Ireland’s Populists Are Not Really Populist

After decades of militant radicalism, Sinn Fein won last week’s elections by moving toward the mainstream.

Sinn Fein’s Donnchadh O Laoghaire
Sinn Fein’s Donnchadh O Laoghaire celebrates being the first member of the Irish parliament elected in Cork, Ireland, on Feb. 9. Jeff J. Mitchell/Getty Images

Ireland just witnessed a historically transformative general election. Sinn Fein—a left-wing party historically linked to the paramilitary Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA)—won more first preference votes than Fianna Fail and Fine Gael—the two parties that had dominated Irish politics since 1932—and secured almost a quarter of the seats in Ireland’s national parliament. Sinn Fein openly supported the IRA’s guerrilla campaign against British rule in Northern Ireland during 25 years of conflict from 1969 to 1994. The IRA was responsible for the deaths of over 1,700 people, including many innocent civilians. Now, Sinn Fein can realistically expect to be part of the next government—or even lead it.

It’s tempting to think Sinn Fein’s rise is part of the populist surge that has destabilized European politics in recent years. That would be a mistake, however. Without abandoning its nationalist principles, Sinn Fein managed to shed radicalism from its political platform. It’s an open question, however, if Sinn Fein’s rise can be replicated by populist parties elsewhere.

Sinn Fein is an unusual political beast. It spent most of the 1970s and 1980s on the margins of Irish politics, widely condemned for its deep association with political violence. Many of its activists were simultaneously members of the IRA, and they were frequently shuttled in and out of prison. Some were even the targets of assassination attempts. During that period, Sinn Fein was regarded as little more than a mouthpiece for the IRA.It’s an open question … if Sinn Fein’s rise can be replicated by populist parties elsewhere.

Beginning in the 1980s, the party began to develop its own political program, initiating a slow electoral rise. The party formally decided to end its support for armed struggle during the 1990s Northern Ireland peace process, a decision that was highly controversial at the time and led some groups to break away from Sinn Fein. The decision paid off: The party earned gradual electoral success in the 2000s.

In part, that’s also because Sinn Fein adopted a clear political profile that contrasted with the establishment. Its broader policy platform is firmly located on the left of the political spectrum. In the most recent election, the party proposed tax hikes for the wealthy, tax cuts for those on lower incomes, and a massive program of public spending. It has promised the largest public housing program in the history of the country; 1,500 additional hospital beds; hiring thousands more nurses and midwives; 1 billion euros of increased spending on public transport; cutting the cost of child care; and reducing the pension age to 65.

Fianna Fail and Fine Gael have both condemned Sinn Fein’s “tax and spend” agenda, accusing the party of a form of economic recklessness that will inflict serious damage on the Irish economy. But 24 percent of voters chose not to heed the warnings, opting for Sinn Fein’s fresh approach to economic and social problems.

The increased receptiveness of voters to Sinn Fein’s positions and messaging is perhaps best understood as a delayed reaction to the 2008 global economic crisis. Although Ireland endured a profound period of crisis after 2008, electoral volatility did not produce a marked shift away from the dominant center-right continuum in Irish politics. Now, more than 10 years later, the residual effects of the economic crisis are still being felt, despite some signs of economic recovery. According to the election exit poll, 63 percent of Irish voters said they did not believe that they had benefited from the economic recovery. There is deep dissatisfaction with the inability of recent governments to address quality of life issues related to housing, health care, child care costs, and pensions, particularly among younger voters. This has translated into an appetite for change, and voters readily identified Sinn Fein as the main vehicle to deliver that change. Sinn Fein was able to translate widespread public grievance into electoral gain—but, unlike populists elsewhere in Europe, they have mostly done so in constructive, rather than destructive, fashion.The increased receptiveness of voters to Sinn Fein’s positions and messaging is perhaps best understood as a delayed reaction to the 2008 global economic crisis.

