You thought #Aras2018 was bad… just wait for #DubMayor2024!

12 Nov

This column appeared on Broadsheet.ie on Nov 6th, 2018.

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Some of you may have noticed that, apart from one piece back in mid-July, I had avoided writing anything here about the Presidential election.

This was not due to any lack of interest or me not having any views on it. I had many views on it but, as I had worked with one of the candidates in the council nomination phase, I felt it would be unfair to comment until the election was over and the results were in.

The strange thing however, is now that it is over I don’t really feel the need to opine on the election or any of the individual campaigns, as such.

I understand much of the online and media hoopla over Peter Casey’s second place showing, especially as it seemed, for much of the campaign that he was going to struggle to even finish last. But, it is far too big a stretch to ascribe his second place showing to his nasty dog whistles alone.

Yes, the comments were appalling and appealed to a small cohort of voters, but is that cohort equal to 23% of all voters or even just those who voted? I think not.

On the eve of polling I thought Casey would come second, but I also thought he would just be a little ahead of both Gallagher and Ní Ríada. I had not imagined that he would pull so far ahead.

It was evident over the last few days of the campaign, especially in the final debates, that Casey’s plan was to attack Gallagher in a bid to peel away his voters. It worked. What I hadn’t realised though was the degree to which Casey would manage to do the same to the Shinners.

I thought their core vote would stick with the candidate that Mary Lou had picked. So, it seems, did Mary Lou. Indeed, it was hard at times not to think that Liadh Ní Ríada was running on a joint ticket with Mary Lou McDonald and Michelle O’Neill.

Mary Lou’s strategy backfired dramatically. The media focus on Casey since has helped Mary Lou to tend her wounds in the shadows, but she emerges from the campaign sustaining more lasting political damage even than the other Aras18 candidates.

Returning to make-up of the Casey 23%, it is more complex that some commentary would have us believe. It comprised a cross section of voters who saw Casey as a handy way to express their anger and rage on range of issues.

  • If you disliked the whole #aras18 campaign, you possibly voted Casey.
  • If you were fed up of Gallagher and Higgins, you likely voted Casey.
  • If you hated political correctness, you possibly voted Casey.
  • If you really disliked Varadkar telling you what to do, you probably voted Casey

And, as I was advised on Twitter, there was another motivation:

  • if you hated the Irish Times and RTÉ, you almost certainly voted Casey.

Like it or not, there were many reasons why people voted Casey. Reasons that do not make those voters racist, deplorable or Alt-Right.

Recognising this simple truth also debunks the idea that Casey is some cynical political genius who possesses a deep understanding of the political psyche of a newly emerged Irish “flyover” class of voters. He isn’t.

He is a smart marketing guy. His ‘genius’ was to manage to get all that publicity and not have it cost him a cent. Having reached the support threshold (a quarter of a quota) he qualifies for a state refund of his election expenditure, up to €200k. On Oct 24th he announced that he was spending just under €80k – which he will now recoup.

It is this point which brings me to what is, in my view, the real political lesson from Aras2018. It does not, bizarrely, have anything to do with presidential races, but rather concerns my pet peeve, the promised 2024 Dublin mayoral election.

If you think the Aras18 race was awful, then prepare yourself for the horror show that will be a Dublin mayoral race. It will look, sound, feel and grate the nerves like Aras18 – only worse.

The Aras18 contest was what you get when you have a knockdown, drag-out, ego fuelled electoral contest with a multiplicity of candidates for an office with no power or policy role, especially where the two main parties refuse to tog out.

Though Aras18 had, at least, the saving grace of a politically astute and shrew incumbent who always seemed set to hold on. If and when we have a Dublin mayoral election it will have all the negatives of Aras 18 and none of the positives.

It too will be for a powerless, largely symbolic office whose role only a handful of people will grasp. Only this one will be newly created, without the record, example or gravitas of previous incumbents to guide any of the debate. Recall how often candidates at Aras18 attempted, regardless of gender, to channel the legacies of Presidents Robinson and McAleese.

Dublin Mayor is an office for which many maverick and non-traditional candidates will consider running. They will take their inspiration from Casey, not (hopefully) in their messaging, but in the fact that he has shown how relatively easy it is to run a low budget, low content campaign that talks about things that have nothing to do with office you are seeking and get a damn big bang for your buck.

They will be lured by the prospect of all the media coverage at a relatively low cost. Remember, Casey budgeted €80k for his national campaign. A pro-rata one (based on population alone) means a Dublin mayoral candidate, following Casey’s path, would just need around €32k for a campaign that could see them possibly come in second and maybe even land a slot on the Late Late?

And, if the antics at the Sept 13th Dublin City Council meeting that consider possible Presidential nominations are anything to go by, then we will have some delightful minor fringe candidatures awaiting us.

Whoever makes the podiums for candidates’ debates will have to start working overtime now to fill the demand.

Meanwhile the ballot paper will look be like a dilated Lidl till receipt with all of the above plus the two big political parties and Sinn Féin, whatever remains of Labour party, the Greens, the alphabet socialists/PBP, and Social Democrats all likely fielding candidates.

But even the presence of all the established parties is no guarantee of ensuring that they will dominate, especially when you will also have candidates from the Worker’s Party, Renua, Éirigí, Direct Democracy, the National Party etc.

You also need to factor in the likelihood that the candidate[s] of whichever of the main parties are in government at the time are going to find themselves polling badly as the take the mid-term political backlash for national policies unrelated to the powerless and empty office for which they are running.

#Aras2018 was a horrible and unseemly contest for a fine office. #DubMayor2014 will be a mass car crash race for a futile one.

Can we now please face up to the reality that having a directly elected mayor for Dublin is a bad idea and focus instead on finding a scaled system of city government that has authority, responsibility and can actually work.

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