Just days after Peter Casey won 20% of the Irish presidential vote, longtime socialist and anti-racism campaigner John Molyneux analyses the campaign the gave rise to his vote, the role played by the media, and the job that faces the left, in the aftermath of the election.
There is no denying that the meteoric rise of Peter Casey in the last week of the Irish presidential campaign. His final vote of 23.3% came as a shock, and we are right to be shocked because it is very obvious how this vote was achieved.
Peter Casey is now denying the surge in his vote was due to his anti-Traveller rhetoric. This is rubbish, of course. Some Traveller representatives are also trying to play down, if not deny, the element of anti-Traveller racism in Casey’s vote, which is understandable.
An incapable candidate
Nevertheless and sadly, this is not credible. At the beginning of the campaign Casey was in last place and he deserved to be. In personal terms he was clearly the weakest of the candidates in a weak field and the least able of the three millionaire businessmen running. He was incapable of sustaining a coherent argument or making a credible pitch for the job. Then he, or one of his advisors, hit on the idea of attacking Travellers and suddenly he was the main focus of media attention and his vote started to shoot up until he reached polling day heights of 23%. The only other thing he said of any note whatsoever was his similarly reactionary attack on welfare dependency – another classic of right wing demagogy and a view he rolled out only after he gained momentum over the Traveller issue, with the aim of consolidating that momentum. If you were inclined to support a rich, right-wing businessman rather than Michael D Higgins, why would you pick Casey rather than Gallagher who had a higher profile and was a much smoother performer? There is only one logical reason and it6 is that Casey played the racist anti-Traveller card.
Of course this doesn’t mean, and there is no way of proving, that every Casey voter was motivated by hatred for Travellers – individuals vote for all sorts of mixed up reasons – but that anti-Traveller sentiment was the main driving force is undeniable. One had only to listen to Casey’s supporters to know this is true: ‘He’s only saying what everyone is thinking!’, ‘He has the courage to speak the truth’, ‘He’s the one telling it like it is.’ This racist discourse is very familiar, from the days of Enoch Powell onwards. I’ve lost count of the number of times I have heard this line spoken about a person espousing racist viewpoints.
But the fact that Casey’s vote was primarily bolstered by racism points to some very uncomfortable facts about Irish society. I came to Ireland from Britain in 2010 and have always felt that although there was clearly some level of racism in Irish society (‘We should look after for our own first ‘ etc), there was generally less racism in Ireland than I had perceived in the UK. Certainly when it came to organised racism and the political expression of racism, this was clearly the case – here there was no UKIP, no BNP, no EDL, no Tommy Robinson figure, and the language of 90% of establishment politicians in Ireland is much less virulent than that of most British Tories. The Casey vote proves that if there was any complacency about this–and we always told ourselves not to be complacent–there are no grounds for it.
There is something else. If Ireland, most likely in part because of its anti-imperialist history, has been to some degree less racist than Britain (or France, or Austria, or Hungary) towards people of colour, then there is a major exception to this: Travellers. Anti-Travellerism is Ireland’s home grown racism against its own massively oppressed indigenous people.
This racism is clear to anyone with access to social media. When there is case of anti-Black racism, like the passenger on Ryanair recently, there is much condemnation, but when a similar issue arises which involves Travellers, the contestation on social media is immediate. When Margaret Cash was photographed recently, sleeping with her children in a Garda Station, the general response was sympathy and outrage – until it emerged she was a Traveller. Then, the discourse changed to one of blaming and shaming her. The same is true, if more disguised, with the media and with many politicians. One need only compare the response to the students who died in the balcony fall in Berkeley, California to the local tragedy of Carrickmines to see a stark difference. This is what Casey cynically and deliberately tapped into and exploited for his own purposes, just as cynically and deliberately as Enoch Powell tapped into and exploited anti-West Indian racism in Britain 50 years ago.
How Anti-Traveller Racism works
Four years ago I wrote the following in a pamphlet against racism:
In Irish society today, Travellers are a highly marginalized and extremely disadvantaged group. An analysis of the 2006 Census showed that among Irish Travellers aged 25-44, unemployment stood at 74% compared to 6% for other white Irish in the same age group and 50% of Travellers were in the lower manual class category compared to 17% of other white Irish. Moreover 25% of Travellers aged 25-44 had no access to a car compared to only 8% of other white Irish. Levels of educational achievement are also very low with only 15% having completed second level schooling.
Most revealing and most telling of all are the figures for life expectancy which show a much higher rate of mortality with only 9% of Travellers over 50 compared to 28% of other white Irish. (All statistics from Dorothy Watson et al, Multiple Disadvantage in Ireland: An Equality Analysis of Census 2006, ESRI.)
In 2018 this basic situation remains unchanged. One has only to go to a Traveller halting site to see the horrific conditions and dreadful poverty in which Travellers live. To this one could add that Traveller men, and especially Traveller women, are massively overrepresented in Ireland’s prisons.