To be sure, in addition to its radical policy proposals, there is clearly a populist slant to Sinn Fein’s rhetoric. The party’s messaging typically places a morally pure “people” against a hopelessly corrupt “elite,” both of whom are always defined by the party itself. Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald regularly depicts the mainstream political parties as being aligned with the elite—bankers, property developers, landlords, etc.—and claims that Sinn Fein is the true representative of the people’s will.

But below this populist veneer, Sinn Fein diverges significantly from other European populists. Where it is most distinct is its position on the European Union. Populists tend to oppose globalization because it undermines domestic industry and outsources jobs (and wealth) to foreigners—a classic case, in their view, of the elite selling out the people. Sinn Fein was staunchly opposed to EU membership for much of its early history, and it could still have accurately been described as Euroskeptic well into the 21st century.

Now it is a self-styled “Euro-critical” party: It supports deep-rooted reforms of the bloc, but it is no longer against its existence or even Ireland’s membership. The party opposed earlier efforts at further integration, but it supported the Remain campaign during the 2016 Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom. True, this was motivated more by its desire to keep the entire island of Ireland inside the EU (which is itself rooted in its position on the constitutional question, the issue of Irish unification), but the consequence is that Sinn Fein is now firmly in the pro-EU camp.

Sinn Fein is also distinct from other populists on immigration. For right-wing populists, immigration dilutes the national character and threatens the inherited culture of a society—even left-wing populists tend to oppose immigration as a way of protecting domestic jobs. But Sinn Fein is decidedly pro-immigration; it regularly makes its progressive and multicultural views known, and anti-immigration rhetoric has never formed part of the party narrative, even when weighed against its strong adherence to Irish nationalism.

The party is defined, first and foremost, by its position on Ireland’s constitutional question. Its election manifesto affirms that the party’s “core political objective is to achieve Irish Unity,” unification of the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, and it proposes preparing for a referendum on Irish unification. This emphasis on nationalist Ireland’s highest aspiration coupled with the party’s claim to be the vanguard of the fight for Irish freedom lends Sinn Fein an ethno-nationalist character similar to that of several other European populists.Sinn Fein did not win because of its marginal standing or its paramilitary past—it won despite these things.

But the issue of Irish unity was not pushed by the party as forcefully during the election campaign, and the appeal to nationalism was seldom used to gain votes. Instead, social and economic issues were placed at the forefront, and the election was fought on core bread-and-butter concerns such as health care and housing. Although Sinn Fein will nevertheless seek to advance its Irish unity agenda if it enters government, the party will not have the power to call a unity referendum on its own. According to the terms of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement—which largely brought the IRA’s campaign to an end—that power lies with the British government alone. So, while Sinn Fein can put unification on its agenda, the political realities will make it a secondary concern, at least in Dublin.

Some pundits suggest that the 2020 election results are a sign that Ireland has finally succumbed to the nationalist populist scourge. But while Sinn Fein started its journey as a political pariah and still places its aims within the basic populist framework, the party is now firmly in the mainstream. It shares widely held views on the EU and immigration, and even its emphasis on Irish unification is not dissimilar from the general views of other parties. Sinn Fein’s electoral success is better understood as a case of a broad shift to the left in a country that has long been dominated by center-right politics that had grown increasingly unresponsive.

For that reason, the normalization of Sinn Fein in Irish politics offers few lessons for the future of populism in other countries. People voted for Sinn Fein because they want genuine, sweeping reform of the political and social system, but they want the basic confines of that system to remain relatively the same. The party has had to temper many of its older, genuinely populist stances to attract the broader audience that it did, and if Sinn Fein touted the same type of Euroskeptic and anti-immigrant rhetoric popular among right-wing populists, it is doubtful it would have performed as well. Sinn Fein did not win because of its marginal standing or its paramilitary past—it won despite these things.

Mary C. Murphy is a senior lecturer in the Department of Government and Politics, University College Cork, Ireland, and the author of Europe and Northern Ireland’s Future: Negotiating Brexit’s Unique Case. Twitter: @MaryCMurphy

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