Did Ireland Go Populist-Nationalist?

Sinn Féin supporters hold a national flag as votes are counted in Ireland’s national election in Dublin, February 9, 2020. (Phil Noble/Reuters)
In its own way, yes.

Last weekend Ireland went through a historic election. Although it has ended in a nearly three-way tie and a round of coalition bargaining, the two major parties that have dominated Irish politics since the founding of the modern state, Fianna Fáil (Soldiers of Destiny) and Fine Gael (Family of the Irish), are in decline. Both lost seats after years in which Fianna Fáil allowed a minority Fine Gael government to rule in a “confidence and supply” arrangement. Fine Gael — a party affiliated with the center-right across Europe and the original beneficiary of Ireland’s economic crash a decade ago — has finished third. The top vote getter was Sinn Féin (We Ourselves), the left-wing nationalist party that began its life in Northern Ireland, where it acted as the political wing of the Provisional IRA during the Troubles. Sinn Féin managed to get the most votes even though it ran only 42 candidates out of a possible 80.

The world, looking in on Ireland to decipher the political winds across Europe, is misinterpreting this election, however. Remembering a few dim details about Sinn Féin, some commentators are leaping to a misunderstanding, and even some Irish commentators are reacting defensively.

Yasmeen Serhan over at The Atlantic says the unprecedentedly strong result for Sinn Féin represents “a nationalist moment in the country — one in which anti-English sentiment, brought on by Brexit, has grown.” A diagnosis like this has been common and has led some anti-Brexit commentators to suggest that the English nationalism they think powered that cause is exacerbating competing nationalisms or nearby nationalisms.

In fact, Brexit wasn’t a hugely significant factor. Though the issue took up much energy from the outgoing Fine Gael government led by Leo Varadkar, his position on Brexit — opposing a hard Brexit and wanting the Northern Irish backstop to preserve an all-island economy — was shared across all party lines. Small countries often have powerful reasons to converge on a national position, and this was true of Ireland’s stance on Brexit. Therefore Varadkar’s handling of it has been discounted; who would have proceeded differently?

Instead, voters punished the two traditional parties in Ireland for longstanding domestic issues, related to soaring costs of housing and a poorly managed health service that is short on hospital beds but long on budget overruns and delays in new facilities.

Some Irish commentators, I think, have been overanxious to deny the “populist” label that outsiders have attached to Sinn Féin. For many in Ireland, populist is not a synonym for a “bad guy” who is against the EU, doesn’t like immigration, or is generally right-wing. Italy’s Matteo Salvini is a populist, and Law and Justice in Poland. The Irish aren’t like that, are they?

Right now the EU has extremely broad if shallow support in Ireland; the nation treats it as an economic necessity, though is wary of a broader project that challenges its tax sovereignty and historic neutrality. Sinn Féin switched to a pro-EU stance many years ago. And it is generally associated with the Left and pro-immigration. But populist might be the right word for Sinn Féin.

Ireland has often flattered itself as immune to continental populism because it has, in the living memory of older voters, experienced the reign of a conservative, nationalist, and deeply Catholic government that sought to protect rural ways of life and make the economy a tool of foreign policy and statecraft. Ireland’s two major parties did not grow out of a left–right division, but out of a split over a 1922 treaty with the U.K. Both parties have had conservative and progressive elements within them. Fine Gael had an openly fascist wing in the 1930s, but a socially progressive one by the late Sixties and Seventies. Fianna Fáil was associated with farmers, urban workers, Gaelic nationalism, and the Church, but it was also welfarist. One can see the confusion lasting even today where Varadkar was often denounced as a “Tory boy” for his fiscal conservatism and pledge to work for people who “get up early in the morning.” He also bragged about his party’s part in Ireland’s “Quiet Revolution” against the Church in successive referenda on same-sex marriage and abortion.

But the truth is that toward the end of the Cold War and afterward, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have been converging on policy. Ireland’s post-colonial psychology means the country has a tendency to take an idea that seems to work for others — Catholicism, Victorian morality, or the West’s post–Cold War political orthodoxies — and try to practice it harder, and “better” than where it originated.

