Tuesday 23 July 2019

Paul Williams: Election exposes an inconvenient truth ignored for too long

2018 Presidential election candidates Joan Freeman, Liadh Ní Riada, Michael D Higgins, Sean Gallagher, Peter Casey and Gavin Duffy
2018 Presidential election candidates Joan Freeman, Liadh Ní Riada, Michael D Higgins, Sean Gallagher, Peter Casey and Gavin Duffy
Paul Williams

Paul Williams

The timing of the 2018 presidential election result was somewhat synchronistic, falling as it did on Halloween weekend - it produced a monster who has sent a chill of fear down the spine of the political establishment.

And the scariest thing of all is that Peter Casey has no intention of going away anytime soon, you know.

His Lazarus-like resurrection in the polls from the bottom of the wacky pile to garnering the support of a quarter of the electorate has provided the political establishment, and indeed society in general, with plenty to ponder.

The inconvenient truth is that his controversial remarks about Travellers and social welfare recipients resonated with such a significant portion of the voting public.

Casey's remarks were widely acknowledged as articulating what a lot of people in this country would only say in private.

The result points to a deep fissure in our society that has been ignored for too long - the challenging and complex relationship between the Travelling and settled communities.

It is not coincidental that the areas where Casey enjoyed the highest levels of support around the country were in rural areas where there has been a recurring problem with crime.

This presidential election has inadvertently exposed a decades-old problem that requires urgent and prolonged consideration so that bridges can be built on mutual respect and understanding.

But that must come from both sides with a meaningful debate focused on uncovering the causes of such deep-rooted animosity between an ethnic group that represents less than 1pc of the population, and the rest of their fellow-Irish citizens.

Casey has admitted he was so overwhelmed by the universal excoriation he received from the media, politicians of all hues, Pavee Point, the twitterati, et al, he seriously considered pulling out of the race.

His divisive comments caused an inevitable stampede of the right-on, high-minded, politically correct elite as they sought desperately to outdo each other in their cries of outrage to gain a foothold on the already over-crowded high moral ground.

The fact that 23pc of the public voted for the same man suggests they don't like being talked down to by the cosseted intelligentsia.

Indeed such was his determination to illustrate he was the most outraged of them all, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar exhorted voters not to support Casey, who was challenging his, and Fine Gael's, preferred candidate Michael D Higgins.

In so doing, he stepped across a line that should never be crossed by the leader of the country - and the public sent him a clear message that he was out of touch with their concerns, which should be interpreted as a shot across the bows as he moves closer to a general election.

What it serves to illustrate is that there is, on the part of the Taoiseach and the political class in general, a complete lack of understanding of the ordinary, silent majority: the hard-working people Varadkar attempted to align himself with when, during his ascension to the top job, he declared that he represented those who get up early in the morning.

So what now for Casey, the man who brought us face-to-face with the inconvenient truth no one wanted to hear?

He has been effectively given a mandate to continue in Irish political life by a quarter of the electorate whose views were not represented by any of the other candidates.

Buoyed by his success at the polls, he now threatens to become the bogey man of Irish politics who could easily win a seat in the Dáil. Despite his electable potential, his declaration he would join Fianna Fáil probably put Micheál Martin off his breakfast. Even though Martin is well experienced in dealing with disruption and discord within his party ranks courtesy - mostly - of John McGuinness, reigning Casey in could be a whole lot more challenging.

In an interview on Saturday, he humbly admitted his shortcomings but underlined his determination to stay in politics by musing aloud that he would need media training to overcome his trademark bungling, disjointed oratory.

Our society has already broken with the conservative homogeneity of the past to become much more caring, diverse and pluralist.

The surge in support for Casey poses a serious dilemma for all of us on this island: we must lance this boil before the 23pc grows and we see the rise of the kind of sickening populism exemplified by Donald Trump.

Paul Williams also co-hosts 'Newstalk Breakfast'

Irish Independent

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