Saturday 23 November 2019

One-in-five vote for Casey must sound alarm bells for those in authority


Peter Casey. Photo: Brian Lawless/PA
Peter Casey. Photo: Brian Lawless/PA
John Downing

John Downing

A big win by Michael D Higgins - backed by six out of 10 voters - is hardly big news. The vote for maverick Independent Peter Casey really is the story of this presidential election.

The Derryman had propped up the bottom of the ratings in all surveys during the month-long campaign. But he got a big blast of notoriety, 10 days out, when he questioned the idea of Travellers having special minority ethnic status.

He told the Irish Independent that Travellers were "basically people camping in other people's land", that house prices drop in areas where they settle, and that they are "not paying their fair share of taxes in society".

The ripostes to these blunt criticisms came from all sides of the political spectrum. The Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, effectively warned voters to shun Peter Casey.

Well, it turns out that one in five voters were not keen on that warning. When the survey people did their work last Wednesday and Thursday, the news of Peter Casey's comments had not really got about the country.

The surveys published last weekend put Mr Casey on 2pc - up from 1pc. Today we realise his vote haul is likely to be 10 times that prediction.

So, late last week, as his words gained wider circulation, slowly there were ripples of anecdotal support coming from all over the country - especially from smaller towns and rural areas. Many people said Mr Casey's comments had chimed with their own thoughts, which they did not often feel they could openly express for themselves.

That popular gut reaction was augmented by a feeling that the "authorities" - among them the gardaí, local councils and revenue authorities - are not seen to apply the same rigour of law and regulation to Travellers as they do to members of the settled community. Such perceptions are sometimes correct - but not always.

The point is that for many in "middle Ireland" this one in five vote in favour of the "Traveller critic" is a message to the Government and all its attendant authorities. And it is time to talk about these issues more openly, in a conciliatory manner.

It has to be remembered that whether those perceptions are right or wrong, we must also know that the 30,987 Travellers recorded in the 2016 Census as living in Ireland, are as diverse as the rest of the population. They are rich and poor, fat and thin, urban and rural, law-abiding and law-breaking, and all of the rest in between those extremes.

Travellers are a microcosm of Irish society: some as good as the best, others as bad as any of the worst. But as a small and identifiable grouping, it is too easy to make black-and-white judgments, and blame all Travellers for the transgressions of a smaller group among them.

So, let's discuss these issues more openly - including the quiet reactions of support for Mr Casey from people around the country.

Irish Independent

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