Liberal Ireland re-elects Higgins and drops blasphemy - but a disaffected minority made themselves heard

Analysis: That a fifth of voters supported Peter Casey should be cause for concern, but the results show the Irish people are largely moving in the same progressive direction

Ben Kelly
Sunday 28 October 2018 18:55
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Michael D Higgins secures re-election as Ireland's president

Ireland has voted this weekend to re-elect Michael D Higgins as president and to remove blasphemy as an offence from the country’s constitution.

Both victories were entirely predictable, in a country where a strong socially liberal vision is increasingly embraced by voters.

Mr Higgins, a left-wing socialist who doubles up as a poet, took 56 per cent of first preference votes - a huge rise from the 39 per cent he took in 2011, but shy of the 71 per cent that recent opinion polls had predicted.

As he celebrated victory at Dublin Castle he gave a rousing speech, worthy of the office in which he had just reasserted himself.

“The people have made a choice as to which version of Ireland they want reflected at home and abroad," he said. "It is the making of hope they wish to share rather than the experience of any exploitation of division or fear.”

He appeared to be referencing the minority of voters who opposed the consensus by projecting Peter Casey into second place. A Derry born, US-based businessman, Casey came from one per cent in the polls just last week to take 23 per cent of the vote.

His campaign was unexpectedly buoyed after he attacked Ireland’s most maligned minority, the travelling community. He took issue with their recognition as a separate ethnic group, claiming they were “basically people camping on other people’s land.”

This appeared to perk up the ears of alt-right keyboard warriors on 4chan and older men in rural Ireland who praised him for "telling it like it is".

We’ve seen this all before of course, but not in Ireland. Many believe he should be ignored, but after a fifth of voters gave him their support, it would be irresponsible not to take a closer look, however briefly.

Often rambling and incoherent, Mr Casey barely cuts it as a spokesperson, let alone a political leader. Yet we have seen before how such a willing mouthpiece can easily become the default hero of the disaffected, who project their array of fringe viewpoints upon him, whether or not he has expressed them personally.

The task for the political establishment is not to pay attention to Mr Casey, but to those who voted for him; to ensure that genuine grievances are being heard, and that more unsavoury views are not given space to grow.

Of the losers in this campaign, Sinn Fein will have much to think about. The election might not have happened had they not made the decision to field their candidate, MEP Liadh Ni Riada.

She was a fresh, affable figure, but considering the party has a base support level of around 15 per cent, her 6 per cent result marks a dip in the party’s rising prospects south of the Irish border.

In an ideal scenario for them, a two horse race would have seen a Sinn Fein candidate representing the alternative to the ‘cosy consensus’ of Fine Gael, Fianna Fail and Labour, who all backed the re-election of Higgins.

But as the field opened up, with six candidates making the ballot paper, that protest vote split open, before appearing to have gathered behind Casey. Analysis suggests he and Higgins both won over traditional Sinn Fein voters.

In one way, the party may be victims of their own success. Once proud outsiders who mopped up a fair few protest votes themselves, as Sinn Fein get closer to real power in Dublin’s Leinster House, they are becoming more a part of the establishment against which they have traditionally railed.

As the deadline approached, it was announced that 65 per cent of voters said Yes to removing the offence of blasphemy from the constitution. This referendum result is in keeping with the numbers of voters who backed same sex marriage in 2015 (62 per cent) and abortion reform earlier in May (66 per cent).

It is clear that on social issues, two-thirds of Irish society are consistently voting for progressive, liberal change - which highlights the growing separation of church and state - while a third of voters support the status quo.

One interesting aspect to the voting patterns is that this division is equally spread throughout the country, with no obvious urban-rural divide between the two groups of voters. On same sex marriage and abortion, only one constituency had a majority No vote, and in yesterday’s poll, all constituencies voted Yes.

Opinion polls for general elections continue to show a fragmented politics, with no party enjoying more than 35 per cent of the vote, but it is clear that on the big issues, by and large, the country is moving in the same direction.

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