Presidential elections & Casey result- The socialist alternative to right wing populism

By Oisin Kelly

The news that Peter Casey rose from 1% in opinion polls to receive 23% in the presidential election has shocked many. Casey used despicable anti-Traveller racism to boost his profile. The racist prejudices that exist in Irish society and that he tapped into and stirred up have been fostered and nurtured by the Irish capitalist establishment over decades. He also tapped into support amongst those that are alienated from this same establishment and its political representatives.

Anti-Traveller racism is a common method used by Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil politicians and right-wing independents to whip up division and gain some support, typically at a local election. Casey’s vote marks the first time this tactic was used so openly in a national election.

Casey’s politics

Peter Casey was failing in the opinion polls and was coming last up to a week out from polling day. He attempted, on a number of occasions, to explode open the debate with right-wing populism. However, his remarks against feminism failed to gain traction and were even met with derision. He then switched to vile anti-Traveller racism.

When Casey was asked about housing in an interview, he made a particular attack on a Traveller family in Tipperary who are still awaiting the delivery of commitments the local authority made about their housing. He even went to visit the site of the new housing, and was followed by a media posse.

Despite being a millionaire who has rarely paid tax in Ireland, Casey repeated racist myths about Travellers not paying tax. Casey, like Donald Trump, refused to outline his income or the level of taxation he has paid.

Casey not only attacked the Traveller family in Tipperary but also went on to say that Travellers are not an ethnic minority and that they should not be recognised as such. In the last week, in debates and in initial interviews after the results, Casey has gone further, remarking far more explicitly that Travellers are not an ethnic minority, while other groups in Ireland are.

The extreme “centre”.

There is nothing new about what Casey represents. The so-called ‘centre’ of Irish politics has used similar methods. Casey made remarks against people receiving welfare payments. He has taken some inspiration from Leo Varadkar who used a campaign against ‘welfare cheats’ to boost his own campaign to become Fine Gael leader and Taoiseach last year. Casey even borrowed Varadkar’s line about wanting to represent ‘people who get up early in the morning’. He has tried to go beyond just attacking Travellers by extending his attacks to include lone parents, the disabled, the unemployed and those on housing waiting lists.

Recently Leo Varadkar stated in the Dáil that he represents those who ‘pay for everything, and are eligible for nothing’, while hinting that Solidarity TDs represent those that pay for nothing. Councillors and council candidates from Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil regularly use anti-Traveller bigotry to boost themselves. In the run up to the 2014 local elections, Josepha Madigan called the building of a Traveller halting site in her ward ‘a waste of valuable resources’ and openly advocated that Travellers be housed outside of areas with high house prices. She is now a senior Minister and close ally of the Taoiseach.


Travellers are a marginalised and discriminated against group in Irish society. They face daily discrimination and victimisation that is endemic, widespread and shameful. Unemployment for Travellers is in the region of 87%. One-third do not have access to sanitation, 55% leave school by 15 and 1% have third level education. Suicide rates for Traveller men are seven times higher than the rate for the Irish population as a whole. A 2007 survey showed that half of Travellers are dead by the age of 39; the infant mortality rate is four times higher than rest of the Irish population; the mortality rate for under 25s is 32% while the figure for Ireland as a whole is 2.6%; 80% of Travellers die before reaching 65.

The Labour Party and Fine Gael who backed Higgins as a candidate, cut the Traveller specific accommodation budget from a low €35m, down to €4.3m. Many councils refuse to spend a penny of the Traveller accommodation budgets allocated to them. It is no surprise that the councils nominating the ‘Dragons’ also have poor records on Traveller housing. Labour and Fine Gael in government also slashed the Traveller education budget by 86%.

Understandably many Travellers will feel dismayed by the outcome of this election.  All attempts to use it to further stir up anti-Traveller sentiment or racist division generally must be actively resisted. This should involve mass protests that unite all working and young people and take a clear opposition to racism being fuelled by politicians like Casey and from the racism of the Irish state.

The presidential election

The establishment wanted to have a coronation of the incumbent, Michael D. Higgins, and he received the support of Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil, Labour, the Green Party, the Social Democrats and even the Workers’ Party. Higgins is an establishment figure who served in Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael-led governments in the 1990s, which oversaw economic inequality, tax amnesties for the super wealthy, and sowed the seeds for the housing crisis we have today.

The presidential election nomination process is designed to restrict the ability of left wing and small party candidates from being nominated. The coalescence of the establishment parties around Michael D. Higgins, opened up a gap where three millionaire businessmen secured nominations from local councils, usually from Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil councillors. There was no left-wing candidate in the election.

Sinn Féin is working to make itself more acceptable to the ruling class in the south and to Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil as future coalition partners. This is seen on a daily basis in the Dáil, and Sinn Féin pitched Liadh Ní Riada as a candidate who would not take any clear left positions. In the course of the election, details of Sinn Féin’s pay arrangements emerged which shows that Sinn Féin do not operate an average industrial wage policy for public representatives. Ní Riada claimed that her net wage of €47,000 was an average wage.

