Peter Casey’s success shows Irish media and politicians need to get real
Stephen Collins: Political maverick is likely to be forgotten quickly but lessons must be learned
Peter Casey ‘showed during and after the election that he doesn’t know the first thing about politics’. Photograph: Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters
In the aftermath of the presidential election it was striking that the most vociferous expressions of outrage at the vote obtained by Peter Casey came from those who routinely denigrate mainstream politicians and castigate State institutions as a matter of course.
Yet if there is any lesson from history it is that the unrelenting portrayal of ordinary politicians as incompetent, venal and corrupt inevitably paves the way for authoritarian figures from the right or left.
Casey is hardly one of those, as he showed during and after the election that he doesn’t know the first thing about politics. That was probably part of his appeal to voters who don’t know very much about politics either. In all likelihood he is just another political maverick who has flared briefly and will soon be forgotten.
What his sudden rise demonstrated, however, was the need for a more mature and realistic discussion about politics and the choices facing policymakers on major issues if our democracy is to remain healthy. This will require more honesty from politicians in spelling out to voters the real options on any given issue and also more balanced reporting by the media of the choices that they have to make.
It is illuminating to look at the treatment of the Labour Party and its leading figures over the past seven years. The party’s victorious candidate for the presidency in 2011, Michael D Higgins, was widely acclaimed for having done a good job and representing the State in a dignified fashion. His decisive election victory confirmed that the public largely shared this view.
By contrast, Labour Party leader Eamon Gilmore, who became tánaiste in the Fine Gael/Labour government in early 2011, a few months before Higgins was elected President, endured a welter of criticism and was driven from office in 2014. His successor, Joan Burton, fared no better and she presided over an electoral disaster for the party in 2016.
What was the difference between the Labour President and the two party leaders who served as tánaiste? The core difference was that one had a ceremonial position which did not entail making decisions that impacted on the daily lives of people, while the Labour leaders had prominent roles in a government that led the country out of a financial crisis
Higgins would never have been in a position to become President were it not for his long career in Labour
Participating in government at such a difficult time entailed a range of difficult choices. From its own perspective Labour managed to obtain the least worst options from its Fine Gael partners and the troika on many issues of contention during five years in office. It defended the most vulnerable in society by ensuring cuts in welfare were limited, while focusing on unemployment as the biggest challenge facing the government.
By any yardstick Labour did a good job in office. The party minimised the impact of spending cuts on poorer people while unemployment fell rapidly in response to a range of initiatives. The party’s problem was that it got zero credit from the public for its achievements and got untold grief for some of the tough choices it made. This was due in part to the false expectations it had raised while in Opposition, but it was also the result of sustained attack from its political opponents and the media.
The President, due to the nature of his office, is treated respectfully by the Opposition and endures very little media criticism. The result is that over the past four decades presidents have achieved far higher opinion poll ratings than the politicians charged with responsibility for running the country.
This is as it should be. The head of state has a very different role from the government and the job of the incumbent is to represent all the people and not any particular party or faction. While Higgins was elected as a Labour candidate in 2011 he stressed his independent role in the recent election and did not allow his old comrades to use his photo on their party posters supporting his candidacy.
For all that, Higgins would never have been in a position to become President were it not for his long career as a Labour Party politician as a member of the Seanad and the Dáil, as well as his role as a successful government minister between 1992 and 1997.
Higgins also served a lengthy term as Labour Party chairman and in that office managed to establish himself as a national figure. His chairing of party conferences and his ability to remain popular with all elements of the party while taking a strong left-wing stance on most issues was a vital ingredient of his political personality.
The Progressive Democrat leader Des O’Malley famously predicted on his appointment as minister for arts and the Gaeltacht that Michael D would “go mad” in office. The opposite turned out to be the case and he had a hugely successful term in a portfolio which suited him down to the ground.
All that experience has served him well as President and the political skills he learned along the way were a vital ingredient in his successful re-election campaign. His former Labour comrades who are currently engaged in nothing less than a battle for survival will hope that some of that success will rub off on them.