”.

Duffy, who was most gracious in his comprehensive defeat, went on to say that his former Dragons’ Den colleague is actually a decent guy.

He wasn’t the only one to offer such sentiments, with a few others describing the Irish/American as “a nice guy” and not racist.

To give him the benefit of the doubt, Casey may not have been a racist at the start of this election, but he certainly ended it as one.

He recognised pretty quickly that one of these grenades had the benefit of hiking his profile hugely and, he clearly hoped, bringing him electoral gain.

It was then that he doubled down.

Even if you put a kind lens on it and remember that he did not apparently know that Travellers are officially recognised as an ethnic minority, it put no halt to his gallop when this was pointed out to him.

He is a dangerous man and all the more so that he is an incoherent one, not appearing to remember what he said at the beginning of a sentence by the time he gets to the end, and contradicting himself not just between interviews but in single outbursts. His success was also partly a product of a lacklustre campaign and being one of a handful of Dragons in the line-up whose presence added an element of farce to the proceedings from the beginning.

Ireland has been an outlier in keeping, largely, to the political centre when all around us have had flirtations, if not even more longer-lasting relationships, with populist politicians.

We’ve kept our heads.

This was also what the political scientists described as a second-order election where people do not feel there is a huge amount at stake with the vote they cast, and view it differently to how they would, for instance, a general election.

Picture: Gareth Chaney Collins
Picture: Gareth Chaney Collins

But it remains an irrefutable fact that a man who deliberately set out to cause damage with racist views, and further remarks on the welfare state, came second in our presidential contest.

He may not have been a close second, but, as well as there being a significant gap between himself and the winner, he was significantly ahead of the rest of the field.

Someone espousing such views has never done as well before in an Irish election and in that fact alone there has been a desensitising of our public conversations.

It was good to hear Taoiseach Leo Varadkar say that he wanted the Traveller community to know that he and his Government respect them and wish to help them.

But even more than that, the Traveller community needs a champion — someone of the stature of Taoiseach. He must also attempt to address the concerns of those one in five who voted for Peter Casey, and try to address their concerns.

The Traveller community, no more than the settled one, is a diverse group, and it is hugely unjust to tar them all with the same brush.

It may have been a rather tedious campaign, and one which delivered a right political bruising to Sinn Féin and the remaining candidates Seán Gallagher, Joan Freeman, and Gavin Duffy, but it is a good thing that we had a presidential election.

Michael D Higgins returns to the Áras with a new mandate for seven years. That’s what democracy is all about. It’s worth ending on a quote from that presidential acceptance speech, which, in its totality, really caught the mood.

“A real Republic,” said President Higgins, “is one where every person is encouraged and supported to participate fully and where every person and community is treated with dignity and respect.”

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