Can Europe Make It?

The Irish election and the possibility of a left populism

More and more voters are no longer willing to accept a political status quo that makes doing “everything else” contingent on upholding the dominant economic order.

Sean Phelan
9 March 2020
Sinn Fein Leader Mary Lou McDonald is elected in the Irish General Election count, February 9, 2020.
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Niall Carson/PA. All rights reserved.

In the immediate aftermath of the recent Irish general election, journalists and commentators around the world invoked that slippery term ‘populism’ to make sense of an electoral outcome that few had anticipated.

According to an article in The Atlantic that was widely panned on Twitter, Sinn Féin’s success in winning the highest percentage of first preference votes under Ireland’s proportional representational system confirmed that the “global populist wave” has now arrived in a country where it has heretofore been “conspicuously absent”. The Irish case was framed as the latest storyline in a now “familiar tale”, where “mainstream parties falter, only for a new, populist force to fill the vacuum”.

International media reports were not blind to the particulars of the Irish case. Sinn Féin’s success in advancing a left-wing manifesto that resonated with heightened public disquiet about the abject condition of Ireland’s housing and health infrastructure was widely recognized. And, though it should have been emphasized more, some noted the absence of the kind of nativist and racist rhetoric that has been the hallmark of other political formations characterized as populist.

Nonetheless, in discussions of populism, both at home and abroad, the differences between the Irish case and political developments elsewhere were typically elided.

For instance, an editorial in The Times drew a direct parallel between the vote for Sinn Féin (“the former political wing of the IRA”) and the rise of the far right party, Alternative for Germany, seeing both as emblematic of “populist” challenges facing “mainstream politicians” in “many Western Democracies”.

An opinion piece in the Irish newspaper, The Sunday Independent, published before the election wondered if Sinn Féin leader Mary-Lou MacDonald “could well be the Irish version of Donald Trump” – evidence that a “divisive populist” could be voted into office in Ireland.

And, as the make-up of any future government remains far from clear, some right-wing politicians took to the airwaves right after the election to warn that if Sinn Féin’s manifesto commitments are implemented they will “turn the country into Venezuela”.

The moral register of this discourse does not need much decoding. Populism, “in all its hues”, signifies a retrograde form of politics that reasonable people should not “succumb” to – a virus of the body politic that should be tamed and resisted.

The moral register of this discourse does not need much decoding. Populism… signifies… a virus of the body politic that should be tamed and resisted.

A left populism

The problem with this pejorative account of populism, or what some have dubbed the phenomenon of “anti-populism”, is that it obscures a rich tradition of radical democratic thought that regards populism as emblematic of the general logic of the political.

In the work of Chantal Mouffe, Ernesto Laclau and others, this perspective not only invites us to think about the possibility of a left populism as a counter to the dominant representation of populism as a right-wing and far-right phenomenon. It also underlines some of the fundamental political, ideological and ethical differences between left-wing and right-wing populist discourses and strategies.

The utopian impulse of left populism conceptualizes “the people” as a site of internal differences and heterogeneity – difference is something to be affirmed. This cultivates a mode of politics that is very different from right-wing populist discourses that appeal to some monolithic and atavistic image of the people. The interests of a democratically conceived people are framed in opposition to the interests of a detached and self-serving ruling class, but in a markedly different register from the kind of racist and authoritarian scapegoating of minority identities that we see in far-right discourses.

This perspective encourages us to think about how the construction of a quintessentially populist “us versus them” rhetoric might take different political forms that challenge the rather convenient depiction of populism as the name for a blanket, essentially unthinking, form of anti-establishment politics. The notion of a left populism becomes a strategic resource for political thought and action. It does not preclude combining different political modes and idioms in contextually sophisticated ways that are very different from the stereotypical image of the populist politician as someone peddling hopelessly simplistic solutions to complex social problems.

An Irish left populism?

For what it’s worth, I am not a great fan of the term populism, particularly because of the pejorative connotations attached to the term and its overuse as a descriptor for describing just about every significant political event of recent years.

However, if the notion of populism is to have any analytical value in making sense of the Irish election, it would surely be more useful to see the result as offering the tentative signs of an Irish left populism.

These political energies were exemplified by the increased Sinn Féin vote, at the expense of the centre-right party-political duopoly of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil that have dominated Irish politics since independence. They were also illustrated by the success of a #voteleft strategy that saw many Sinn Féin votes transfer to other left-wing parties, resulting in the highest number of left-wing, or at least left-leaning, members of parliament in the history of the Irish state.