The question now is, how do we explain these uncontestable facts? One explanation, the anti-racist explanation, which is founded on the assumption that humans are one race and one species, is that anti-Traveller racism is the result of a long history of oppression which continues to this day, and of the institutional racism embedded in the society. The other explanation is that Travellers bring these conditions on themselves by their own behaviour. It says that Travellers, as a community, have an innate tendency towards criminality, violence, feuding, ignorance and laziness.
Before entering into arguments about which of these explanations is correct, we must acknowledge that the same choice is posed in relation to virtually every oppressed group in the world, and underlies all forms of racism. The most obvious example is African-Americans in the US. It is incontestable that they suffer disproportionately from poverty, unemployment and incarceration in the US prison system . Why? Is it 400 years of slavery, segregation and oppression, including a racist justice system, or is it because Blacks bring it on themselves through innate criminality, violence, indolence etc?
And it is the same when it comes to Native Americans. Why is there poverty, crime and alcoholism on the ‘reservations’? Or Australian aborigines, or Aoterean Maoris or South African blacks in the townships? Always there iare the same choice of explanations to be found. And, of course, the same discourse was applied by the British to the Irish in the not so distant past. Indeed it extended to the whole world order. Why was ‘the West’ rich and Asia, Africa, and Latin America poor? Was it history, conquest and empire or was it the inherent superiority of White Europeans and Western civilization?
If you accept the racist explanation, then every crime, every act of violence or antisocial behavior by an individual member of the stigmatized group or community can be seen as confirmation of the justice and reasonableness of the racists. They, like Peter Casey, are just ‘telling it like it is’ and ‘saying what everybody really thinks and what everybody really knows to be true’.
Unfortunately in Ireland there is a tendency among some people to accept the anti-racist explanation for most of the rest of the world, except when it comes to Travellers. It is necessary for us—the left—to specifically address, argue against and defeat anti-Traveller racism.
The Nature of the Presidential Campaign
There is no doubt that the specific nature of this presidential campaign facilitated Casey’s racist intervention. The fact that Michael D was supported by Fine Gael, Fianna Fail and Labour made him the ‘unanimous’ establishment candidate with no credible alternative candidate from the mainstream. This in turn led to the appallingly low level of politics that characterised the TV debates, with an absence of debate on the big issues facing Irish society and the tendency of all the candidates to focus overwhelmingly on Michael D’s expenses, in a desperate attempt to undermine his huge lead. This left the field open for a ‘strike from the right’ presenting itself as a ‘protest’ on behalf of the ‘ordinary voter’.
It just might have been possible for the Sinn Fein candidate to offer a strong challenge to Michael D from the left but in the end Liadh Ni Riada failed miserably, falling at the first hurdle over the poppy question, and never setting out a radical stall, even on Irish unity. Could People Before Profit have mounted a serious alternative campaign? Unfortunately we lacked the resources. However, the depoliticisation of the campaign and its debates helped Casey by making it easy for him to stand out from pack but also by bringing about a very low turnout, especially among young people who would have been less receptive to the racist dog whistling and more attracted to a radical alternative.
The role of the media in the campaign was particularly reprehensible. It was the media, specifically the presenters, who set the agenda and the tone for the debates and then promptly fell over themselves to focus on Casey and amplify his racist comments. Whether through an utterly irresponsible pursuit of ‘controversy’ for its own sake or from even worse motives, they were delighted to seize on the Traveller issue as ‘bringing life to the campaign’ and ensure that Casey became the candidate on everyone’s lips. That they were ‘only saying what everyone was thinking’ and that ‘we need to have a conversation about this’ is doubtless how they justify themselves.
Who and what Casey represents
If Casey’s vote was predominantly a working class protest vote this would indeed be disastrous but this is not the case. It was first and foremost a rural conservative vote, strongest among farmers. The vote for Casey in urban working class areas like Dublin South Central or Dublin West or Bay North was much lower than ‘in the country’. There would seem to have been a strong correlation with Fianna Fail voters and anti-Repeal areas. The highest Casey votes were in areas like Donegal, Roscommon and Galway East.
There is a general point here. The rise of the right, as with Trump, Bolsonaro, Orban and with UKIP and Tommy Robinson, is primarily based on a radicalisation to the right of the formerly conservative middle classes, rather than a shift from left to right by the working class. Of course there is often some cross over from sections of the embittered working class as in the US ‘rust belt’, and the rise of the far right is greatly assisted by the disillusionment of working class people with those they have seen as their representatives—the Democrats in the US and the Social Democrats in much of Europe—and their consequent demobilisation and abstention. The turn off effect of the Presidential campaign for the young, as compared to the inspiring Repeal campaign, had a similar effect here.
However, this is secondary – the main base of Casey and of the racist and fascist right generally is the rightward moving petty bourgeoisie and middle classes.
It is hard to know if Casey may ever amount to much politically but what seems very likely is that other unscrupulous, and more capable, politicians will draw from this experience the conclusion that there are rich seams out there just waiting to be mined.
Consequently the left faces a serious challenge here. We have been warned; we must be vigilant; we must take on anti-Travellerism and dismantle it; we must ensure this nasty episode is not repeated.