The RTE presenter couldn’t resist it, on Sunday afternoon. It might have been nearly six months after the incident, and it might have been in the shadow of several much bigger stories, but this was the opportunity she had been waiting for.
“I hear you did well in the Oughterard boxes” was the opening line of her interview with the newly, and comfortably, re-elected Noel Grealish. The Deputy, not known for his love of the media, prefers to work away quietly in his own constituency, only really speaking out on issues of national importance when they impact his constituents. While a cacophony of voices denounced him as a racist for standing with his constituents in Oughterard last year, he maintained a trappist silence, refusing to go on the airwaves to defend himself. But the Irish media never forgets an offence against liberalism, and so RTE was determined to make him squirm at their first available chance, even on the day he was handily re-elected. Grealish brushed it off without breaking much of a sweat. Why should he have cared? He was representing his voters, and doing his job.
Half a country a way, in the southern tip of Cork, Michael Collins TD was too busy counting his 26.4% of the vote to worry too much about what the media thought. He, too, had been briefly declared an unperson for saying, last September, that “our own people should come first” when it came to immigration policy. Brendan Howlin had led the attacks on Collins at the time, branding him “very dangerous” for airing that opinion.
Howlin was probably too busy to notice Collin’s success, however. As the Corkman was topping the poll by a country mile, Howlin was busy with his own count, where Verona Murphy, the independent, was surging through to take the third available seat. Murphy had been nationally humiliated for the crime of improper thought just a few months ago, unceremoniously booted out of Fine Gael for warning that her trucking industry experience had led her to believe that illegal immigrants, including potential threats, were coming into the country via the ports without proper checks. On Saturday, she took the Fine Gael seat previously held by Michael D’Arcy.
In 2016, an era that has been long forgotten, there was a minor scandal when Michael Healy Rae announced that Brexit might lead to more immigration, and pressure on housing and services. The idea that immigration might be related to the housing issue is, of course, a heretical thought, and the Irish Times demanded that he explain himself. Healy Rae waltzed back into the Dail at the head of the poll, bringing his brother Danny with him. Danny then caused a minor scandal by announcing that he was forming a new movement called “people before planet”, before sheepishly apologising the next day. It’s all right, Danny, we forgive you.
Elsewhere, populist rural independents were having a great day. Mattie McGrath cruised to re-election without breaking a sweat. Michael Fitzmaurice had enough votes to be elected God-Emperor of Roscommon, let alone its TD. Peter Fitzpatrick, the Louth independent, unseated Fianna Fáil’s Declan Breathnach. Carol Nolan embarrassed the pundits and fleeced the bookmakers by winning a surprisingly comfortable re-election, having been written off by everyone.
Where voters had the opportunity to vote for right-leaning, culturally conservative, anti-establishment populism, they took it. It is fascinating to wonder what might happen were those politicians listed here to form a political party around their shared views – scepticism of climate policy, demands for rural regeneration, a hard line on crime, opposition to health services being clustered and centralised, scepticism of immigration, and all the rest of it.
It is not hard to imagine such a party winning swathes of votes across rural Ireland. Its putative members have already done just that.
Meanwhile, it was an abysmal day for smaller populist and ideological right wing parties, with none of their candidates managing to break 2% in any constituency. There’s a lesson in the contrast between the two outcomes.
The independents who swept back into office, or who were elected for the first time, are rooted in their communities, and trusted by their voters. Michael Healy Rae, accepting victory, underlined this point: “To be a national politician” he said, “you have to be a good local politician first”. On the right of Irish politics, those who succeed are those who have worked for years in their communities and built up trust and support enough to withstand assaults from the national media and Ireland’s plethora of roaming NGOs, who are always seeking a new target.
You cannot, as various smaller parties found, turn up in a constituency with a Ben Shapiro YouTube video in one hand and a leaflet in the other, and expect success. It must be built up over time, with hard work.
But there’s also another lesson: Taking a different line to the rest of the political establishment on issues like climate change, crime, immigration, trans rights, and all the rest isn’t just possible: Done right, it can in fact be very profitable.
There is an audience in this country for what people like Healy-Rae and Grealish and Murphy and McGrath and Collins have to say. Not only is there an audience, but there is an electorate willing to vote for it, every chance it gets.
Those politicians should look hard and carefully at their own electoral records, and consider working together more closely. At a stroke, they would become the fourth biggest party in the Dáil – and a party with huge room to grow much bigger than that again.