The success of a #voteleft strategy… saw many Sinn Féin votes transfer to other left-wing parties, resulting in the highest number of left-wing, or at least left-leaning, members of parliament in the history of the Irish state.

The size of the Sinn Féin vote may have surprised most people, including the party’s own leadership.

However, as different commentators have observed, there is ultimately no mystery why the election produced the lowest ever cumulative vote for Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael – the so-called Tweedledum and Tweedledee of Irish politics.

The results attest to their role as interchangeable agents in the neoliberalization of Irish society since the late 1980s – the adherents of a politically unimaginative and technocratic form of governance where nurturing the success of “the economy”, and serving the interests of global corporate and financial capital, overrides all other concerns.

The Sinn Féin vote captured a mood for change where many people feel increasingly disconnected from the kind of elite political and media narratives of Irish economic success that have been the mainstay of Irish political success for the last three decades.

These narratives were given their most hubristic expression during the Celtic Tiger era of the 1990s and early 2000s. Indeed, contrary to the daft notion that some distinct species of political being called “populism” only arrived in Ireland a few weeks ago, the Fianna Fáil-led governments of the time often engaged in a form of neoliberal populism – an Irish version of what Thomas Frank dubbed the “market populism” of US politics in the 1990s. Former Minister of Finance, Charlie McCreevy, once denounced a cultural elite of “left-wing pinko” commentators and politicians for showing insufficient appreciation of the wonders of the Irish economic success story. And before the spectacular crash of the Irish economy in 2008, anyone who dared point out the unsustainability of official economic metrics that had become entirely dependent on inflated property prices were likely to be reproached for “talking down” the economy.

The narrative of economic success transmuted into a story of Irish economic collapse after 2008, resulting in a humiliating bailout of the Irish state by the EU and IMF in 2010.

However, as the economic data started to turnaround from 2013 onwards, the notion of “the recovery” became the dominant motif of Irish political elites. One of the success stories of 1990s globalization discourse was now recast as the “poster child” of austerity – evidence that the pain will be worth it in the end once “the economy” gets back on track.

The political-economic logic of Ireland’s Celtic Tiger model was reinstated as the modus operandi of Irish statecraft in a manner that replicated the dull post-ideological and post-political atmosphere of the 1990s. Ireland became an exemplar of what Colin Crouch called the “strange non-death of neoliberalism” – its political custodians still capable of communicating indignation at the notion that there might be anything “ideological” about the Irish model.

The desire for alternatives to neoliberalism

In her reflections on left populism, Mouffe stresses how it finds expression in the contemporary political moment through a rejection of the terms of the neoliberal order. It embodies a collective desire for a different kind of politics, a different kind of society and, indeed, a different model of economy.

The Irish election result suggested that these desires are now being articulated in ways that might be radically changing the terms and shape of Irish politics, or at the very least making the question of who becomes the leading party of government much more interesting and unpredictable than it has been historically.

By campaigning on a left-wing platform that decentred the party’s historical focus on the national question, Sinn Féin spoke to a popular mood that is increasingly sceptical of politicians selling themselves through official measures of economic prosperity. Crucially, there is nothing “irrational” about this distrust. Rather, it captures the truth of a society where the everyday lived experiences of many people – working class and middle class, urban and rural, young and old (but especially the young) – are governed by ruthless forms of capitalist rationality.

Sinn Féin spoke to a popular mood that is increasingly sceptical of politicians selling themselves through official measures of economic prosperity.

Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael also attempted to respond to this popular mood, but in a familiar manner that makes “the economy” sound like a self-contained object necessitating purely technocratic approval, rather than something that is constituted through those everyday lived experiences and intimately tied to the decrepit condition of much of the country’s public infrastructure. The vote for Sinn Féin and other left parties suggested a growing popular desire to politicize the condition of Ireland’s economy – the signs of an electoral shift where more and more voters are no longer willing to accept a political status quo that makes doing “everything else” contingent on upholding the dominant economic order.

The risk of exaggeration

Reading the Irish election through the notion a left populism risks exaggerating the significance of the result in different respects.

