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John Downing: Casey's voters aren't racist - they're fed up

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Media scrum: Presidential candidate Peter Casey visiting the houses at Cabragh Bridge in Thurles, Co Tipperary. Photo: Mark Condren

Media scrum: Presidential candidate Peter Casey visiting the houses at Cabragh Bridge in Thurles, Co Tipperary. Photo: Mark Condren

Peter Casey pictured at the Convention Centre (Photo: Mark Condren)

Peter Casey pictured at the Convention Centre (Photo: Mark Condren)

Tally: The Presidential Election and Blasphemy Referendum count in the Convention Centre, Dublin. Photo: Gareth Chaney, Collins

Tally: The Presidential Election and Blasphemy Referendum count in the Convention Centre, Dublin. Photo: Gareth Chaney, Collins

Peter Casey says he will form Fianna Fail Nua if he is not allowed to join Fianna Fail (Niall Carson/PA)

Peter Casey says he will form Fianna Fail Nua if he is not allowed to join Fianna Fail (Niall Carson/PA)

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Media scrum: Presidential candidate Peter Casey visiting the houses at Cabragh Bridge in Thurles, Co Tipperary. Photo: Mark Condren

I do not believe the bulk of the more than 340,000 voters who opted for Peter Casey are motivated by racism. I find it more likely they are disillusioned with our politics right now and still suffering the after-effects of the appalling economic crash.

There was strong anecdotal evidence from the middle of last week that the outspoken Independent was going to "make a show" in this dreary presidential contest. Let's be very clear, however, before we go any further: Michael D Higgins won this one by a tonne.

He got six out of 10 of those who turned out to vote. The vast majority voted for respect for everybody, inclusiveness and an intelligent and cultured future.

Higgins has fought a long battle since his first electoral outing in 1969. It took him almost two decades to carve out a political base in his adopted home town of Galway.

He has never wavered from his message of tolerance and support for human rights. The voters knew that and backed him.

Yes, it was the lowest ever turnout in a presidential election and we have had eight of them dating back to the first in 1945. And, granted, this was a very lacklustre election campaign.

But let us also keep a certain sense of perspective about that. Presidential elections have never managed to get up to a two-thirds turnout.

The first ever vote, in 1945, got a 63pc turnout, and 1966's epic, which Éamon de Valera won by the narrowest of margins, there was a 65pc turnout.

The most recent presidential elections, each of which had very acrimonious campaigns, had a poor enough turnout. In 2011 it was 56pc and in 1997, 47.6pc.

That tells us that these contests are very definitely "second order" elections which citizens feel they can participate in or ignore. Voting on these occasions is not about picking a government and less likely to affect citizens' day-to-day fortunes.

There are some important indicators in the RTÉ exit poll, which at close of polls on Friday night predicted the result on the button. These could be seen as supporting the anecdotal view that Casey's voters are to some degree "racist". It depends on how you view the world.

Some 34pc of Casey voters said his views of social and political issues were important to their choice - but a similar number of 32pc said they admired his ability to "stand up for ordinary people".

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A large number of voters were from lower-income sections of society and appeared concerned about "wasteful public spending". His appeal was more with older voters, with 23pc of over-65s in the Dublin area expressing support.

But his comments critical of Travellers and those dependent on welfare, while an indicator of attracting support, do not allow us conclude that people who voted for him are racist. It is more likely they feel minorities like Travellers and welfare recipients are getting an easier time of things than they are.

We must explore these questions in a reasonable and civil way. We must also recall there are just 32,000 Travellers living in Ireland and they are a microcosm of Irish society. As a readily identifiable minority it is often too easy to make sweeping and unjust generalisations.

Casey also did markedly better in Donegal, Roscommon-Galway and Limerick county. In Donegal only 2,000 votes separated him and Michael D Higgins.

But long-time Donegal TD Pat 'The Cope' Gallagher said he understood why Casey proved so popular - but did not believe it was motivated by his controversial comments about Travellers.

"They voted for him because they believe 'middle Ireland' is being squeezed. Leo Varadkar promised the people who get up early, the PAYE workers, he'd do a lot for them - but he's done nothing for them," the Fianna Fáil deputy said.

But while Casey pulled voters from many of the key parties, one in three identified Fianna Fáil allegiance, according to the RTÉ exit poll. That of itself has sparked a certain reaction in Fianna Fáil who said these issues must be discussed.

Otherwise, one in four Casey voters identified with Sinn Féin and a similar proportion with Independents.

Just one in six was a Fine Gael supporter and just one in 10 backed Labour, suggesting these have the least Casey concerns.

Overall, it is worth noting that Casey will have big adaptations to make himself if he is to stay in politics for the longer haul.

We have had such political phenomena in the past and they left the stage soon enough. Dana and Declan Ganley come to mind.

Back with Higgins's big win, it is clear that it made strategic sense to ration his radio and television debate appearances. He was also correct in his judgment that people in these prosperous times do not much care about spending controls at the office of president or controversies about alleged excesses.

But it is likely this campaign approach was bad for long-term democracy. It is also important he now keeps the promises he made during the campaign about delivering more spending accountability Áras an Uachtaráin.

Liadha Ní Riada's strong personal campaign merited a better vote. This leaves big issues for Sinn Féin following the first big electoral test for their new leader Mary Lou McDonald.


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