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The Republic of Ireland: The Dog That Hasn't Barked in the Night?

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The Republic of Ireland: The Dog That Hasn't Barked in the Night?
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  198 13 The Republic of Ireland:The Dog That Hasn’tBarked in the Night?  Duncan McDonnell Introduction The reader may be somewhat surprised to find a chapter on Ireland in a com-parative study of populism in contemporary Western Europe. 1 First of all, formany years, politics in the Republic of Ireland was treated by scholars asexceptional and of little interest to the comparativist. As Peter Mair com-ments, Ireland was seen as a small peripheral state in which ‘the patterns andstructures of mass politics which are evident elsewhere in Europe have littlerelevance’ (Mair, 1999: 128). In particular, Ireland’s perceived idiosyncrasy layin the fact that the two parties which generally accounted for over 80 per centof the vote, Fianna Fáil (FF) and Fine Gael (FG), both seemed to be broadly of the centre/centre-right, while the main party on the Left, Labour, usuallycame a very distant third at elections. 2 Second, late twentieth-century Irelandhas not produced a populist party akin to the likes of the Freedom Party (FPÖ)in Austria, the  Lega Nord  (LN) in Italy, or the  Lijst Pim Fortuyn (LPF) in Holland.Thus, while politics in the Republic in the last two decades has become moresimilar to that on the continent due to membership of the European Union(EU), economic growth, immigration, secularization and the predominanceof coalition governments, it has nonetheless escaped the rise of the type of populist challengers seen in almost every other Western European state.However, while the new wave of (generally right-wing) European popu-lism may not have broken yet on Irish shores, that does not mean that theconditions which have allowed populist success elsewhere are not yet presentin Ireland. As Elina Kestilä’s study of what she terms ‘the Finnish exception’shows, the factors facilitating the success of such parties ‘may exist also incases of non-occurrences’ (Kestilä, 2005: 2). They just simply may not havebeen politicized and/or acted upon. Indeed, if we compare Ireland with Italy − acountry regularly hailed as having become ‘a populist paradise’ in the 1990s(see Marco Tarchi’s chapter in this volume) − we find today in Ireland many   198  The Republic of Ireland  199 of the same conditions which created the fertile terrain for such spectacularpopulist success in Italy: the exposure of widespread political corruption,plummeting levels of party identification, an increasingly anti-politicalmedia, unprecedented immigration, a swift decline of the Church’s influ-ence, rising Euroscepticism, etc.The absence of a populist party of the kinds found in Italy, Denmark orBritain should not be taken to mean, however, that Irish politics is free frompopulism in all its guises. In fact, politics in the Republic has always beencharacterized by what Margaret Canovan (1981: 12 − 13) terms ‘politicians’populism’, meaning ‘broad, non-ideological coalition-building that drawson the unificatory appeal of “the people” ’. As Canovan (2005: 77) notes inher most recent work, ‘in the USA, which escaped many of the conflicts overclass and ideology from which European party systems emerged, there haslong been scope for this kind of populism’, and so too in Ireland, with aparty system in many ways most similar to that of the United States (US), hasthis type of politicians’ populism long flourished, especially (but not only)in the dominant party FF and its leaders. 3 However, while the US has alsoseen the sporadic emergence in recent decades of new right-wing populistactors similar to those found in Europe (Ross Perot being a notable example),contemporary Ireland has remained untouched by such phenomena.To help provide answers to the questions of why that is the case andwhether Ireland is likely to remain, in this sense, an exception in WesternEurope, this chapter will first of all examine, in the Irish context, the sameopportunity structures which have helped determine the emergence andsuccess/failure of populist parties across the continent: political culture,cleavages, the party system, the economy, immigration, European integra-tion and corruption. This will set the stage for the second part of the chapter,devoted to populist agency, which will look first at what populism there hasbeen and currently is in Irish politics, before then assessing the potential intwenty-first century Ireland for the emergence and success of a populistparty similar to most of those found elsewhere in Western Europe, eitherthrough the appearance of a new party or the transformation of an existingone. It will argue that, in fact, the main obstacle impeding the emergence of a new populist party is the recent success of the left-wing nationalist partySinn Fein (SF) which, while unwilling (and unable) to embrace anti-minorityor anti-pluralist positions, not only displays many of the other characteris-tics of populism, but has occupied much of the political and electoral spacewhere a populist challenger (of the Right or Left) would seek to locate itself. Opportunity structures for populism in Ireland Political culture and cleavages Twentieth-century Irish political culture developed in ways that wouldappear to hinder the rise and success of a populist