Thursday 21 November 2019

Ian O'Doherty: Peter Casey's strength was the main parties' weakness - now he wants to take it all the way to the Dáil

Presidential Candidate Peter Casey at the count centre for the Presidential Election in the Convention Centre, Dublin. Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins
Presidential Candidate Peter Casey at the count centre for the Presidential Election in the Convention Centre, Dublin. Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins
Ian O'Doherty

Ian O'Doherty

THIS time last week, Peter Casey was propping up the presidential polls and hovering between 1pc and 2pc.

His whole campaign up to that point had looked like another rich man’s folly, and it appeared odds-on that the eventual result would mirror his polling figures.

As we hear so often, a week is a long time in politics and the political powersthat-be must now feel relief there wasn’t another week until polling day.

It is an urban myth that Sigmund Freud once said the Irish were a “mass of contradictions” who were, for good measure, “the only people impervious to psychoanalysis”.

But the reason that quote – which actually has its origins in the script for ‘The Departed’ – resonated was because it could very well have been true.

Looking at the almost surreal events of the last week, which saw a depressingly moribund campaign catapulted into a stratosphere of rancour, name-calling and point-scoring, trying to make any prediction more complex than simply expecting a Michael D Higgins victory quickly became a fool’s errand.

Fianna Fáil needs me to shake it up, says Peter Casey. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Fianna Fáil needs me to shake it up, says Peter Casey. Photo: Gerry Mooney

But even those who expect the unexpected failed to see a candidate so suddenly transform from a no-hoper into a second place which, frankly, only a few days ago, seemed inconceivable.

There are two ways to look at this and neither is entirely right, nor entirely inaccurate.

That there is prejudice against the Travelling community is not in doubt – but the question of whether such prejudice is the result of racism or simply lived experience is what’s important.

Many of those who voted for him would respond angrily to the race card being waved in their face. But in a country where debate on this issue is always conducted with the handbrake on, in case one says anything which falls foul of the authorities, even those who didn’t agree with everything he said could, at the very least, see where he was coming from.

However, it is also true that the way those comments reverberated so widely throughout the campaign and the subsequent debate took everyone aback.

Most of all, one suspects, the candidate himself.

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)

After all, many of those who have been so quick to portray Casey as some sort of Trump-lite, appealing to the baser elements of our nature, seem to forget he made the remarks off the cuff.

When he realised that they had hit the mark, he understandably went with them.

But if he was truly the cynical demagogue of common depiction, he would have used this electoral trump-card (as it were) from the very beginning.

It has been easy to portray the 320,000 people who voted for him as a bunch of bigots and the reaction from the predictable quarters has been to demonise anyone who cast their ballot his way.

Presidential runner-up Peter Casey. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Presidential runner-up Peter Casey. Photo: Gerry Mooney

Easy, but too easy.

Trying to dismiss and smear so many people, and particularly so many people who live in constituencies with a high density of Travellers, was a painfully trite and arrogant response.

It was also another reminder that we now live in a two-tier society largely dictated by those who claim anyone who disagrees with them is evil and, as has been bandied about, a fascist.

We may not have had a massive rise in populism, as has been claimed, but the establishment in this country seems as incapable of learning a lesson as its counterparts in the UK and the US.

The visible contempt of Leo Varadkar, and his dubious interventions in the race, for instance, followed by comments in which he loftily informed voters that he doesn’t ‘condone’ anti-Traveller sentiment, only proved Casey’s point that the establishment doesn’t listen to ‘ordinary’ folk.

For people who like to portray themselves as the intelligentsia, the response to Friday’s result was remarkably simplistic, as they bemoaned the arrival of ‘Trumpism’ on our shores.

When Trump won, the sane response from the losing side would have been to analyse where his support came from and then figure out how to neutralise this new electoral phenomenon.

Instead, politicians and the media simply increased their sneers and smears of those ‘deplorables’.

The result?

Trump is now looking at a second term and the relentless condescension has only served to strengthen his appeal. Casey, however, is no Trump.

If anything, you could argue that the American political figure he most resembles is probably Ross Perot.

Billionaire Perot came from nowhere to run as an Independent in the 1992 US presidential race and, even though he briefly withdrew from the race before being ‘persuaded’ to return (sound familiar?), he placed third in that election.

Such was the wave of popularity, he ran again in 1996 as the head of his short-lived Reform Party. But his moment had passed and he became simply another footnote in American political history.

Similarly, Nigel Farage may have been instrumental in ushering the UK into voting Leave, yet it is often forgotten that ‘M Brexit’ has, on several occasions, failed to secure a seat as an MP.

As political history repeatedly proves, the fact that some people may like the message is no guarantee that theywill like the messenger.

Casey seems as excited by his performance as his detractors are appalled, and it’s no surprise that he is now talking about surfing this unexpected wave of popularity all the way to the Dáil.

But calmer heads around him – if, indeed, there are any – would be wise to counsel caution.

Many of those who were happy to vote for him were also happy that he didn’t win. The incumbent was so far ahead that this was a protest vote which could be used to send a message at relatively little risk. It’s now up to the establishment to figure out how best to respond.

It was remarkably easy to make a mark on this race because his rivals were so bland and boring. In fact, he was also the only candidate who looked like he was enjoying himself, rather than some sort of reluctant martyr operating out of selfless civic duty.

If the political establishment really wanted to get him out of the way, it could always make him ambassador to the US and send him off to Washington, where one suspects he would have a gay old time.

Obviously that won’t happen, but Casey’s biggest strength is the weakness of the main parties and their refusal to accept that the people who voted for him had a point.

So, will he remain a Perot or become our very own Irish version of Trump, leading his band of deplorables on a righteous crusade against humbug, as he seems to envisage?

The smart money would say the former. But, as we have seen lately, the smart money is often wrong.

Online Editors

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