‘We can’t make Ireland great again, because it was always sh*t’

Populism – the set of ideologies that has given the world Donald Trump, Brexit and Marine Le Pen – has transformed the politics of many countries. Could Ireland be next?

Populism is a race to the bottom in Irish politics," says the Labour TD Alan Kelly. "It's where political parties and political individuals will do anything to ensure that they are on the right side of what they believe the popular vote wants. It means that nothing is done, that hard decisions are never taken and long-term vision doesn't exist."

A type of left-wing populism “came out of South America when people were trying to find a way of reviving the left after the collapse of communism”, says the Sinn Féin TD Eoin Ó Broin. “It’s not an ideology in the sense of socialism or liberalism but a way of making politics – and what it seeks to do, for good or bad, is mobilise ‘the people’, however disparate, in a political movement against the elites, the establishment and the status quo.”

“Sometimes I want to scream when I see the word populism,” Duncan McDonnell, who teaches politics at Griffith University, in Brisbane, says. “Dylan Thomas used to say an alcoholic is someone who drinks the same as you that you don’t like. The term populist gets used a bit like that.”

A realignment of politics is happening internationally. This is represented by Brexit in the United Kingdom, the rise of the demagogue Donald Trump in the United States, and, in Europe, a swathe of radical parties, both left and right wing, hovering near the reins of power.


What distinguishes right-wing populism is the fact that the people are not only under siege from above by elites but are also under siege from below by dangerous others

But when it comes to these international movements, is Ireland different? And if so, why? Populist discourse has increased, there’s been a strong, successful protest movement and a disparate array of new Independent or far-left politicians, but the Government is still in the hands of one of the two parties that has dominated since the foundation of the State.

So what do we talk about when we talk about populism?

"There's the commonsense use of the term," Ó Broin, who wrote an article called In Defence of Populism, says, "and that's for politics which pander to popular interest, short-term political expediency versus long-term good management of the economy."

So mainstream parties accuse some left-wing politicians of being populist by, for example, advocating higher taxes for the rich but not the ordinary taxpayer, while many accuse Fianna Fáil of being populist in its mismanagement of the economy during the boom. "It's a bit of a misuse of the word, because on that basis all politicians are populist," says Ó Broin.

And then there are a swathe of movements that are arguably part of a radical popular uprising and veer towards opposite ends of the political spectrum. These are also generally referred to as populist.

“They all,” McDonnell says, “juxtapose a good homogenous people in a very moralistic way against a whole bad set of elites that range from the political class, bankers, the media, academics and people whose values or behaviour make them not of the people and who hold positions of power. So populism basically looks at society as two blocks which are hostile towards one other . . . What distinguishes right-wing populism is the fact that the people are not only under siege from above by elites but are also under siege from below by dangerous others: immigrants, indigenous minorities, communists, people whose beliefs set them outside ‘the people’.”

Mainstream parties are ‘all the same’

So what triggers populist uprisings? It only happens, Ó Broin says, when “the existing rules of the game don’t suit the broader public interest”.

Despite the way mainstream politicians sometimes discuss populism, as though they were being attacked from the outside, others tend to see it as a consequence of the system itself failing.

The policy analyst and academic Rory Hearne says that populism, in so far as it exists, is a response to “a hollowing out of democracy . . . Ordinary people don’t get an insight or say into how most decisions are made, and the incremental changes happening aren’t enough for people to feel empowered . . . A quarter of our population are affected by two or more indicators of deprivation, an extra half a million people than existed in 2008.”

So disenchanted voters begin to feel that the mainstream parties are “all the same”. And they didn’t pick this notion up from nowhere.

“A common refrain from mainstream centre-right and -left governing parties is, ‘Our hands are tied because of our obligations to the EU,’ or because of how the markets would react,” McDonnell says. “In the countries hardest hit by the crisis – Ireland, Italy, Spain, Greece – was there a difference whether you put a centre-right or centre-left government into power after 2008? Not really. The chef may change, but the menu was pretty much the same . . . Populists come in and say, ‘You know what? That’s rubbish. We’re going to make democracy work for you. We’re not going to kowtow to the elites. We’re going to go to Brussels and tell them to feck off.’”

He sighs. “Now they don’t actually do that when they get anywhere near power.”

Eoin O’Duffy, Ireland’s Donald Trump

The University College Dublin professor of politics David Farrell refers to populism as a "thin ideology", a term that comes from the Dutch political scientist Cas Mudde.

“There isn’t much of an ideology to it at all beyond traits like seeing the elite as corrupt,” he says.

But Hearne sees this slightly differently. He says the specific policy proposals should be judged on their merits. “Populism is a political tactic and an approach to politics,” he says. “It doesn’t tell you about the values behind the politics [in specific instances].”

