Last week the Irish Independent printed an opinion by Phillip Ryan. He charged Mary Lou McDonald with the title of ‘Ireland’s Donald Trump’ which prima facie is a confusing argument but I decided to persevere through such arguments and it made me think more broadly about the idea of Sinn Féin being a left-wing populist party. Has populism finally arrived in Ireland?
Populism or elitism are nebulous terms, but in the modern usage they imply a party that presents easy solutions, these are typically majorities in how they interact with identity and can be quite polarising because of baggage attached to them. I heard it described more simply at a recent LSE lecture as parties that believe ‘law follows Politics, not the other way’ which is attributed to Matteo Salvini in Italy.
In Europe and America it has been heavily associated with the right, Donald Trump is like a poster boy for this with his tax slashing, pro-life judge appointing and anti-immigration stances. There it stems mostly from the agricultural populist movement of the 19th century, their brand of politics was essentially about fighting falling crop prices, anti-immigration, pro fiat currency and against the monopolisation of power by the (‘elitist’) Democratic and Republican parties.
Two notable left-wing examples on our continent are Germany’s ‘Die Linke’ and Spain’s ‘Podemos.’ The latter of these was supported by Guardian columnist Owen Jones when he followed their campaign in the Spanish general election and tried to link their success to the Momentum movement in the British Labour party. His is undoubtedly a politics of left populism, we see it regularly in the Guardian opinion columns which have lurched significantly leftwards with Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership and especially in the face of Brexit.
In Ireland, the ‘law follows politics’ label is chillingly relevant to Sinn Féin. In the wake of this week’s coverage of Conor Murphy, his past comments and the general attitude of the party to law and order it is hard to argue that they don’t occupy some populist ground. The attacks by southern media on SF economic policies didn’t really breakthrough. Ryan (above) pointed to the pension time bomb, the rent reform promises and the ‘right place, right time’ effect as evidence of SF’s natural proclivity to populism.
Aided and abetted in this by the two centrist parties SF have been able to cut through the 14 years in cabinet Michael Martin (who as the main challenger is as establishment as they come). Perhaps Fintan O’Toole’s thawing of attitude to SF is indicative of what he describes as the (historically) general risk aversion of Irish voters (see also the explanation for the failure of the Irish right).
Would the risk of choosing SF truly pay off for these voters or have they been sold yet another populist pup? I am happy to give SF in coalition the benefit of the doubt, let them prove that being in government north and south will really pay off for all people here, but let’s not lose critical faculty on what this is.
Jay is a Derry native now living in south Antrim and working in Belfast. His writing spans Law, Economics and International relations.