For starters, it potentially overstates the left-wing nature of Sinn Féin’s politics and obscures the party’s capacity for political opportunism, especially given its underwhelming record in government in Northern Ireland. The Sinn Féin manifesto promised to retain Ireland’s corporate tax rate of 12.5%, a flagship state policy that will likely come under even forceful political scrutiny in future EU deliberations about fiscal policy, especially now that Ireland can no longer piggyback on the UK’s ideological opposition to tax harmonization. Spokespersons for the Irish Business and Employers Federation and the Banking and Payments Federation Ireland were also quick to reassure people after the election that Sinn Féin “instincts are not that mad when it comes to business”, but rather guided by “sensible” investment promises and commitments.

The notion of a left populism risks making the “Irish left” sound like a more unified entity than it is – as if a simple moral exhortation to unify will be enough to dissolve the tensions that exist between different party political identities, particularly when it comes to the question of who one is willing to work with. Given that the parliamentary arithmetic still tilts conservative, the post-election talk of a “left government” has seemed fanciful, despite the ongoing efforts of the Solidarity People Before Profit Group to canvas support for this option. But it should no longer be so when it comes to future elections, even if the challenges of building strategically effective alliances between different left-wing political parties and extra-parliamentary movements are considerable.

Any possibility of a Sinn Féin-led left-wing government in the near future will likely necessitate some kind of coalition arrangement between what some partisans like to call the “principled” socialist left and other left-leaning parties, including a Labour party and Green party who antagonized just about everyone else on the left by going into coalition – in different austerity governments – with Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil. The level of mutual distrust that might inhibit such alliances does not seem trivial. Within the schema of Mouffe’s populist imaginary, it would require the parties to formulate a common policy platform that emphasizes their points of similarity via a common adversary, rather than their ideological differences. The post-election efforts by the Solidarity People Before Profit Group to “reach out to Labour” is certainly a positive development in this respect, even if it is unlikely to lead to anything much in the short term because of Labour’s internal focus on electing a new party leader. The possibility of any future left-wing government may also potentially be jeopardized by Sinn Féin’s expressed willingness to entering into a coalition government with either Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil, despite the ongoing resistance of both of the latter parties to that possibility.

The post-election efforts by the Solidarity People Before Profit Group to “reach out to Labour” is certainly a positive development.

A second election later in 2020 could potentially change everything of course and, based on the opinion polls producedsince the election, Sinn Féin will be the only one of the three main parties relishing the prospect.

However, even if the possibility of a “government of the left” seems remote right now, Sinn Féin’s openness to coalition with one of the other two big parties, and especially Fianna Fáil (“the Republican party), suggests it harbours a vision of a different kind of left-leaning populism, which, if it materialized, would inevitably invite the scorn of other left parties. In this scenario, the party uses its newfound political authority to steer Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael in a more social democratic direction, appealing to a capacity for ideological heterogeneity that has been part of the history of the other two parties. The two-party hydra of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael could no longer be posited as the defining adversary, even if the party excluded from any coalition with Sinn Féin would inevitably take on the role of primary antagonist within the theatre of everyday politics. Instead, the amorphous, but not necessarily politically incoherent, target of everything that could be subsumed under the heading of the “excesses” of “the Celtic Tiger” and “the Celtic Tiger 2.0” might become the defining antagonists in the political project of constructing a “new” or “second republic”.

The outlines of such a vision – one malleable enough to be adapted to the realpolitik of different coalition formations –can perhaps be discerned in a short 2013 article by Eoin Ó Broin, Sinn Féin’s most impressive left-wing thinker. It cites Laclau’s theory of populism (O Broin also reviewed Mouffe’s most recent book in 2018) and explicitly affirms the party’s “populist” credentials, but without explicitly describing them as left-wing. “Sinn Féin’s political project is truly populist”, Ó Broin suggests, “but a populism that is democratic, egalitarian and progressive”. “[We] seek to mobilise in support of a New Republic in which popular sovereignty is restored and political and economic power returned to where it rightly belongs, in the hands of the people”.

Radical democracy and the national question

It would be remiss to write about the Irish election without saying something about the national question, particularly since the legacy of Sinn Féin’s role in the Troubles seems to be the principal factor animating the hostility of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, and especially Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin, to the prospect of any coalition with the party. There is an obvious aspect of Sinn Féin’s history that invites a very tendential reading of Ó Broin’s appeal to a “New Republic”, which makes it less about the establishment of democratic-egalitarian alternatives to a world of “capitalist realism”, and more about the establishment of a 32 county united Ireland. Sinn Féin would no doubt like to frame these struggles as equivalent, part of the same hegemonic project of political emancipation. But for many people – including many people on the left – these tensions bring up the jarring memories of a political party acting in the name of “socialist” and “egalitarian” principles, while supporting a paramilitary wing that carried out some appalling acts of violence as part of a nasty sectarian conflict.

