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Casey’s vote needs to be analysed, not ridiculed

Comment & Opinion

INFLAMMATORY COMMENTS  Refusing to engage with people who hold opposing views – such as those who voted for Casey – is a surefire way to deepen societal fissures.

By now we know that one third of Mayo voters gave their first preference in the Presidential election to Peter Casey.
Nationwide, people have been queueing up to brand all who voted for Casey as racist and clowns.
Refusing to understand or analyse this complex vote is a very dangerous game.
One of the great enablers of the success of Donald Trump in the USA and the Leave campaign in the Brexit referendum in the UK was an arrogance among elements of the establishment, be they politicians, media, voters or whatever.
Their collective failure to realise and understand the mood of so many other voters had catastrophic consequences.
Naturally the Irish Presidential election carries nowhere close to the same import but the lessons of relatively recent history should be ringing loud in the ears of all.
There are a couple of ways to downplay Casey’s vote. The paucity of the challenge of all the contenders seeking to defeat President Higgins left the door open for such a surge by a candidate coming with a sound bite.
In a very humble address on RTÉ on Saturday, one candidate, Gavin Duffy was honest enough to admit that the ‘blandness’ of all the challengers helped to enable such a surge. Against such a weak field, President Higgins’ vote, though impressive, is hardly a surprise.
That being said, while Michael D Higgins is a very popular president, his politics are clearly not for everyone. Mayo, for instance, is a conservative constituency. Eighty percent of voters in the last General Election in the Mayo constituency voted for either Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil.
Sure, some of them would vote for Michael D Higgins but, clearly, not all.
Labour or Sinn Féin do not have a strong base in Mayo. Had there been Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael candidates in this election, Casey would not have polled so well. He might not even have been in the race.
But his vote cannot be dismissed simply because of such factors – though they are better explanations than calling voters racists or idiots.
What should make people sit up and think is the fact that Casey received such traction for inflammatory comments about the Travelling community despite huge weaknesses in his candidacy. How sincerely held are his views? It is hard to say but a man who could not answer how much the dole is does not seem to be a man who has thought long and hard about the ‘welfare state’ he has criticised.
A lack of coherence in many of his addresses and the fact that he does not pay tax in this country seemed to matter little either. While there is likely to be those who voted for Casey who would generally be protest voters, there is little doubt his comments about Travellers and social welfare recipients in general were the lightning rod for his surge which saw one in three of those who voted in Mayo give him their first preference. His vote has to be subjected to scrutiny.
Such voters are clearly disaffected and frustrated with the political establishment that such a weak candidate would poll so well.
The reaction of much of the establishment, both in terms of politicians and the commentariat, did little to help.
It often amounted to simply saying ‘you can’t say that’ and led the Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, to tell people not to vote for Casey. This only put fuel on the fire.
What was absent from the furore was meaningful analysis of an issue which, clearly, exercises many voters.
Why not simply engage with the issue, argue it and have confidence in your point of view? Demanding Casey withdraw from the race was simply trying to suppress the issue.
Telling people who have these views that they can’t have them is not going to work – just look at the USA and UK if you want confirmation of that.
So why not engage with the issue and thrash it out?
It is, for instance, fair to say that anyone who regularly visits the courts of Mayo will know that crime rates among members of the Travelling community are high. We cannot put our heads in the sand about that.
But nor can we engage in such a debate without looking at root causes. Travellers are, quite simply, disadvantaged from birth. They are often ostracized in their communities, have any amount of hurdles put before them in search of education and employment.
There are many members of the Travelling community doing their level best to give themselves and their children the best chance in life and those of us in the settled community have to appreciate we have a considerable head start in life.
It is, at the same time, very easy to sympathise with those who are victims of crime such as shopkeepers and home owners where there is a disproportionally high involvement of Travellers.
Calling people racists does not help. Having a meaningful debate would help each side to understand each other better. Travellers know how elements of their community do not make it easy for the rest of them trying their best to contribute to society.
And people who lazily think Travellers have it easy ought to ask themselves one simple question – would you prefer to be a Traveller? With life expectancy levels lower and suicide levels among male Travellers six times higher than settled males in Ireland, combined with all the various other challenges they face, I think we all know the answer to that.
Creating a more tolerant Ireland ought to be the goal. But refusing to tolerate those with views that do not tally with your own is a surefire way to make sure fissures grow wider. And that is something Irish politics and Irish society does not need.