Sean Moncrieff: Peter Casey has done the State some service but not as he intended

Thanks to him, we now have an idea what the rest of us really think of Travellers

Peter Casey: Targeting Travellers and social-welfare recipients wasn’t about winning the presidency. It was an investment for the future, an attempt to find his constituency. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

Peter Casey: Targeting Travellers and social-welfare recipients wasn’t about winning the presidency. It was an investment for the future, an attempt to find his constituency. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

 

A phrase you see a lot of on social media is Telling-It-Like-It-Is. All too often this means boiling down a complex problem to a set of simple components, usually with the aim of blaming the problem on an individual or group.

Those who laud the teller of Is-ness are similarly sick of living in a complex world. They want simple, syllogistic answers where the finger of responsibility can be pointed in one direction – preferably away from them.

Many populist politicians trade on this brand of Is-ness, which depicts complexity, even intelligence, as suspiciously liberal: the more you know, the more likely it is that you may come to a conclusion with your brain, rather than your gut.

Politicians in this mould are careful to craft their messages in simple declarative statements – the unemployed are lazy, migrants are a threat – but also to present themselves as a bit dumb. Feelings are facts. And to a certain constituency, this is construed as honesty. You can trust me. I’m stupid.

In the TV debates, Casey sometimes looked like he had wandered into the studio by accident

So we got Peter Casey. All the other presidential candidates had some background or personal quality from which one could infer why they wanted to be president. But Casey was a mystery. He was a poor public speaker, even in a suit and tie he looked dishevelled; he seemed to have no grasp of public policy and unlike all the others, made no effort to appear presidential.

His main selling point – and he is a salesman – wasn’t all that nonsense about connecting the diaspora but the fact that he wasn’t like any of the others. He wasn’t a politician.

Sound familiar? This was, of course, straight from the colour-by-numbers Donald Trump book of political strategy. Appear a bit wild, make a series of unsubstantiated allegations against your opponents and identify someone to blame. In the TV debates, he sometimes looked like he had wandered into the studio by accident.

Peter Casey arriving at Virgin Media One studios before the first TV debate of the presidential campaign on October 17th, 2018. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw/The Irish Times
Peter Casey arriving at Virgin Media One studios before the first TV debate of the presidential campaign on October 17th, 2018. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw/The Irish Times

Political ambitions

Targeting Travellers and social-welfare recipients wasn’t about winning the presidency. It was an investment for the future, an attempt to find his constituency. He’s harboured political ambitions for some time. He ran for the Seanad in 2015, when he got 13 votes. The presidency was another exploratory poke. He’s a proto-politician, looking for a set of ideas to promote, and experimenting with different sorts to see what finds a market. 

Many speculated there was a willing market for his brand of Telling-It-Like-It-Is. It didn’t matter how factually incorrect it was

Predictably, there was a backlash to his comments; which perhaps was what he anticipated. Last week, he announced a suspension of his campaign and gave a teary-eyed interview. Peter, the victim of political correctness, persecuted for Telling-It-Like-It-Is. 

Two days later, he had an article in the Sunday Independent announcing he was back in the race and describing all the support he had received. Given the mechanics of newspaper production, Casey must have started writing that article, or was at least thinking about it, on the same day he announced his suspension. Gasp-inducing cynicism, or good marketing? Pretty much the same thing.

But in a curious way, perhaps not the way he intended, he has done the State some service. After his comments about Travellers, the media wondered how this would play with the public. Many speculated there was a willing market for his brand of Telling-It-Like-It-Is. It didn’t matter how factually incorrect it was: 85 per cent of Travellers live in houses, not on other people’s land; and there are political, cultural and genetic differences between settled Irish and travelling people.

Pundits, social media, even opinion polls, can’t tell you how much of a blind spot Travellers are to the rest of us. Only a secret ballot. Now, thanks to Peter Casey, we have some idea.

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