The 2018 Presidential election saw the lowest turnout of voters than ever before at 43.87% of the electorate. President Higgins was re-elected, coming at little shock after polling high continuously throughout the campaign. At the same time, almost discreetly, the referendum on blasphemy was voted to be repealed at 64.85% voting yes. No one has ever been prosecuted for blasphemy and so, the vote had low stakes as it was and people likely saw their vote as a symbolic statement, if they did end up voting at all.
Why such a low count, when 64% of the electorate were out to vote mere months ago? What’s more, Irish people have actually seemed more politically motivated since the referendum, rather than less so. The Stand for Truth protest against the Pope’s visit had 5,000 attendees, and Take Back the City had 10,000 out demanding attention on the housing crisis. Despite the fact that the eighth amendment has been repealed, September’s March for Choice saw thousands still marching for reproductive rights. So Irish people haven’t shown apathy towards social issues, or started to believe that political action does not make a difference.
It was surely the bread and circus being presented to them. As the figurehead role of the president is more honorary of a person’s merit and values, rather than a matter of convincing a people that their quality of life in society will improve under one’s representation, the many candidates could do with re-reading the job description, which seemed to be lost on them.
We saw this in 2011; six or seven candidates is simply too many. People disconnect from the pageant; the bellowing their voices above one another, loudly vying to simply be the better option over someone else, becomes too much to stand to listen. To reach this platform the candidates – except for the incumbent president – had to receive nominations from local Councils. Gemma O’Doherty achieving even one nomination calls into question the standards set by County Councils. They do not seem to fully appreciate the weight that the number of candidates adds to the quality of the election, and their method of nomination clearly needs to be revisited with appropriate standards set.
Particularly when focusing on the financial aspect of the race, much was spent allowing five hopefuls the chance to say why they are a better choice than a president that was already polling far above them all combined. They all seemed to vaguely attribute their reason for running to be because it was “time for change”. Each candidate had their own side-scandal of the election – from Liadh Ni Riada claiming to earn a “living wage”, to Sean Gallagher trying to turn seven years as a landlord into valiant heroism for his community. Nonetheless, Irish people could make out who understood the limits of the role, and who was there to satisfy a personal need for attention.
Perhaps, if the election were treated less like an entertainment spectacle, we may have been better off. Why were the candidates permitted to drag one another in RTE studios? Why was unbridled and disproportionate attention given to Peter Casey’s prejudiced comments against Travellers and people on social welfare? The Irish media are stunned at the 18% leap Casey made in the final result, as if they weren’t giving his statements attention above everything else.
Indeed, Michael D. Higgins was elected on a landslide, and yet Peter Casey was the one bombarded by cameras flashing for images making it to the front page of The Sunday Times Ireland. 3.2 million people were registered to vote as of May 2018. Peter Casey achieved 342,736 – just 9% of the electorate.
When vulnerable people are used as a political tool for politicians, it is at their expense. Travellers identities and ethnicity was rung out in the wake of the blunder of Peter Casey. And it was a blunder – there was no method, no deeper thought behind flinging prejudiced and racist statements to see what would stick. The Irish people who saw their beliefs echoed in these words, voted for him because they too, do not respect the ethnicities of Travellers, and see a place to lay blame or hatred. This prejudice does clearly, have a place in Irish politics, until Traveller heritage and culture is fully welcomed in Irish society. But you would be mistaken to believe that Casey’s comments deserve anything more than media scrutiny over, somehow, the benefit of the doubt.
Had the media treated the election responsibility, there may have been more time taken to the discourse surrounding the blasphemy vote, surely in line with familiar sentiments of separating church and state that cropped up during the eighth amendment referendum, and have carried since during the visit of the pope. Given the results, it would seem that Irish people can make their minds up about something without the need for televised debates, damning opinion pieces and abuse as a form of entertainment.