There is something rather hypocritical about the predominant moral-political critique of Sinn Féin in the South, which continues to represent the party as beyond the pale “down here” even as the Irish state insists it must be part of the government of Northern Ireland. Conversely, there is something less than convincing about a Sinn Féin tendency to dismiss any questioning of the status of the party’s present relationship with the residues of the provisional IRA as “nonsense”, even when evidence is presented of relationships between elected representatives and non-elected figures that – however you spin them – do not look like models of democratic accountability.

Mouffe lauds forms of democratic engagement where the sectarian dynamics of a “friend/enemy” model of politics is transfigured into an “adversarial, agonistic politics orientated towards the establishment of a different hegemonic order within the liberal-democratic framework”. She makes the argument as part of a familiar narrative where her commitment to a radical democratic left populism is framed in opposition to neoliberalism and the “sterile reformism” of “third way” politics. More strikingly, she also distinguishes her position from what she calls the “revolutionary strategy of the ‘extreme left’”. The implications of the argument are not satisfactorily explicated; Mouffe has nothing to say, for instance, about how a signifier like the “extreme left” can be weaponized by contemporary enemies of any left politics. Nonetheless, the core point seems clear: the construction of a left populism might necessitate confronting and rejecting other dogmatic articulations of a left-wing identity. Put another way, it will militate against unthinking agreement and solidarity with everything legitimized in the name of a revolutionary left politics.

By any measure, the decision of Sinn Féin to sign up to the terms of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, and become a political actor in the governance of a Northern Ireland statelet that it previously represented as illegitimate, signified a shift to a more agonistic mode of politics – a strategic break from a revolutionary imaginary that saw politics as little more than an extension of warfare and armed struggle. The implementation of this strategy was a major political achievement. To the dismay of the party’s critics, it often necessitated wider political acceptance of a culture of Sinn Féin “doublespeak”: the crafting of party-political messages that could simultaneously appeal to a micro-public of potentially sceptical IRA militants and the general public’s desire for peace.

The party’s strongest critics today continue to see nothing other than a culture of doublespeak, no matter how many thoughtful policy proposals it formulates in different domains. The truth of the doublespeak is ritualistically animated in moments of media spectacle where – as the metaphor has it – the “mask slips away” and the party is exposed for “what it is”. This was the case when video circulated after the election of the re-elected parliamentarian, David Cullinane, proclaiming “up the Republic, up the ‘RA” to a gathering of party members in Waterford. In the extended version, Cullinane’s comments were prefaced by a speech by a local party delegate who boasted that the party “broke the Free State” (Sinn Féin’s preferred nomenclature for a Southern state that it refuses to call the Republic of Ireland).

The Cullinane video has already generated enough commentary of a kind that Sinn Féin still likes to dismiss as incantations of the “politics of condemnation”. However, in the context of my argument here, it also suggests a more novel question: in light of the party’s assumed role as the leading party of the Irish left, what might such moments say about Sinn Féin’s commitment’s to the necessarily “inclusionary” character of any left populist project?

If Sinn Féin wants to consolidate its role as the driving force of the Irish left, it needs to confront the reactionary and atavistic elements within its own ranks.

And let me be blunt in my answer: if Sinn Féin wants to consolidate its role as the driving force of the Irish left, it needs to confront the reactionary and atavistic elements within its own ranks that continue to heroize and idealize the politics of armed struggle in a solipsistic fashion that animates the suspicions and fears of people from a Protestant and Unionist background in the North of Ireland. If the “dream” of a 32 county Republic is to come into being in the years ahead, the political values that underpin it need to be radical democratic and agonistic – affirmative of political and cultural differences in a way that transcends the lingering sway of sectarian divisions.

Sinn Féin needs to become a proactive agent (along with others) in the cultivation of thoughtful public conversations about the legacy of the country’s past. The party with a penchant for secrecy needs to open itself up to forms of critical introspection that do not indulge unthinking idolatry of its own historical complicity with a culture of political violence, especially when residual expressions of this culture continue to be part of the politics of the present. If the party could take on that mantle in an authentic way that embodies the best egalitarian impulses of the Republic tradition, the recent election may well turn out to be the harbinger of a very affirmative future for Irish left politics.

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