The dullest presidential election in living memory here suddenly sparked into life last week thanks to one candidate, Peter Casey.

The Derry-born, Irish American businessman Peter Casey set the country alight with his tell-it-like-it-is comments about travelers.

What he had to say horrified the establishment, of course, but won approval from the majority of ordinary people based on the reaction on social media.   

We'll come back to the traveler furor in a moment, but first a word about the race for the presidency.  Voting is on Friday of this week, and the incumbent Michael D. Higgins is so far ahead in the polls there is no chance of unseating him.  That, coupled with the fact that the presidency here is a ceremonial role with virtually no power, has made the race even more mind-numbing than usual.   

The caliber of the other candidates has not helped either, an uninspiring bunch of dreamers with mixed track records and certainly nothing that warrants such a sense of entitlement.  Three of them being from the Dragon's Den TV show (our version of Shark Tank) has made it even more ridiculous.   And this has been added to by the platitudes and pieties they have been spouting during the campaign, much of it delusional given the very limited role of the office.

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So, up to last week, the presidential race was lumbering sleepily on, with the candidates out shaking hands and taking part in a few radio and TV debates that were often nonsensical to the point of being embarrassing.  Higgins claimed to be too busy to appear in most of them, which is both hilarious and undemocratic.  Despite his age, 77, and promising the last time to serve only one seven-year term, he is a shoo-in for a second one so he could not be bothered to turn up.     

President Michael D Higgins.

President Michael D Higgins.

The result of all this was that up to last week, apart from the TV debates, most people here were ignoring the presidential race altogether.  Those who were paying attention were almost comatose with the boredom of it all.  

And then Casey made his traveler comments and the whole thing exploded into headline news.     

His initial comments (in an interview on the Irish Independent website) were sparked by a stand-off that is currently happening near the town of Thurles in Tipperary where the council has built six houses for an extended traveler family, but they are refusing to move in unless they are also given access to half an acre of grazing land behind each house for their horses.   

#petercasey doubling down on his racist views

I am a proud irish woman

I am also a Traveller

I don't want to be treated better than other people all I want is equality
Is that too much to ask?
According to Peter Casey it is!!#rtept

— Kathleen Lawrence (@katiesunshine26) October 23, 2018

As Casey pointed out, these are not the usual small council houses.  They are luxurious, four bedroom houses with solar panels and beautiful kitchens which cost the council €1.7 million to build, not counting the cost of the site.  

And this ridiculous stand-off is going on, Casey said, while there is a housing crisis in Dublin and people are ending up on the streets.  He could also have pointed out that there are around 900 people on the council housing waiting list in Tipperary, many of them for years.

Casey said he was bewildered by the stand-off which he claimed showed there was something "seriously wrong" with Irish society when this "ridiculous" situation was allowed to happen. 

Casey, who says Travellers don’t pay tax, does in fact not pay tax in Ireland.

— Aengus Ó Milseáin 🍭🍬 (@AengusOMaolain) October 23, 2018

When the interviewer interjected that such comments would concern a lot of people, Casey doubled down and said he did not see why travelers should be given special status and treated differently to other Irish people.  He referred to travelers as people who "basically camp on someone else's land." 

What about the poor farmer whose land they camp on, he asked.  Or the neighbors who live in houses down the road and see their property values go down?  "It's just wrong,” Casey said. 

He went on to say that by and large travelers don't pay taxes and live outside of society.  Nor was he impressed when it was pointed out that last year the Dail gave formal recognition to travelers as a distinct ethnic group within the state.

"That's a load of nonsense. They are not from Romany or whatever.  They are as Irish as you or me," he insisted.  

Presidential hopeful Peter Casey.

Presidential hopeful Peter Casey.

The reaction to all this was predictable.   The entire establishment, including the media, politicians, the other candidates, traveler support groups, human rights and equality organizations, all said they were horrified by what they called Casey's "disgusting" and "racist" views.  He was accused of using Trump-style tactics and dragging politics down to a new low.  

The situation in Tipperary was barely mentioned in this tide of outrage.  When it was, the explanation given by a traveler woman who is a spokesperson for the Tipperary Rural Traveller Group was repeated -- it is now accepted by the state that facilities provided to travelers need to be "culturally appropriate," she said.  

