Monday 14 October 2019

Referendum: High on spoiled votes, low in interest

Bill Browne

With the final outcome of last Friday's Presidential election never really in doubt from the moment Michel D Higgins declared his intention to seek a second term in office, the spotlight inevitably turned on the other five candidates.

In truth, it was a fairly lacklustre campaign that, far from galvanising the public, by and large never really seemed to catch the imaginations of voters, as reflected by the fairly poor national turnout of 43.33 per cent.

This was never more evident than in the various Presidential debates that quite often had people scratching their heads and wondering what was the point of actually having the election in the first place.

As the race to finish in second place was slowing down to a barely concealed trot, up stepped Peter Casey, a man who many people hitherto would have had trouble recognising in a line up. 

All the majority of people knew about him was that he was a successful businessman from Derry who had come to prominence through his appearances on the Dragons' Den television show.

His controversial comments in which he described Travellers as "basically people camping out on other people's land"; that house prices drop in places where they do settle; and that he feels they do not pay their fair share of taxes inevitably sparked huge controversy. 

President Higgins described the comments as "appalling"; Gavin Duffy said they were "reckless and inflammatory"; Sean Gallagher said he was "abhorred" by them; Joan Freeman said it showed how out of touch Casey was with Irish society; and Liadh Ní Riada accused Casey of being "lazy, racist and stereotyping."

Casey himself remained largely unbowed, saying he was the only candidate who said what he believed and that there was "far too much political correctness in this society today" - although he did later say he sometimes regretted his comments.

Rightly or wrongly, those comments seemed to strike a chord among members of the public, with many people taking to social media to express their agreement with him. 

Certainly, the controversy did his campaign no harm, with Casey garnering increased support as polling day drew closer, with exit polls on the day seeming to back that up. 

While no one realistically believed he would beat Michael D Higgins in the race to the Áras, to the delight of some and the disgust of others.

Casey swept the other four candidates aside as he went on to poll 342,727 votes, a 23.25 per cent share of the total national turnout.  Here in Cork, Casey also saw a significant upturn in his support. He finished in second place in each of the county's five constituencies, receiving support from some 40,000 people across the county.