Eoin O'Duffy fired up the disaffected who saw Dev and Fianna Fáil as dangerous reds, before he became an embarrassment and Fine Gael buried his memory like a drunken uncle at a funeral

Ireland's earliest populist movements, for example, were the campaigns for Catholic emancipation and to repeal the Act of Union in the 19th century. "You have Daniel O'Connell, a very powerful, charismatic populist leader, mobilising disenfranchised people with monster meetings," says Farrell's UCD colleague (and Irish Times columnist) Diarmaid Ferriter.

The legacy of this, Ferriter adds, can be seen in the way Sinn Féin and Fianna Fáil styled themselves as national movements in the early 20th century, although the only obvious Trump analogue in Irish history is Eoin O’Duffy, leader of the fascist-influenced Blueshirts.

"He fired up the disaffected who saw Dev and Fianna Fáil as dangerous reds, before he became an embarrassment and Fine Gael buried his memory like a drunken uncle at a funeral."

After that, Ferriter adds, populist movements ran out of steam in Ireland. The church sought to control grassroots initiatives as they emerged and the incredibly centrist two-and-a-half-party system never left much room for radical ideas.

“A lot of the type of the people you’d expect to be mobilised by a populist movement emigrated, so a natural disaffected constituency was gone,” Ferriter says.

‘It all changed with Paul Murphy’

And, in the early days of the recession, the Irish people did seem remarkably acquiescent in the face of austerity. Apparently overnight, though, this all changed.

“I’ll give you the date it happened,” Kelly says. “It changed with Paul Murphy’s election in Tallaght. After that Sinn Féin, who were going to pay their water bills, changed tack, and because of that Fianna Fáil changed tack, and because of that Fine Gael, through Simon Coveney, changed tack. It became a race to the bottom for electoral gain, because, one after the other, they did not want to face the country to explain something that they perceived to be electorally disadvantageous.”

Brendan Ogle, of the Unite trade union and the Right2Water campaign, points out that the disaffected water protesters may not have been so disaffected if Labour hadn't been so populist as to campaign heavily against charges in 2011. And, of course, not everyone sees the water protests in such bleak terms.

“People were demoralised,” Murphy, the aforementioned People Before Profit TD, says. “It was a very powerful movement that showed we could win [and] the establishment could be beaten.

They believe that there is only one group in our political system that is actually capable of representing the people and that that group has a monopoly on representation and compassion

“The mobilisation fed into marriage equality, the movement for repeal. It fed into the industrial disputes, because it gave people confidence to struggle. It opened a political space on the left, a definable space left of Sinn Féin.”

People mobilised loosely under the one banner and succeeded in their aims, but, like many populist movements made up of disparate people, it has arguably been difficult to mobilise the same numbers around other issues.

Ironically, the organisation that got the most electoral benefit from the water-charges issue was a resurgent Fianna Fáil, which had, in true populist style, adopted the abolition of charges as an issue in time for the election.

Yes, there has been a shake-up of the Dáil in the sense that there are increased numbers of Independent and far-left TDs, but Fianna Fáil rebounded and Fine Gael is still in power. “The upheaval is still pretty small scale by comparison to other countries,” Farrell says.

‘Small-guy nationalism’

So the question isn’t necessarily, “Why was there a populist uprising in Ireland?” It’s, “Why wasn’t it bigger?” Dr Eoin O’Malley, of Dublin City University’s school of law and government, suggests that the effects of the new politics are diluted by the fact that populism was already almost “mainstream in Ireland. Labour was populist in its campaigns in 2011, Fianna Fáil specialised in populism, and now Sinn Féin do it well. None of these parties is as radical as it might think or like to sound.”

Others observe that the nature of Irish politics, and thus Irish “populism”, is also, because of our single-transferable-vote system of proportional representation and culture of clientelism, often quite localised.

“I do think that localised focus makes it difficult to build national movements,” Rory Hearne says.

This often makes the new wave of politicians seem indistinguishable from mainstream politicians in their concern for local issues, and it also makes the assertion that the centrist parties are out of touch less convincing. (David Farrell points out that Irish politicians are probably among the most connected to the citizenry.)

Diarmaid Ferriter notes that we have an unusual level of respect for the parliamentary system that makes us different from the other, more radicalised Piig countries: Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain.

“We had a long history of stability you don’t get in other parts of Europe,” he says. “Those other countries might be more susceptible to populist movements because the democracies haven’t bedded down to the same extent . . . Greece or Portugal or Spain, they’re very new democracies compared to us. They came out of dictatorships relatively recently.”

And then there’s the thing that makes Ireland almost unique in Europe: the absence of a successful far-right populist movement that scapegoats immigrants. Many political scientists were surprised that none emerged in the depths of the recession.

The temptation of promising things you can't deliver isn't a feature of populism, it's a feature of bad politics

Now the consensus seems to be that there was no space for such movements because of the progressive “small-guy nationalism”, to use Eoin O’Malley’s term, of Sinn Féin and others.

