Discrimination will not win an election

Orla Dwyer

2018 Presidential candidate Peter Casey

The surge in votes for Peter Casey in the presidential election after his discriminatory comments against travellers highlights that Ireland has a long way to go in terms of acceptance. Casey’s comments have reinforced the prejudice a lot of settled people in Ireland have towards the ethnic group.

Although the general reaction to Casey’s traveller comments was outrage, this is usually not the case when it comes to casual discrimination against travellers. Even in the most liberal circles, derogatory language towards travellers is used far too often and is entirely normalised.

Casey first made the comments about travellers in the Independent.ie political podcast, The Floating Voter, on October 17.

“I don’t believe that travellers should be given special status. Why should they be given status over and above yourself or myself?” Casey said in the episode.

“They’re basically people that are camping on somebody else’s land. Imagine the poor farmer whose land that they camped on. Who will buy the land from him?” he added.

It appears that some of this “poor farmer” population agrees. A Sunday Business Post Red C poll undertaken in the days before Casey’s traveller comments claimed that Casey was on 2 per cent of votes, the lowest of all candidates at the time. In the end, Casey received 23.3 per cent of the country’s vote coming in second behind Michael D Higgins’ 55.8 per cent victory. This is a massive increase over the space of a week.

The presidential candidate had called the minority ethnicity status of travellers “a load of nonsense” and later said on RTÉ News that he was unaware of its existence. Formal recognition for travellers as a distinct ethnic group in Ireland was made official in March 2017.

Whether it was these statements about travellers or other comments made by Casey, it is clear that many voters felt he was a breath of fresh air in a stale race. However, a wealthy man making cheap shots at a minority group and reigniting hatred from the past does nothing for the people of Ireland.

In rural areas and towns with high traveller populations, the vote for Casey was stronger. In Galway East, for example, he received 33 per cent of votes, among the highest in the country. Is it a coincidence that Galway has the highest traveller population in Ireland according to the 2016 census? Included in this constituency is Tuam, the town with the highest number of travellers in Ireland.

His comments and surge in popularity are part of a greater issue surrounding traveller discrimination. A report from the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission on discrimination in Ireland showed that travellers are almost twice as likely than white Irish people to experience prejudice in seeking work.

Of the 10,000 travellers eligible to work in 2016, 80 per cent were unemployed according to CSO statistics. How much of this rate is due to discrimination in employment? Comments from people like Peter Casey do nothing to reduce these negative attitudes many people have towards travellers.

“It is a historic day for our Travellers and a proud day for Ireland,” Enda Kenny said after traveller ethnic status was confirmed last year. The same thing could not be said after Casey received such a significant increase in votes after his discriminatory words.

Orla Dwyer

Image Credit: Róise McGagh