Michael D Higgins vs Peter Casey: some perspective is important

Analysis: Casey’s comments about Travellers will embolden a hundred cheaper imitations

The most important fact of the presidential election is that Michael D Higgins won with a resounding majority, the largest ever in a national election.

There has been, and continues to be, an understandably intense focus on the 20-odd per cent that Peter Casey secured in the election. Fair enough: that 20 per cent is important. But the other 80 per cent is important too, no?

And that overwhelming majority was dominated by the huge vote for Higgins – an intellectual, a socialist, a man of letters, a man of the left.

He has also been a career politician, a democrat and a parliamentarian – someone who has dedicated his life to advancing his social and political goals through the routes of parliamentary politics and public advocacy.


Someone who has been content to work our democratic system, even if he has always been impatient with it. Someone who has made the compromises that come with power and so managed to leave a legacy of enduring achievement. Someone conspicuously happy with the status and dignity of the highest office and determined to use it as a rhetorical platform.

For all the venom directed at our established way of doing politics and government, someone who is very much of that world has just won 56 per cent of the vote. Casey won 21 per cent. So, you know; some perspective is important here.

Casey is enjoying his moment in the sun on Saturday. He might found a new party. Or join one. He might stand for office. He might not. He’ll let us know soon. He might run for president again, if he’s not taoiseach. (Sure maybe he could do both?)

Soundbites and platitudes

Students should be able to live on university campuses. People should be able get on the housing ladder. We are too focused on Dublin. We should use the networks of the diaspora. It’s a disgrace that elderly women are on hospital trolleys. And so on and so on, brain-farting out soundbites and platitudes.

This isn’t the rise of a new political force. It’s taxi-driver stuff. It’s the end of the bar in the golf club after a long day. It’s Ross O’Carroll-Kelly’s dad with a Derry accent.

This was a second order election with a low turnout and a result that was a foregone conclusion. It is the latest indication that there is always – always – a protest vote, a two-fingers to the establishment vote (Sinn Féin gets a chunk of it, usually; so do Independents).

Do you really think Casey will be a significant figure in our politics in six months? In six weeks? Like Dana is? Like Declan Ganley is? If there was a space for a right-wing, conservative, law and order, low taxes party, then what happened to Renua?

That is not to say that Casey’s vote is without significance. It is not. A fifth of the voters is a lot of voters, and despite the candidate’s disavowals on Saturday morning that raising the Traveller issue had contributed to his surge, it’s pretty clear that it did. The Traveller thing was the trigger for him, allowing him to break away from the Higgins challengers, amplifying his voice and focusing his campaigning appeal.

Rhetorical mistake

Political analysis often makes the rhetorical mistake of seeking one simple answer to what are actually quite complex questions. But the question of why Casey did so well does not just have one answer, it has several; Travellers are certainly part of it, but just part of it.

Other parts include the traditional protest vote. And the general humpiness of many voters – feeling squeezed by the cost of living, under pressure from everything, running faster and faster just to stand still – is part of that picture.

That and the sense among voters that they had a free pass to give anyone and everyone a kick in this election, from which no direct effects on their daily lives were possible, as the President does not do budgets or make social policy.

But whatever the exact composition of the Casey vote, it is certain that parties and candidates will be looking closely at it. Casey’s comments about Travellers and the welfare state will no doubt embolden a hundred cheaper imitations in the local elections to come next year.

Anyone who thinks that antipathy to Travellers – some of it rooted in prejudice, some of it in response to bad behaviour by some Travellers – is something new in Ireland hasn’t been listening very closely.

But it has not been widespread in politics. As a result of this election, that may begin to change. What usually happens is not that a new vehicle emerges for these views – but that the existing parties assimilate them.

There is no reason to think it will be different this time. This election has not turned the world upside down. But it will have effects on our politics.