Tuesday 25 June 2019

Mischief played a part in this pointless election

Has Casey resurrected Leo's 'people who get up early in the morning', and will this translate into a poll that actually matters

Michael D Higgins
Michael D Higgins
Peter Casey
Liadh Ni Riada
Joan Freeman
Gavin Duffy
Sean Gallagher
Brendan O'Connor

Brendan O'Connor

We knew there was something going on by the six o'clock news last Friday. And it was confirmed in the nine o'clock news. By six o'clock the turnout in the north inner city of Dublin was 10pc. In Jobstown by 9pm, an hour before the polls closed, just 9pc had turned out. In west Tallaght by 9.15pm about a quarter of people had voted. Turnout all over the country seemed to heading for a record low. Did Gavin Duffy and the two other millionaire businessmen not strike a chord in Jobstown? And with half of the electorate in general?

The success of the blasphemy referendum was perhaps best summed up in reports of some people being surprised at being given a second ballot paper, some people asking what the referendum was about and some refusing to take the ballot paper. And remember, these were people from the more politically engaged minority of the population, the ones who bothered to go and vote.

These facts, and the general conduct of the campaign, give rise to many pertinent questions. Is there not a better way of doing this than the farce of a campaign we have just witnessed? How relevant is the presidency to most people? Do we need a president that is separately elected? And what is the point of the job at all?

The latter question arises from the fact that candidates this time out were generally campaigning for this job based on expressing opinions that were nothing to do with the job or were beyond the bounds of the job. Much of the debate centred on the use of a jet by Michael D Higgins, which might have been slightly questionable at times, but which surely didn't merit a national debate and an election.

If the job of the presidency is to set a tone, to express symbolically or by gesture the mood or the identity of the people, then this campaign spoke of a mood of chaos, crabbiness and giddiness. But if we were to try to infer something about the mood and identity of the Irish people from this election, it is that many Irish people clearly have a sense of mischief.

Let's face it, the stakes here were low to non-existent from the start. Michael D was so far ahead in the polls that, to use Trump's metaphor, he could probably have shot someone on Fifth Avenue, or O'Connell Street, and people would still have voted for him. Even when the campaign got going, it was clear that nothing was going to erode his unassailable lead. He was the only candidate who looked vaguely like a president, because he was most people's idea of what a president looks like, because he is one. So the question of who was going to be president was settled very early on in the contest, perhaps even before it began. And that just left the peripheral issues. It became sport. People actually started to enjoy the farce of it. They watched the TV debates to cringe, or for moments of high comedy. No one was officially admitting this, and all the debate moderators and commentators continued to pretend to take the whole thing seriously, except perhaps for Ivan Yates in the debate he chaired. But the reality on the ground was that many people were enjoying watching half a dozen people humiliating themselves and tearing each other apart over a job, that we kept being told was largely pointless, a job five of them had absolutely no chance of getting. But still they were forced to turn up and humiliate themselves at these debates and around the country, claiming they still seriously believed they could win. It was worthy of Flann O'Brien. On some level, many even enjoyed seeing Michael D squirm a bit. There's no doubt, despite his huge popularity, that the President's halo has slipped slightly during this campaign. Up to recently, the President has been a bit like Kate Moss was for much of her career. Moss never really talked for many years. She didn't think it was part of her job as a model. She didn't think models should talk too much, that no one really cared about what they had to say. And for many people, for many years, Michael D was an image on our screen, a smiling man in tweed, who looked like some kind of dignitary from a fairy tale or a Terry Gilliam movie. Most people paid no attention to anything he said, apart from the odd bit of praise for a dear departed vicious dictator. So for lots of people, this was the first time they were really exposed to Michael D as a real person. And what they experienced was quite a prickly man, often seeming to be inwardly livid to be questioned about anything. Ivan Yates was probably a bit mean when he referred to the incumbent as a pompous poet. But there was certainly a touch of that. Of course, now that Michael D is President again, and no longer a candidate, we will all have to start respecting the office again and he can have another seven years unquestioned.