So if horses are part of their culture -- and the extended traveler family involved in this stand-off have always kept horses -- facilities should be provided for them.   

Instead of backing down, Casey raised the stakes a couple of days later by going down to Tipperary to see the houses for himself, surrounded by a melee of TV cameras and hostile reporters.  This made national news and again Casey repeated his views on camera and added that he was deeply upset to be called a racist.  

In fact he was so upset he then put his campaign on hold for a couple of days before announcing on Sunday that after a flood of public support he was continuing. This was dismissed as a tactic by his critics and it may well have been.  But it was also true that he had been visibly distressed in some interviews at being called a racist.   

At this stage with the vote about to happen Higgins will romp home given the size of his lead in the polls, despite all the furor that Casey has generated.   But it will be very interesting to see how far Casey comes up in the vote from his initial low standing at just two percent. 

He could well make it into double figures. He said last week he is tired of the political correctness that shuts down discussion of topics that need to be aired, and many people here agree with him. 

He denied repeatedly last week that he is a racist, yet the accusation was made again and again.  It's an easy slur and one we hear all the time these days, but is it valid in his case?  

Probably not, because there is no reason not to believe him.  "There's not a racist bone in my body," he said.  "I believe they (the travelers) are equal to everyone else.  I don't believe they are better or worse than anybody."   

The mistake Casey made was not that he drew attention to the Tipperary stand-off, but that he extrapolated its implications in subsequent comments to apply to all travelers, as he did in what he had to say about travelers not paying taxes and living apart from the rest of society.  Generalizing in this way is racist, in the same way that it's racist to say that if you're Irish you like to drink.       

The problem is that the behavior and lifestyle of a significant number of travelers -- not all travelers -- supports the kind of remarks that Casey was making.  Petty crime carried out by some travelers, like theft, tarmac and roofing cons, illegal dumping and so on, continues to cause trouble for the rest of the population.  

The involvement of some travelers in serious crime, like the vicious attacks on old folk in isolated rural areas by traveler gangs, has shocked the country.   

The argument is frequently made that the crime rate among travelers is no worse than among the rest of the population.  But the figures don't bear this out.

There are between 30,000 and 40,000 travelers in Ireland, which is well below one percent of the population.  Yet around 10 percent of the prison population is travelers.

Defenders of the travelers say they are a marginalized community who live in deprivation and have suffered decades of discrimination which forces some of them into petty crime.  They point out that suicide among travelers is six times the rate in the rest of the population and that unemployment among travelers is 80 percent (although it's likely that many are working in their own black economy while getting welfare payments).   

The question often raised among the settled community is how much of the difficulty faced by travelers is self-inflicted, a result of their chosen lifestyle.  This lifestyle keeps them separate from the rest of the population, sees kids taken out of school early, teenage marriages often between cousins, drug and alcohol abuse, high levels of domestic violence and so on.  At its most extreme, it includes bare-knuckle fights and bloody clan warfare with machetes.     

Of course, there are a great many settled travelers who have integrated into the rest of the community and have nothing to do with any of this.  But there are still many travelers who insist on living in large extended family groups on illegal campsites. Even if social housing is available to them individually, they don't want it because they want to live together.    

Underlying all of this is the question of race and ethnic identity which, although often conflated, are not the same thing.  A number of genetic studies, including a recent one by the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, have all shown that travelers here are Irish and are not a separate race possibly related to the Roma in Europe, a common misconception.   

Recognition as a separate ethnic group within a race or state can be based on factors like tradition, culture, language and so on as well as racial characteristics.  Early last year the Irish parliament recognized Irish travelers as a distinct ethnic group within the state, which Casey last week dismissed as "nonsense,” adding to the outrage over his other comments.  

But there was also some concern about it a year ago, expressed by people like the present Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan who said then that he did not agree with it and that travelers were Irish and should be treated like everyone else.   One problem with it is that it provides a justification for travelers remaining separate from the rest of society, with all that entails.

The placards carried by travelers in a demo at the houses in Tipperary after Casey's visit last week carried an interesting message: Why Fit In When You Were Born to Stand Out?   

The attitude that implies sums up the entire problem. 

Who would you vote for on Friday? Let us know in the comments below.

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RTE Presidential Debate.RollingNews