This week a messianic nationalist party of still dubious respectability came within 600 by-election votes of cementing beyond doubt its credentials as the main electoral threat to the senior coalition partner.
Whether you’re more interested in this statement as applied to UKIP or to Sinn Féin depends on your island, but despite various differences in circumstances, political climate and historical context, there are some interesting parallels between the two movements.
Both parties have at their heart a single mission, simple to explain in outcome if not in method. To leave the EU, on the UKIP hand, and to politically unite the island of Ireland, on the Sinn Féin hand. Both these ambitions rely not just on an emotive appeal to straightforward nationalism and Instagrammed nostalgia for a better time, before the dream of a nation men died for was betrayed. Like the Scottish independence campaign, they hint at one grand solution for the social and economic ills of the voter’s choice, propounded by charismatic but often bizarre and inscrutable leaders.
Hence the ability of both movements to attract support outside an historic core of true believers. The activities of extreme fringe groups being ineffectual, neither can at present be outbid on the national question. The loyalty of nationalists of various class outlooks means that Sinn Féin can position itself as the party of opposition from the left without much fear of alienating anyone on economic grounds, building an often overlapping coalition of nationalists and economically marginalised urban voters.
Sound familiar? It should. UKIP’s near miracle in Heywood and Middleton on Thursday demonstrates the striking willingness of rock-solid supporters of the welfare state to vote for a party traditionally libertarian in economic outlook. This process is helped, however, by a populist flexibility on doctrine unrelated to the master plan. As the New Statesman points out, UKIP has executed a sharp pivot to the left of late – in presentation if not in substance.
With opinion polls published this week showing both parties on a quarter of the relevant vote, it will be interesting to see whether UKIP (by far the less developed and electorally successful of the two movements) seek to move further toward the left-wing nationalism promoted to such good effect by Sinn Féin. Such a proposition could become attractive if the Eurosceptic and anti-immigration wing of the Conservative party triumphs rather than defects, bringing at least some Little Englanders back into the fold.
The limits imposed by mixing economic radicalism with nationalism – by contrast with a tactical policy of having no policy – were made clear in Dublin South-West this week, when Sinn Féin found themselves outflanked on the left. Such is probably a corollary of the uncomfortable position the party finds itself in as the establishment in the north but a protest movement in the south: the demands of incumbency tend to take the gloss off populism, as any future Sinn Féin government will demonstrate.
UKIP are currently much further away from exercising responsibility, and the backlash that would create – in the short term, then, they have far more potential to disrupt. But breaking the deadlock of the two-and-a-half party system under first-past-the-post voting conditions looks a far more daunting task in the UK than in Ireland north or south.