“Populism, whether of the left or the right, tends to attract the same kind of voters,” Farrell says. “The Independents . . . and Sinn Féin take up that space and provide a pressure valve in inner-city communities that might otherwise be taken up by a new populist party.”

Ó Broin puts it more pithily: “The best antidote for right-wing, anti-Semitic, anti-Islamic populism is progressive populism. It speaks to the concerns of those constituencies, but it gives them different answers to the same problems.”

Another factor making Ireland less fertile for the far right is our dismal history as a colony. A key component of right-wing populist thinking is nostalgia for a notional golden age – postwar America, the British Empire – but the idea of Ireland having a glorious past would seem daft to even the most ardent patriot.

“In France they can look back at 30 years of a great welfare state and a great booming economy,” Hearne says. “We can’t say, ‘Make Ireland great again,’ because, historically, Ireland was sh*t.”

All this said, McDonnell cautions against complacency, recalling when, more than a decade ago, people spoke about “the Swedish exception. There were right-wing populists in Denmark and Norway but not in Sweden. But then the Sweden Democrats happened . . . I wouldn’t rule it out [in Ireland] in the future.”

What’s the problem with populism?

So what’s the problem with populism? Our relatively small left-wing populist uprising arguably keeps the far right at bay, has engaged a constituency that was previously disenfranchised, and has created a more pluralistic Dáil.

Ó Broin suggests that left-wing populism might be not so much a threat to the political system as a corrective.

“There are some political scientists,” he says, “who argue populism is always a bad thing, because it tries to define the people as homogenous, and by doing so articulates an anti-pluralist politics, constraining people’s rights. [But] in theory [left-wing populism] doesn’t have the problems or blind spots that the right-wing variety has, [so] the jury is out on whether a progressive populism is desirable or possible or capable of success.”

Alan Kelly cites the fate of Syriza, in Greece, as evidence that the jury is actually in on left-wing populism, and says the pluralism of “new politics” has led to inertia.

The response back to populism cannot be to reject it. It has to be to argue with it and engage with it

“Nothing is done,” he says. “Hard decisions are never taken, and that long-term vision doesn’t exist. You cannot plan for the future. You cannot make decisions. You cannot plan across the Government. And it ensures that the institutions of the State don’t function. It’s about politicians at all levels making decisions, or not making decisions, that will in any way involve them having to face the public and might damage their electoral prospects.”

Is that not a description of Irish politics in general?

“Absolutely not. Politicians have to lead. Politicians shouldn’t be hypocrites . . . They need to plan for the future. Politics is failing at the moment. We have the lowest amount of legislation passed of all time.”

‘There are more voices now’

Has a more diverse Dáil not widened the political debate?

"I don't think [all their viewpoints] are realistic," Kelly says. "Here's something that needs to be teased out: how many people elected to Dáil Éireann ever want to serve in government? That figure isn't that big at the moment." (When I ask Paul Murphy if he would ever join a government he says that he might, in time, but that "there's a distinction between being in government and being in power".)

Fine Gael’s Minister for Public Expenditure, Paschal Donohoe, also worries about the nature of the broader discourse. He accepts that while some supposedly populist politicians have drawn attention to issues that may have been overlooked, a populist tendency to “expect demands to be met immediately means there’s no space for incrementalism and, because of that, the space to negotiate is less available”.

Coupled with this, he says, is a populist tendency to assume that centrist politicians are operating in bad faith.

“They believe that there is only one group in our political system that is actually capable of representing the people and that that group has a monopoly on representation and compassion,” he says.

I put it to Ó Broin that the reduction of politics to two monolithic actors – the people and the elite – might allow some people to sidestep their own complicity in the system and lead to oversimplified, unworkable policies.

“The temptation of promising things you can’t deliver isn’t a feature of populism, it’s a feature of bad politics,” he says.

Brendan Ogle believes that the focus on political seats is reductive and that, ultimately, the more significant change in Irish politics was the mobilisation of people in protest, a mobilisation he sees continuing on the issue of homelessness with Home Sweet Home.

“I take the view that citizen protest and empowerment is really what democracy is about,” he says. “The water-charges protests, expressed over two and a half years through mass mobilisation, nonpayment and a civil-disobedience campaign, were the first time in Ireland in a long time where politicians were forced to respond to the public will . . . And now we have a Government that is very different in nature; partly, I think, because the citizens empowered themselves . . . The question is: do the politicians want citizens to be empowered?”

Donohoe sees wider political engagement as a general product of the recession rather than of the water protests, but he disagrees with colleagues who dismiss populist movements out of hand.

“There are more voices now, and from my point of view the response back to populism cannot be to reject it,” he says. “It has to be to argue with it and engage with it. If the best we can come up with is to dismiss it, that’s laying foundations for its continued rise.”