Pat Leahy: Irish populists are right about one thing

There is a very large cohort of people who have lost faith in conventional politics

If “post-truth” was the word of the year, then “populism” must have run it a close second.

In case you were asleep all year, you can consult your ubiquitous end-of-year political reviews for recollections of how the populists are on the march everywhere.

Brexit and Trump, both populist revolts against the political establishment, were the defining events of the year, perhaps of the age.

In Italy, the Five Star Movement defeated Matteo Renzi's referendum and is gunning for power when the next election comes; Marine Le Pen's extreme right-wing National Front appears set to contest the final, head-to-head round of the French presidential election.


Everywhere, populists on the right and the left are on the march. They have radically different political perspectives. But they all have a few important and potent characteristics in common:

They claim to speak for and to “the ordinary people”;

They reject, and sometimes demonise, the existing political establishments and institutions, whom they accuse of acting in their own interests;

They are invariably virtuous, while the establishment is “corrupt”, “selfish” and possibly “criminal”;

They accuse an identifiable group or groups (the elite, identifiable minorities, racial groups) of acting to subvert the will of the people;

They always – always – propose simple solutions to complex problems.

Corrupt elite

And the reason these simple solutions are not being implemented? Because of the corrupt elite.

Accusations of populism have echoed in Irish political debate in the past year. Search the Dáil record and it pops up 96 times, more than once every sitting day, on average.

As you might expect, everyone has at some stage accused each other of populism. But predominantly, the accusation is levelled at Sinn Féin and the radical left-wing parties of the Anti-Austerity Alliance-People Before Profit group.

Generally, the accusation is made by the old, established parties of Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and Labour. Is there much truth to it?

There’s some. It’s certainly true that Sinn Féin and the groups and TDs of the far-left (those who propose a total break with the present political and economic structures) regularly seek to paint the establishment political parties as an out-of-touch elite.

I suspect, however, that this will prove rather futile. They may approve terrible policy decisions, but far from being out of touch and removed from their constituents’ concerns, TDs tend to be very closely in touch with them, as they know that is the way to be re-elected.

Irish people expect a degree of closeness to their political representatives unknown to many of their international counterparts.

Actually, most people know this. It is easy to get your TD on the phone. Many give out their mobile number freely to constituents. He or she will ring you back or answer your email.

You can go and see him or her at their clinic. They turn up to all sorts of community events, shindigs and (best of all) funerals. This is not, to put it mildly, the customary behaviour of the plutocrat.

This close relationship has its downsides to be sure – some TDs end up doing nothing except trying to be re-elected by looking after their base.

But whatever other accusations can be levelled at them, being out of touch is not one.

Sinn Féin and the hard left haven’t had much success in finding any other internal enemies either.

To their credit, they have consciously and deliberately avoided any racist or anti-immigrant pitch to voters, when they are often in competition with each other in those areas where immigrants are most visible.

Their other target, the “super-rich”, pose the problem of not being either sufficiently numerous or visible.

The substitute usually wheeled out in budget debates – households earning more than €100,000 a year – tends to make many voters nervous, as a Garda married to a nurse fits into the category.

The classic simple solutions of the populists also need a bit of work. Last time I checked, the AAA-PBP wanted to nationalise companies like Apple and Google.

Whatever its merits, I suspect that this is unlikely to be a course of action most people think would be easy. Sinn Féin wants a united Ireland. That might make nationalising Apple look straightforward.

Do better

So if these are the Irish populists, they don’t seem to be very good at it. They will clearly have to do better if they are to prosper in 2017.

But what they are right about is that there is a cohort of people – much larger now than ever before – who have lost faith in the ability of conventional politics to improve their lives.

Indeed, many of them believe that the system works actively against their interests.

Rather than bemoaning the rhetoric of Sinn Féin and the AAA-PBP, the establishment parties (and everyone else) might be better employed asking why people feel this way.

No doubt in the case of some of them, it is because they have expectations that cannot be met.

But in the case of many others – affected by poverty, unemployment, homelessness, living in neighbourhoods that need help and are not getting enough of it – it is because reasonable expectations of what the State can do for them are not being met.

A good start to the new year would be trying to fix that, rather than worrying about the spread of populism.