Over the past decades, both parties have maintained Ireland’s international economic strategy, which depends heavily on foreign direct investment, and the direction of global capital flows through its extremely low tax system. This strategy of solicitousness toward multinationals combined with EU membership already begins to narrow the possibility for policy. Along the way these two clientalist parties seemed to be liberating themselves from native clients and increasingly serving corporations from Silicon Valley and commissioners in Brussels.

While the economic growth rates since Ireland’s collapse a decade ago have been impressive, like those in the United Kingdom and other countries, gains have been concentrated at the top of the income distribution, housing prices in the productive capital city are unreachable save for the highest earners, and native small and medium enterprises feel squeezed and at a competitive disadvantage. Ireland may not fit Europe’s trends in that it is not quite lurching to the right. But the post–Cold War consensus whose breakdown has allowed the rise of populism elsewhere is officially broken in Ireland, too. The two big beasts of Ireland had been practicing what Josh Barro calls “no-choice politics.” It couldn’t last.

And Sinn Féin has simply capitalized on this. The party’s leader, Mary Lou MacDonald, denounced the two traditional parties as a party of landlords and a party of developers. In other words, parties of the incumbent interests. She called her party “the alternative.” Within the Republic of Ireland, Sinn Féin’s traditional support was always firm in the border counties of Donegal and Monaghan and among working-class voters of Dublin. In this election it dramatically expanded into Ireland’s sprawling commuter belts. It won every age group except those over 65 who lived through the start of the Troubles.

Sinn Féin may not even go into government; it may prefer that Fine Gael prop up a minority Fianna Fáil administration and consolidate its position as the opposition.

To keep its position solid north of the border where its voters really are motivated by nationalist aspirations, Sinn Féin will agitate toward bringing about a border poll on unifying the island. This will excite and terrify Northern Ireland’s unionists, who would fear most of all unity under a Sinn Féin government in Dublin. But the border poll was not the biggest issue in the campaign. Party leadership has discouraged elected members from celebrating with Irish republican anthems. South of the border, Sinn Féin doesn’t market itself as the party with recapturing Ireland’s fourth green field at the top of its agenda.

Sinn Féin is not quite a trusted party of Ireland’s establishment. Whereas the two traditional parties seemed to answer to the nation’s media class, Sinn Féin has a more self-possessed character, flattering itself as closer to the people. Ireland’s cultural and political ombudsman, Fintan O’Toole, has urged rapprochement of the establishment and Sinn Féin. That may be in the establishment’s interest, but it probably isn’t in Sinn Féin’s.

That distance between the established order in Dublin and Sinn Féin has had justification. Reports from Northern Ireland’s police service, the United Kingdom’s intelligence agencies, and much journalism suggests that while the Provisional IRA has been disbanded as a paramilitary and terrorist organization, there remain holdover structures from it, like the Army Council, which still influence (or command?) Sinn Féin’s senior leadership. Is it a normal party? Does it still protect a few “senior republican” bigwigs who are involved in criminal activity? How much of their appeal with younger voters is the “whiff of cordite,” a sense of radical chic interrupting a national politics that seemed to run on autopilot? These questions didn’t dominate the campaign, but they may begin to dominate Sinn Féin’s first taste of power in the Dail.

The party may also face a test of its own internal coherence. Although it is widely considered a left-wing party because of its progressive position on social issues, its ties to the European Left, and so on, it is still possessed of its idiosyncrasies. Sinn Féin is in many ways an anti-tax party and has run on the abolition of social fees and against the imposition of water taxes that had been urged on Ireland by the EU itself. Its success in rural Monaghan and Donegal is among voters who may be the most instinctively conservative in Ireland.

So no, Ireland isn’t marching in the same direction as Law and Justice in Poland, Fidesz in Hungary, or Vox in Spain. But the success of Sinn Féin does fit the trend of Europe’s centrist parties declining into irrelevance, along with all the political certainties of the past two decades.

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