So off with the old, on with the old. We’ve had Michael D Higgins as President of Ireland, we will have Michael D Higgins as President of Ireland. Plus ca change, etc.
You could talk all morning about the result of yesterday’s election – that’s exactly what they’re doing on RTÉ Radio One at this moment – but there are a few points worth extracting from results.
- Easily the most important point: about one-fifth of eligible voters voted in the presidential election. So since four-fifths of people didn’t bother voting, any generalisations from those who did must be considered cautiously. It also makes a mockery of democracy being the will of the people. The will of the people in this election was to stay at home, or in the pub, or walking the dog. We should worry about that.
- The big story was not Michael D Higgins’s success, but Peter Casey’s dramatic rise in the polls from around 2% to over 20% in a matter of days Why? Because unlike the other candidates, he looked as though he was enjoying himself on TV. Because he had the cojones to open his TV debate contribution by calling Michael D a liar and going on to tell him he “couldn’t lie straight in bed!”, repeating it in case the public hadn’t heard it. He also dismissed as daft any suggestion that Travellers aren’t Irish people, which rang an approval bell for a lot of people, and suggested Travellers have too much offered them in way of accommodation, which rang a tuneless bell to which Traveller-haters responded. In short, he was lively, at times self-deprecating, but had that cheeky quality which made him stand out. Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage and Sammy Wilson have the same qualities.
- Sinn Féin had a bad election. Liadh Ní Riada should have been a popular figure: she has a background as an MEP, is relatively young, is female, is reasonably articulate and the child of a father Sean Ó Riada, whose music has touched everyone in Ireland. But she came across as pleasant rather than strong, and without any memorable lines. She was the only candidate in the election who gave a damn about a re-united Ireland: I can’t believe only 8% of the southern population agree with her, or even 8% of those who voted.
- The TV debates were a bit of a bore. They didn’t start until relatively late in the evening, and when they came on, nobody said anything particularly insightful – apart from five of the six saying that taking a Lear jet from Dublin to Belfast at the public’s expense wasn’t a good idea. That point should have been hammered far more firmly and Michael D pressed by David McCullagh to give a reasonable answer. But of course he wasn’t.
- Talk about a swing to the right, as exemplified by Peter Casey, is codswallop. Irish people, in some matters, don’t need a swing to the right: they’re there already. There are huge numbers of people, particularly rural, who don’t like or trust Travellers. They believe, in the face of all evidence, that Travellers have plenty of money (“Look at their cars! Big swish caravans!”) and are potentially violent, so the best thing to do is give them less money and make them work like the rest of us. In other words, Casey just tapped into what has always been the popular take on Travellers, and got loads of air-time as a result. Ruthless, right-wing, despicable – but it worked.
Final thought: In future presidential elections, we should pin candidates down. What one big thing will you do in your first year? Your second? Your third? Etc. As things stand, Michael D burbled about giving lectures at universities and having a vision of Ireland, Casey talked about Travellers refusing good homes, Joan Freeman talked about Wellness, whatever that is – and on it went. An Irish President may be limited in his/her powers, but s/he must have something to contribute to the life of the nation. It’d be nice if they told us before taking possession of a vast mansion, a vast salary and a vast pension.
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