Last night, I was worried. Yesterday we had another public vote here in Ireland, and with reports of low turnout, the result seemed to be more in doubt than it had been just a few days before. Things haven’t gone as badly as I feared, but there’s still worth to seeing how it came to this.
There’ve been quite a few public votes in recent years, between referenda and actual elections, and they’ve attracted attention beyond our own borders, for good reason. This time, we had both an election and a referendum—the former to choose a president for the next seven years and the latter to decide whether to remove a requirement to legislate for blasphemy from the Irish Constitution. At the moment, final results are being tabulated, but it seems that worries I had late last night about the outcome won’t bear fruit.
The less interesting vote was the referendum on removing the reference to blasphemy from the constitution. The reference was widely seen as an anachronism, but unlike earlier referenda on gay marriage and abortion, this one didn’t inspire much in the way of vitriol on either side, apart from some of the usual figures opposing the change. Right now it looks like the 37th Amendment to the constitution will be passed with support from all age groups. Instead, all the controversy in the final days of campaigning revolved around the presidential election.
At stake in the presidential election was whether or not current President Michael D. Higgins would be returned for a second seven-year term. Higgins had campaigned in his first election on serving only a single term, but he’s proven a popular and even well-loved incumbent, and despite his age he’s in tune with the progressive mood that’s seen Ireland tackle some of the darker elements of its past and return those referendum victories in recent years. As such, it was possible that he would stand unopposed, as has happened with the Irish presidency several times in the past.
That this didn’t happen was mostly down to Sinn Fein. By promising to put their own candidate in the race (something no other political party did), they ensured that there would be a race. In this, they were continuing Sinn Fein’s efforts to whitewash the party’s public image, to the point where it might be seen as a valid party of government in the future. That this gambit seems to have been less successful than they hoped was partly down to their own candidate, Liadh Ní Riada, who struck a condescendingly aristocratic figure in the debates, and partly down to the candidates who followed in their wake.
With the major parties unwilling to challenge a popular incumbent, there were no popular or experienced candidates in the field. Instead, Higgins’s challengers came from the political fringes or from reality TV, specifically the show Dragons’ Den. Rounding out the field in addition to Higgins and Ní Riada were Senator Joan Freeman and businessmen Gavin Duffy, Sean Gallagher, and Peter Casey. For most of the campaign, the challengers lagged far behind Higgins in the poll. Then the election took its reality-show businessmen trend a bit further down the Trump line.
Peter Casey, largely undistinguishable from his Dragons’ Den cohorts, decided to bolster his campaign with some anti-Traveller bigotry. The Travelling community in Ireland, both north and south, has long been an easy target for this kind of political grandstanding, and Casey threw in some welfare-dependency jibes for good measure. There’s always an audience for such rhetoric among those willing to blame the less fortunate for their troubles, and Casey enjoyed a predictable boost in his polling numbers amid the controversy, as he at first seemed to consider withdrawing, then doubled down on his rhetoric.
While I’ve been writing this, the final results have come through. Higgins has indeed won a second term with 55.8 percent of first preference votes, with Casey taking 23 percent and no other candidate reaching 7 percent. Plenty of people (again, the usual candidates) have been rushing to put Casey in a Trump-like position, arguing that he only said truths that the “establishment” would prefer to suppress and that the media conspired against him. Which is a little rich given that Casey’s surge relied purely on his willingness to play the media game, ginning up controversy to get support from the permanently dyspeptic.
That 23 percent figure, you see, is something that’s been visible in politics and culture for a long time. I first noticed it during the presidency of George W. Bush. No matter how incompetent or hateful a regime, if they pay at least lip service to the grievances and bigotries of their supporters they’ll rarely dip below 20 percent approval ratings. Stirring up hate and resentment works as a strategy.
Which is why I was worried last night when I heard that turnout for the election was low. After all, getting voters inspired to vote is how Ireland has seen referendum-driven change in the past few years. With Higgins seen as a certainty and few people inspired by the blasphemy referendum, only Casey voters were genuinely driven—even if only by their own personal hatreds and the promise of a candidate who seemed to reflect them.
That inspiration served to take Casey only to 23 percent, but he may well spend the next few years trying to spin it into a political role. Certainly others will be pushing him to do so now. For the rest of us, who heard his rhetoric and looked to recent events in the UK and the US with a shiver, it serves as a warning. There’s been a lot of positivity in recent years, as the Irish, especially the young, have been reminded that elections actually do matter. However, taking success for granted is only a positive form of apathy to replace the more cynical apathy that existed beforehand.
Ireland isn’t immune from the ravages of Trumpian or Brexit-like campaigns. We have advantages of size and culture (the lack of any pretensions of power) that make such campaigns harder to get started, but as Casey’s antics show, there’s always an audience for them. The only answer is engagement, staying active, and speaking out. Let’s hope this proves to be a blip rather than the beginning of a trend.