The election was bland and working-class people were not engaged in the debates or the campaigns. This election had the lowest turnout for a presidential election in history. This is in sharp contrast to the Repeal referendum last May, which saw the mobilisations of thousands of activists into canvassing and political activity to achieve a Yes vote.

Political vacuum

Internationally we have seen right-wing populism emerging, from Trump in the United States, to Bolsonaro in Brazil. Around Europe anti-immigrant and anti-refugee parties and candidates have gained support. This is due to the policies of the ruling class which sow racism and division, and to the growing alienation from the traditional establishment parties. This is particularly the case with those parties such as Labour in Ireland, who in the past claimed to represent the interests of working-class people but have now embraced the ruthless logic of neo-liberal capitalism.

In 2011, many working-class people desperate for an alternative to austerity and the rigged economy voted for Labour and its promise that it would be “Labour’s way not Frankfurt’s [referring to the European Central Bank who represent the interests of bankers] way”. After taking office in 2011, in a coalition government with Fine Gael, they dutifully implemented a vicious programme of cuts, while banks were bailed out to the tune of €64 billion. This was accompanied by the failure of the leadership of the trade union movement to take a stand against this austerity over the course of the crisis.

This experience undoubtedly knocked and confused many working-class people. In this context people were encouraged to criticise the failings of individual politicians rather than the economic system. Public sectors workers were rounded upon for bringing about the crisis as opposed to bankers and big business. The vote for Casey is illustrative of how a historic sell-out of so-called “centre-left” parties such as Labour and the leadership of the official workers’ movement, has created an enormous vacuum that has allowed demagogic forces of the racist right to emerge.

Right-wing populism

At this stage, no party in Ireland has emerged to tap into a right-populist trend. It is still open whether any such party would have electoral success in a general election or local election, although those seeking to emulate the successes of the likes of Trump internationally here in Ireland will be emboldened by this result. Casey has made apparently confused and contradictory statements about continuing an electoral project. At the time of writing he has even suggested that he might run for Fianna Fáil.

Casey picked up a vote of 23% nationally, with him performing stronger in particularly marginalised rural communities such as Longford, West County Limerick and Donegal. These are communities where there are little prospects for young people, with most leaving for work and study. Employment and infrastructure such as transport and broadband are neglected by the State.

Right-wing and racist populism is fundamentally hollow in its nature and offers no answers to the problems confronting working-class people. Behind its rhetoric it refuses to oppose the economic status quo and cynically seeks to create division by scapegoating the most vulnerable sections of society for the problems created capitalism.

Of course, there is nothing inevitable about such forces garnering significant support. The water charges movement showed the willingness of working-class people to engage in mass struggle against the impact of eight years of austerity. This could have created the basis for a new left movement to emerge had the lead been given by the unions involved in the Right2Water initiative at the height of this struggle in December 2014, a call that was made by the Socialist Party at the time.  Unfortunately, this opportunity was not taken.

Ultimately this system is not capable of meeting our needs, as the housing crisis acutely demonstrates, which is fuelling an underlying discontent in society. Workers, women and young people must organise in a new party that is based around socialist policies that challenge this capitalist system that puts profit before all else. The growth in support for left figures such as Corbyn in Britain and Sanders in the US shows the outlines of how such a left can challenge racist, right-wing figures and groupings.

Fighting racism and capitalism

In recent months, we have seen the emergence of the potential for a new housing movement as shown by the occupations and demonstrations organised by Take Back the City and the Raise the Roof campaign. A new housing movement should fight for a public home building programme to build tens of thousands of new homes, including Traveller specific housing as well student accommodation. Trade unions can play a critical role by using their weight in society to build such a movement. They also must use their power to actively combat any attempts to stir up racist division and attacks on vulnerable minorities.

The best way to fight racism is by building anti-racist campaigns in communities and in workplaces which oppose division and fight for investment decent homes and properly funded public services for all. Such a movements must be based on working-class people, young people and the oppressed, the very forces that delivered marriage equality and abortion rights, as well the abolition of the water charges. These were battles that showed that there is desire for progressive change in Ireland and opposition to the economic and social inequalities that exist in Ireland.

Malcom X remarked that “you can’t have capitalism without racism”. This is very true. Capitalism creates massive inequalities and sows the seeds of division between sections of society. Casey wanted to divide settled people from Travellers; those seeking to buy a home from those on council waiting lists; those who are working from those who are seeking work.

Travellers and settled people, and all sections of the working class and oppressed, have a common interest in challenging a capitalist system that has inequality and discrimination built into its DNA. Together we must build a powerful anti-capitalist and socialist left that rejects the racist populism of Casey and his ilk, as well the establishment parties that faithfully support this rotten system.

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