In order to extract some meaning from the whole thing then, we needed to put the foregone conclusion of Michael D's re-election aside. And so the focus has been on Peter Casey's extraordinary tenfold increase in support in the space of little more than a week. It is an unprecedented surge, albeit one that we could all feel happening, anecdotally, in our own lives and among people we knew.

The conventional wisdom among what some of Casey's supporters might call the liberal media elite is that Casey won this support through dog-whistle racism, and that one in five of voters voted for him because he was anti-Traveller. Indeed, we now have a somewhat odd situation whereby Casey denies his vote was down to anti-Traveller sentiment while Travellers say it was down to anti-Traveller sentiment, while they simultaneously argue that Casey has caused this anti-Traveller sentiment. Voting patterns in rural Ireland, and especially in Traveller strongholds in west Limerick, certainly suggest that Travellers were an issue in Casey's vote. But if Travellers are right, and Casey's vote was largely anti-Traveller sentiment, then you'd have to say that Casey didn't cause that overnight. But you also have to question why Travellers want to think that one in five people voted purely out of animosity to Travellers. Why do they want to will this hatred into being?

A broader interpretation of Casey's performance has been that this is our version of a populist surge, and there is probably some truth to this. Casey took a lot of voters from Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein, gaining support from people who clearly feel this is a guy who tells it like it is more than existing parties. This could be a product of Fianna Fail's drift to the left, with its fairness agenda in the last election, and of Sinn Fein's embrace of woolly liberalism, which may have alienated its hardcore nationalist, more right-wing voters.

Fianna Fail's performance in the last election, based on the notion of a fairer society, had a huge effect on politics in this country. It actually provided the DNA for the current government which stopped talking so much about the people who get up early in the morning and started doing Budgets that were weighted over 10 to 1 in favour of more spending over tax cuts, a slight difference from the promised 2 to 1 and then 3 to 1 ratios.

But there is growing evidence that people's desire for fairness, and more spending, above all else, may have been overstated, and that the main parties are guilty of fighting the last election and not the next one. Recent polls indicated that a majority would prefer to have seen more tax cuts rather than more spending in the recent Budget. Things like the pouring of 100s of millions more into a health service that does not seem to offer much value for money have started to irk people. And then along came Casey, funnily enough talking the kind of talk Leo used to talk, about the people who pay for everything and get nothing in return. So there's no doubt, with no party now explicitly targeting the so-called 'people who get up early in the morning', Casey tapped a gap in the market there.

But there was something else that Casey tapped into too. And that harks back to mood, and the sense of mischief that many people had about this pointless election.

Casey was the only one in this campaign who seemed to get the joke. He was the only one who seemed to have a sense of the ridiculousness of it all. He was the only one with a sense of mischief about it. And while this will never emerge from any exit poll or opinion poll, there's no doubt that many people voted for Casey because of that. It was a rejection of mainstream politics maybe, but it was certainly, for some, a rejection of the pomposity with which all the others engaged in this campaign, that everyone knew from the start didn't matter, because it was a foregone conclusion. Casey might have seemed a bit all over the place at times, might have seemed to be talking off the top of his head, but at least, for many people, he was saying something, and he was saying what he thought, and whether people agreed with him or not, it chimed with them, more than the po-faced tone of the others.

Casey, with his sense of mischief and his rambling, and his cheeky grin, had that thing that all politicians crave but can't buy: authenticity. It might have been an authenticity that a lot of people didn't like. But one in five people did. And that's the thing that all the political parties, and probably especially Sinn Fein, need to go away and ponder now. It probably wasn't really what he said, it was how he said it. And if you were turned off by all the others, even Higgins, whether you agreed with Casey or not, he was the one you would give your disillusioned or mischievous vote to. The question now is whether, as Casey, who is clearly an outside the box thinker, with ideas about lots of disparate things, fleshes out his message, this sense of mischief and disillusionment will transfer to an election that actually matters.

Sunday Independent

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