Kim Bielenberg: ‘Peter Casey may not be the Irish Donald Trump, but is his success a warning sign of what could happen?’


Kim Bielenberg: ‘Peter Casey may not be the Irish Donald Trump, but is his success a warning sign of what could happen?’

From Trump to Bolsonaro, populist politics are sweeping across Europe and the Americas. With Peter Casey attracting almost one quarter of the presidential vote, by exploiting the fear of Travellers, could we see a sea change here?

A day in the sun: Peter Casey heads into Dublin Castle for the election count last Saturday. Photo: Gerry Mooney
A day in the sun: Peter Casey heads into Dublin Castle for the election count last Saturday. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Goodnight, Angela: Merkel, the standard bearer of tolerance, has begun her long goodbye following increasing pressure from the right in Germany
Hungarian premier Viktor Orbán
Top gun: Italy’s deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini is an admirer of Mussolini and Putin

There is a tide of extreme right-wing populism sweeping across Europe and the Americas, and the waves of intolerance only seem to be getting higher.

Charismatic showmen have emerged, and they have won support by targeting immigrants or other groups in society, and playing on the fears of voters.

Donald Trump doubles down on his politics of “them and us”, promising to forge ahead with his wall to keep out Mexicans. He stokes fears of a wave of Muslim migrants.

He has done his damnedest to break down the Western post-War consensus of international cooperation, based on free trade and pragmatism.

US president Donald TrumpUS president Donald Trump

US president Donald Trump
A day in the sun: Peter Casey heads into Dublin Castle for the election count last Saturday. Photo: Gerry Mooney

Angela Merkel, the most moderate and once unassailable conservative leader in Europe, announces the beginning of her withdrawal as the effective standard bearer of tolerant Western democratic values.

Ultimately, she has had to give way under pressure from the right. Alternative für Deutschland – a party that stirs up hatred of migrants – is thriving in elections. It plays on the fears of Germans that they are losing control, blaming refugees for robberies and sexual assaults.

Similar movements can be seen across Europe including Britain, Italy, Poland, Hungary and Austria.

The so-called “tropical Trump” Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil has won power with a record of denigrating women, gays and minorities – and a promise to scrap rules aimed at curbing climate change.

He has said he said he would “rather his son die in a car accident than be gay”.

We would like to think that Ireland has dodged this particular bullet, but can we be so complacent about the politics of fear?

Top gun: Italy's deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini is an admirer of Mussolini and PutinTop gun: Italy's deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini is an admirer of Mussolini and Putin

Top gun: Italy’s deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini is an admirer of Mussolini and Putin

Are we really so unique, a shining sceptred isle of moderation that will somehow escape?

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The success of Peter Casey in a presidential election after he suddenly attracted attention with his sharp criticism of the Travelling community has inevitably prompted questions about whether we are about to follow a similar pattern to our European neighbours.

Some within the commentariat have breezily dismissed Casey’s sudden surge to 23pc in the poll as a flash in the pan – a capricious choice of voters in a “second order” election that ultimately will not matter.

According to this view, the result is not a harbinger of a populist tide in Ireland; we have seen maverick candidates do well in elections in the past, only to vanish from the scene just as quickly.

Professor David Farrell, head of the School of Politics at UCD, takes a different view, however, and believes we should pay close attention to the result.

“I don’t see Peter Casey as the right-wing populist leader of the future,” Prof Farrell tells Review. “I don’t see him as the likely leader, because he seems to change his view of what he will do next all the time.

“There was a sense that he misspoke, it took him a while to talk about Travellers in the campaign, and he moved on to other issues.”

Surge in polls

Casey may not be the Irish Donald Trump, but Professor Farrell sees his success as a warning sign of what could happen here.

“Ireland has the potential to be affected in the same way as every other country that has been hit by extreme right-wing populism. Why should we be immune from it?

“We have not yet seen an Irish equivalent of a Trump, a Farage or a Bolsonaro, but Casey has given us a flavour of what could come with someone of more capability.”

Peter Casey almost stumbled on a cause that lit up his campaign, and ultimately led to his surge in the polls.

Before he raised the controversy over reports of a group of Travellers turning down houses near Thurles, Co Tipperary, in an interview with this newspaper on October 17, he was hovering at around 2pc in the polls.

But by polling day nine days later, he had surged to 23pc.

It would be hard to sustain the argument that it was not the Traveller issue that gave him the dramatic boost. It certainly was not his criticism of President Higgins over his dog care bills.

If voters were not won over by his anti-Traveller message, it certainly raised his profile, and some may have been attracted by his cheeky chappy persona – and his tendency to avoid polished political messages.

He was much less abrasive than Trump, but there was the same knockabout manner and disregard for the truth.

For example, he claimed President Higgins objected to a Traveller halting site in 1968 without offering any evidence to back it up.

He may have stumbled across his cause, but once he realised that it had resonated, he was keen to exploit it, travelling down to Tipperary for a photocall (without actually meeting the Travellers concerned).

It was one thing to criticise an individual group of Travellers for not moving into houses, because there was no land for horses (according to his account).

But Casey went way beyond that with blanket generalisations about the community, regardless of individual circumstances.

He suggested they were trespassers who did not pay their taxes. He played on fears when he said: “People are afraid of them.”

Most provocative of all was Casey’s suggestion that Travellers “live outside of society”.

This inevitably left him open to charges of bigotry, and whether by accident or design, the message certainly fitted in with the xenophobic line peddled by the extreme right across Europe.

“Every country has a group that can be easily targeted as the ‘out’ group, and these are the ones that are targeted by extreme right-wing populists,” says Professor Farrell.

