Tuesday 25 June 2019

Philip Ryan: 'Traveller debate means Martin must once again balance party view with public mood'

  

Poll: Peter Casey got more votes from Fianna Fáil supporters than those of any other party Picture: Gerry Mooney
Poll: Peter Casey got more votes from Fianna Fáil supporters than those of any other party Picture: Gerry Mooney
Philip Ryan

Philip Ryan

They are all very cagey in Fianna Fáil over Tuesday night's parliamentary party debate on the Traveller community.

Most TDs wanted to play down the more than hour-long discussion on presidential candidate Peter Casey's result after his public criticism of Travellers, which saw him take almost a quarter of the vote. But debate they did.

Senior Fianna Fáil figures were eager to suggest there was no "Traveller-bashing" at the meeting in Leinster House.

Fianna Fáil parliamentary party meetings are rare. Party leader Micheál Martin is not a big fan of the weekly engagements with his TDs and senators. Regularly they are cancelled or curtailed - much to the annoyance of party members eager for the party leader to listen to their views.

Tuesday night presented many with an opportunity to vent their frustrations about the state of the party, which is stagnant in the opinion polls.

The debate around Travellers has been teased out in workplaces, pubs and kitchens since Mr Casey's controversial comments on Independent.ie's 'Floating Voter' podcast. Fianna Fáil parliamentarians were merely mirroring these debates.

It is also worth mentioning an RTÉ exit poll published after the presidential election showed 30pc of Fianna Fáil voters gave Mr Casey their first preference vote. Casey got more votes from Fianna Fáil supporters than those of any other party, albeit that Sinn Féin voters were not far behind.

This was on a lot of TDs' minds walking into the meeting. The ensuing debate reflected this and then some.

Several TDs sought to emphasise there was a difference between members of the Traveller community who abided by the law and those who felt they did not have to adhere to same rules as the rest of society. Louth TD Declan Breathnach referred to the lawless members of the community as "transient HiAce van gangs" which, he noted, were very different from the law-abiding Travellers who he taught in school.

There were similar contributions from other party members.

Kildare South TD Fiona O'Loughlin, who has been tasked with examining Fianna Fáil's policy on Travellers, said the review would have to be a "two-way street". She mentioned worrying statistics around Traveller education, mental health and unemployment but also noted the community should themselves strive to become more integrated members of Irish society.

As with other debates on social issues, such as those around marriage equality and abortion, Fianna Fáil's parliamentary party meetings have become forums to discuss issues which other parties shy away from.

However, once again, Fianna Fáil leader Mr Martin finds himself caught between the public's view and the opinions of his members.

He prides himself on reading the public mood and ignoring the demands of his party. In the past, he made the right call on other social issues. He will have to make a similarly nuanced decision on the Traveller community.

Irish Independent

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