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Kitty Holland: Support for Casey reflects rage of those feeling left behind

Businessman seen by many as recognising struggles of post-austerity Ireland

There are two dangers when talking about Peter Casey’s strong showing in the presidential election – taking it too seriously and not taking it seriously enough.

Though his vote surged from a predicted 2 per cent in polls taken before he made his nasty, inaccurate comments about Travellers, and later his lazy lamentations about a supposed welfare state, to 23.25 per cent, let’s remember again – he did not win the election and only 44 per cent of the electorate were bothered to vote for anyone, much less Casey.

But that big surge in his support cannot be ignored, nor those who voted for him blamed. The blame should be lain squarely at a political, trade-union and media class which is either oblivious or inured to just how real the struggle continues to be for huge numbers of people, just to get by.

The Traveller comments certainly resonated with thousands of voters, and I'll come back to that, but to dismiss a growing and widespread rage – particularly among 20- to 50-year-olds, and those living in huge swathes of rural Ireland – would be as arrogant as it would be stupid.


Socially Ireland may seem more inclusive than ever. Look how compassionate we have proven ourselves voting for marriage equality and repealing the Eighth Amendment, our governing classes tell us. These two measures were delivered, of course, only when it became politically impossible not to, and importantly they cost the same governing classes nothing.


Economically, however, life is as hard as ever for the vast majority of us. Austerity as an ideological project, we’re told, is over but the benefits – workers’ rights eroded, sky-high rents, six-figure salaries and bonuses for those back at the helm of the property boom – are still being reaped by a minority. They never let a good crisis go to waste.

So we are almost at full employment? But people are getting up earlier than ever and dropping their kids to childcare they can hardly afford and with which most of us are getting zero help with from the Government. We are working longer hours than ever – often at home on our laptops into the night, often in jobs we do not know will still be ours in a year’s time, or where we cannot even be sure what hours, if any, we’ll work next week.

We’re barely able to pay mortgages or rent – those of us lucky enough to have a home – and if we or our children get ill we avoid the GP for fear of the €60 bill, or the emergency department for fear of the €100 charge. If our children get to third level we weep at the thought of the charges, meanwhile, in blind dread of even thinking about what we’ll live on when we retire, following the dismantling of our pensions. We’re not just “squeezed” or fed up. We’re raging.

In April I visited Castlerea, Co Roscommon, to talk to people about the forthcoming abortion referendum. On a Saturday lunchtime the main street was all but deserted. More than half the shops were boarded up. A woman I spoke to in her empty bar told me: "You might be worried abortion in Dublin. We've more to be thinking about here. We're just forgotten about."

Casey’s vote was marginally stronger in rural areas than in urban areas, and particularly in areas populated – however sparsely – by Travellers. This will have been a painful election for our small (30,000) Traveller community, but Casey clearly spoke to the only experience many people have of Travellers, which is negative. It too cannot be dismissed as just racist – racist though much of it is – or ignorant, but listened to.

We know the statistics – the 80 per cent unemployment, the seven-times risk of suicide compared with the settled community, the homelessness, the low school attainment, the poverty, the high levels of domestic violence, drug and alcohol addiction, and some criminality. By any measure the Traveller community is not flourishing and the only experience they have of many in the settled community is negative.

Political leadership

The Traveller community – particularly their women – want to do their part to address this. But as a vulnerable, impoverished community they cannot do it alone. We must demand political leadership on this, and fundamental to that is addressing the accommodation crisis. Without culturally appropriate housing which respects the community’s ethnicity, Travellers cannot begin to properly address their profound problems.

So, welcome to the very Irish fruits of six years of vicious austerity followed by a selective, localised recovery for the few.

The political class, the trade-union movement and the media can dismiss Casey as a man who “brain farts” and his voters as “racist” or “deplorable”. If they do, they downplay the realities of people’s struggles and will deserve increasing irrelevancy and disdain.

I have no doubt President Michael D Higgins, constrained as he is by his office, will continue to do what he can to articulate those struggles. Also-ran Peter Casey was clearly seen by many as a man who heard them.