“It can be immigrants, or it could a group that it is part of the indigenous population such as Travellers.”

While Prof Farrell does not see Casey as the right-wing saviour, he can see another “political entrepreneur” taking on the mantle, having seen how well he did by exploiting deeply-ingrained prejudices and fears.

“We could have a prominent individual who announces their arrival on the scene in a loud way.

“There is likely to be a mix of ingredients. As well as referencing ‘out’ groups, there could also be references to the squeezed middle and people who work hard. That is the kind of language Trump uses.”

The high vote for Casey, which is concentrated among older, less prosperous rural voters confirms the view that there is a disconnect between the main parties and a large section of the electorate on some significant issues.

That is perhaps why there is no room for complacency.

Core voters

None of the main parties at a national level have gone down the road of attacking Travellers (although there have been individual objections by mainstream politicians to halting sites).

But at the same time, many of their core voters chose a candidate who made a direct attack on the community.

Both Sinn Féin and Fianna Fáil have adopted positions that are tolerant of Travellers, and yet almost one quarter of SF supporters and 31pc of FF voters gave their number ones to Casey.

Research by the political scientist Rory Costello of the University of Limerick shows how the views of many voters are not matched by those of the mainstream parties – and do not fit neatly on a left-right spectrum.

Dr Costello set up a website – www.­ – at the last general election to help voters identify the candidates closest to them on a range of policy issues. By using questions answered by the parties and candidates, and with 23,000 responses to the survey, he matched voters with parties.

When asked questions on whether the Government should prioritise tax cuts over spending, or increase the minimum wage, most Irish voters are seen as left leaning. But the research indicates that many of these voters are much more conservative on issues such as immigration, the environment and how crime should be punished.

According to Dr Costello, nearly all the parties are more liberal than their own supporters when it comes to these issues.

Sinn Féin, for example, has liberal policies on immigration and the environment, but the research indicates that many of its voters are located towards the authoritarian end of the spectrum.

That perhaps partly explains why so many SF supporters did not even vote for their own candidate, and one quarter of them chose Casey after he had taken a high-profile stance against Travellers.

Adding complexity to the feeling of political exclusion is the religious-secular divide, where a large minority of voters are out of step with all the main parties.

Almost forgotten in the Casey maelstrom is the fact that in the referendum, 35pc of the electorate voted to hold on to the article banning blasphemy in the constitution. How many of these voters feel that they have a political home – and would they be attracted to a party promoting more traditional values?

Professor Farrell says none of the parties are in the space that could be described as non-liberal/authoritarian, and this leaves an opening for a new political force in the future.

Renua stands out as a party that is more conservative, but its origins are as a pro-life offshoot of Fine Gael, formerly led by the Europhile Lucinda Creighton, who never fitted the bill as a right-wing firebrand.

If a new political force emerges, led by Casey or another leader, it would find it hard to break down the traditional party system, according to NUI Maynooth politics researcher Claire McGing.

“In the presidential election, it was possible for a candidate like Casey to make an impact, because it is a high-level personality-driven national campaign that does not require a geographical base,” says McGing

While Casey enjoyed a meteoric rise in the presidential campaign, where broadcasters were required to give him equal coverage to the others, would he have the patience for the life as a TD, let alone to lead a party when it may take decades to get into government?

“The reality on the ground is that there is nothing glamorous about it. It is hardcore, grassroots work,” says McGing.

Apart from his attack on Travellers, Casey made a populist pitch against those on social welfare, warning that we were “a nation of people who expect – no, demand – that the State looks after them”.

Populist politicians

McGing says in the nitty gritty of Dáil politics, Casey would have to help people on social welfare if he wants to be elected.

“An important part of a TD’s role is advising constituents about their entitlements. How would a Deputy Peter Casey deal with them – turn them down on principle in rural Donegal?”

While it may be difficult to build a significant base in the Dáil, populist politicians like Casey might enjoy more success in a European election, following the example of Nigel Farage and UKIP.

“To some extent in a European election, personality is as important as a geographical base,” says McGing.

There are genuine fears across the continent that the European elections will become a focus for far-right activism. Voters may choose extremist parties as a protest vote, wrongly thinking that the EU Parliament does not have considerable powers.

Trump’s former adviser Stephen Bannon has been active in a pan-European outfit known as the Movement offering nationalist and populist political parties across Europe American know-how in polling, messaging and “war-room” strategy.

So far, he is said to have mixed results, but has won the support of Viktor Orbán, the Hungarian prime minister, labelled the EU’s answer to Vladimir Putin. Orbán refers to all refugees as “Muslim invaders” and migrants as “poison” that his country does not need.

Bannon has also enlisted Italy’s interior minister and deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini, an admirer of Mussolini and Putin.

Asked if she was concerned about the rise of the far right, the Vice President of the European Parliament, Fine Gael’s Mairead McGuinness, says: “I don’t do needless worry, because it is pointless, but what I do see happening is that we may see more splintering of political support between the extremes of left and right.

“It will be interesting to see if the support for the extreme right increases, decreases or stays the same in the European elections.”

Populist politicians may be popular now, having stoked up fears in opposition, but when they have to grapple with problems, and run out of scapegoats, the tide can go out as quickly as it came in.

The chaos of the White House under Trump and Britain during the Brexit era may serve as warning signs – and next week’s midterm elections in the US will offer a guide to whether this type of politics can continue to thrive.

Meanwhile, closer to home Traveller activists will be on their guard for what happens next.

As one of them, Eileen Ní Fhloinn, put it this week: “Casey probably now feels he has got somewhere through using us and all the Traveller community in his campaign. So we know he will keep going, and there will be probably a lot more Caseys coming out when they see this works.”

Indo Review

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