HADN’T anticipated taking much comfort from this tepid shower of a presidential campaign but that’s what has happened. Peter Casey is the man responsible for it, writes Alison O’Connor.
The Sideshow Bob of the campaign went this week from being a bit of a hoot to a nasty bigot when he decided to play the racism card and have a go at the Traveller community. It was straight from the discrimination playbook as he hit all the populist buttons with his talk of “beautifully kitted out kitchens”, “solar panels”, “free education”, “don’t pay tax” and the Traveller status as an ethnic minority being “a load of nonsense”. They’re not even Romany, he threw in for good measure.
Ah Peter, the wild card (stressing the wild) element you brought to the campaign with your digs about the grooming of the presidential dogs and Lear jets brightened up a dull few weeks, causing many of us to, possibly immaturely, to have a bit of a guilty giggle. It all seemed relatively harmless. But for all your craic and craicedness clearly your pride was suffering as you looked at the tiny number of people who said they were going to vote for you this day next week; The Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll put that number at 2% of people. Desperate times, thought Peter, call for desperate measures.
There is no doubt but Casey’s words will have had traction with many people who will be delighted to finally see what they would describe as plain speaking on the issue. But when it comes to how we want to be represented as a country I think far more Irish people are comfortable with the image of a tolerant, welcoming race. Take for instance that story that hit international headlines last week of student Nonso Muojeke and his family who were granted permission to remain in Ireland.
This followed a heart-warming campaign by his fellow students at Tullamore College who ran a “Save Nonso” campaign that eventually resulted in Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan intervening. So “Put the bigot in the Áras” doesn’t have quite the same ring to it. And the comforting part is that Peter Casey’s fellow Áras aspirants did not rise to his toxic bait even though they must all be desperate to catch up with him even a little bit. Looking at the graphs accompanying The Irish Times poll was a surreal experience, with the massiveness of the gaps between Michael D and the other candidates across age groups, social class, and geographical location.
There has to be a temptation then, when you feel like such a minnow in the race for such a high office, to join in and make yourself stand out, or at least to lift your possible vote to what could be considered a respectable level. There is also the not insignificant issue of getting some money back. If a candidate is elected, or gets more than 25% of the quota in the election, they can be reimbursed up to €200,000 from the State. Each candidate’s election agent must tell the Standards in Public Office Commission (SIPO) how much the candidate spent. So there is money and ego at stake here.
He may be in zero danger of losing this race, but he is shipping some reputational damage with the high handed and supercilious manner that he has been adopting, using the line that he is “putting the presidency before his candidacy” and not being transparent on spending.
A more honest version would be that as a seasoned campaigner he is using his role as incumbent to great tactical advantage. The problem with that is that he betrays an
arrogance that does not become either him or the office he holds. But on the hot topic of how minorities such as Travellers should be treated he is completely sound. That I believe is actually one one of the main reasons Irish people are so taken with him.
We only have to look to the level of debate in the UK and the US in recent days to realise that certain standards being maintained, to ensure decency and humanity in a society, are being eroded at an alarming rate. Proving that his son didn’t lick it off the stones Stanley Johnson, father of Brexiteer Boris, reached peak obnoxiousness when purporting to channel Margaret Thatcher. He claimed the former prime minister would have said: “Look if the Irish want to shoot each other they will shoot each other whether there is a hard border or whether there is a soft border”.
While President Trump, in his ongoing highly successful campaign to destroy the US Presidency, referred to Stormy Daniels as “horseface” on Twitter. The only comfort there is how well able she is for him. “Game on tiny,” formed part of her response this time.
Of course there is a significant enough section of our population that agree with Peter Casey and are more than happy to join in the Traveller bashing; those who would have been appalled by Travellers getting their ethnicity officially recognised. You only have to browse the comments sections of some websites, or ask radio teams about texts and tweets received as the subject was under discussion in recent days. They will tell you they were overwhelmingly in favour of what Peter Casey was saying.
But we would all do well to look carefully at the level of debate that is going on in the aforementioned UK and US. I reflect frequently on how much I hit the off button on the radio or TV when I hear Trump’s latest utterances are coming up for discussion because I simply do not want my children to hear whatever has been said.
We’re in slippery slope territory here. Let this sort of discussion out of the bag and it results in enough desensitisation that we then move onto “foreigners” and then the other vulnerable groups in our society. It is a fact to be celebrated that we have managed, largely, thus far, not to soil our public discourse with such trash talk. Imagine if that happened now — the fire lit by the ego of a presidential candidates who would otherwise have been consigned to being the subject a pub quiz question in years to come — if he was lucky.
The history books will record that Michael D Higgins won a second term (barring something
incredible happening). The other five candidates will be able to tell their grandchildren that they once ran for the presidency (or in Seán Gallagher’s case twice). They will be able to add that even though there a temptation to do otherwise they behaved honourably. That will be a proud boast.
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