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Targeting Travellers never harmed a politician yet

The condemnation of Peter Casey’s ill-informed views was hypocritical

Presidential candidate Peter Casey, “a man who had no problem kicking an already despised minority in Irish society”. Photograph: Gareth Chaney Collins

Before the elites write off those who voted for Peter Casey as a basket of deplorables, they might consider what part they have played themselves in creating a state of affairs where a significant protest vote ensued.

Because that was what the Casey vote was about – people signalling that they are sick of the sanctimony of the current opinion-formers and office-holders.

Significant numbers of the Irish electorate feel unrepresented when it comes to their deepest concerns. Those concerns are varied. For some, it is the feeling that the economy in Ireland is recovering only for those who were not badly affected by the recession in the first place.

For others, it is a belief that Ireland is now dominated by ideologues who smugly congratulate each other on their “wokeness”. Yet the alleged liberalism of the “woke” quickly slides into virulent condemnation of anyone who challenges the prevailing groupthink. In short, they are fundamentally hypocritical, because they seem only able to tolerate those who think exactly the same way as they do.


For example, how many people in positions of influence in Irish society actively champion the rights of Travellers in any real way instead of indulging in virtue signalling when it suits?


Let’s look at education, universally acknowledged to be the best way out of poverty. During the recession, the State slashed the miserable pittance it gave to help young Travellers stay in education and also cut training places for senior Travellers.

When I have written about this issue in the past, people tell me Travellers do not value education

It did so because it knew that no votes would be lost because of it. Aside from a handful of advocates and Travellers themselves, no one would care. If a State is measured by the care it gives those who have little power, that measure alone was enough to show what our State thinks of Travellers.

When I have written about this issue in the past, people tell me Travellers do not value education. Those comments merely reveal a lack of empathy. It is not that Traveller families do not value education, it is that they do not value an education they associate with bullying and exclusion, followed by discrimination when it comes to looking for jobs. This is what Traveller families have had to endure from settled families for generations.

The condemnation of Peter Casey's ill-informed views about Travellers was also hypocritical. Dog-whistling about Travellers has always been profitable for politicians. For example, Josepha Madigan expended a great deal of energy to prevent Travellers being accommodated in her constituency.

Strong message

Her argument was that the land there was valuable and that if it were sold, many more Travellers could be accommodated – suitably far from her constituency. Then a councillor, she is now a Government Minister. The strong message Taoiseach Leo Varadkar sent her was not the one he wanted sent to Peter Casey.

Travellers once had a place in Irish society, particularly in farming areas, where their skills with horses and with mending farm implements and containers were useful. I remember the tail-end of that era from my farming childhood when farmers and Travellers co-existed in a wary but mostly mutually tolerant way. Those skills now have no place.

Travellers are not a monolithic, homogeneous culture. A Traveller woman has visited my family for more than 20 years. Her health has been very poor and the hard life she has had is written in her lined face. She remains kind and positive and fiercely proud of her children and grandchildren, who sometimes accompany her on her visits. She inquires about my children with genuine interest and prays for them. She is, in a term we are no longer supposed to use, a lady.

Yes, there is a criminal element in Traveller culture and sometimes a brutal, criminal element that takes advantage of and terrorises elderly people living alone. As usual, that brutality is even more often visited on the women and children of their own community.

Settled people

But there is a brutal, criminal element among settled people, too. And a different, less obvious form of brutality was inflicted on people in the wake of the banking scandals. How many elderly people ended up dying on trolleys because so much money was siphoned off into servicing debt incurred by criminal capitalism?

The field of candidates in the last election were less than inspiring and despite his victory, <a class="search" href='javascript:window.parent.actionEventData({$contentId:"7.1213540", $action:"view", $target:"work"})' polopoly:contentid="7.1213540" polopoly:searchtag="tag_person">Michael D Higgins</a> did the office no favours by running again

How many children’s prospects were blighted by the austerity budgets, including Traveller children? That kind of brutality never receives the same opprobrium.

The field of candidates in the last election were less than inspiring and despite his victory, Michael D Higgins did the office no favours by running again. Instead, he has the dubious distinction of being the only presidential candidate who has won two elections on the strength of being the least-bad candidate.

For years, we have had a stifling consensus in Irish politics, where people know that the only ideas that are going to receive attention are those that reinforce the prejudices held by elites.

The sad thing is that some people decided to kick against that unhealthy consensus by supporting Peter Casey, a man who had no problem kicking an already despised minority in Irish society. But then again, picking on Travellers has never harmed an Irish politician yet.