challenger. First and  200 Twenty-First Century Populism foremost is the fact that Irish political culture has always contained a strongdose of populism. Rather than being predicated on left-right or secular/clerical cleavages, in post-independence Ireland, as Mair argues, ‘thereemerged a new political culture which, in its constant stress on Catholicnationalist uniformity and homogeneity ... proved quite hostile to anynotion of politicising internal social divisions’ (Mair, 1992: 404). If, there-fore, as we have said in the introductory chapter, populist appeals challengethe dominant political culture by juxtaposing ‘a virtuous and homogeneouspeople’ with an unscrupulous elite and a set of dangerous ‘others’, then Irishpolitical culture was nearly unimpeachable with its twin pillars of theworthy plain Catholic people of Ireland on one side and the common enemy(and easy scapegoat for the nation’s ills) of Britain and its liberal culture onthe other. Within this discourse, to stir internal divisions among ‘the people’was, as in US political culture with its notion of ‘un-American’, viewed asbeing ‘against the national interest’. Indeed, for most of post-independenceIrish history, we might say that Plato’s  polis of idealized unity has prevailedover Aristotle’s, in which conflicting interests and values were insteadperceived as natural. In Ireland, differences within ‘the people’ (the simple-living Catholic community) were discarded, swept under a carpet of rhetoricexalting a nation of pious Celts striving, together, for collective self-realizationin territorial, social and economic terms. Or, to return to Plato and Aristotle,we might say that The Republic  suppressed The Politics .In this sense, Ireland had much in common with other twentieth-centurypostcolonial societies. In his study of the Third World in the 1960s, PeterWorsley observed that populist leaders in the newly independent states‘assert that there are no divisions in the community, or that if they are dis-cernible, they are “non-antagonistic”. Thus class divisions can then be dis-missed as external (“imperialist”) intrusions, alien to the society’ (Worsley,1967: 165 − 166). Likewise in Ireland, class politics were characterized assomething that happened ‘elsewhere’ (in particular Britain) and not to bewelcomed in a nation pursuing economic development. Of course, it couldbe argued that the small Irish Labour party was to some extent complicit inthis (Mair, 1992). Parties are, after all, not mere passive victims of structures,but interact with them, contributing to their formation and consolidationas well as living within their boundaries (Sartori, 2005; Mair, 1987). Thus,according to Mair (1992: 403), one of the key reasons why class did notemerge as a major cleavage in Irish politics was quite simply that ‘unlike inthe rest of Western Europe, no party, or union, has sought sufficiently hard“to persuade” such an alignment’. Consequently, there have generally beenfew opportunities for a populist challenger either (a) to appeal to ‘thepeople’ beyond the right-left paradigm − which they can depict as an illusioncreated by professional politicians to disguise the pursuit of their own andother elite interests or (b) to appeal to ‘the common working man’ to rise upagainst a bourgeois, corrupt elite. In the first case, this was because the two  The Republic of Ireland  201 main parties both already appealed to ‘the people’ in this way; in the secondbecause class politics were accepted as being against the national interest.Although there are some signs that this situation may be changing – asshown by the increased vote for SF in working-class urban areas – Irish polit-ical competition still has nothing approaching even the weakened type of class cleavage found in other contemporary Western European societies.By contrast, the secular/clerical cleavage appears more interesting for ourdiscussion. As Jens Rydgren argues in his chapter on Sweden, opportunitiesfor populist success are increased by changes in and greater salience of whathe terms the ‘sociocultural dimension’ (including the secular/clerical cleav-age). In this area, huge changes have occurred in Ireland since the end of the1980s as a combination of public value shifts and serious scandals involvingthe clergy have led to a very considerable decline in the influence of theChurch. This has been reflected in a number of ways. First of all, peoplehave clearly voted with their feet as weekly Mass attendance amongstCatholics has fallen from 85 per cent in 1990 (European Values Survey) tojust 50 per cent in 2003 (TNS mrbi Survey). Second, they have voted againstthe instructions of the Church hierarchy in a number of referendums overthe last fifteen years. In 1995, the introduction of divorce (which had beendefeated by a two-thirds majority in 1986) was narrowly approved and whileabortion has not yet been fully legalized, some restrictions surrounding ithave been lifted following controversial referendums. These changes withinIrish society may favour a populist party in a number of (partly contrasting)ways:(1) given the Church’s promotion of tolerance towards immigrants, itsdecline in influence, particularly in urban areas, could make a populistparty with an anti-immigrant stance more publicly acceptable;(2) likewise, however, while many Irish have embraced secular values, thereis still a large constituency amongst whom a populist appeal based on anostalgic return to the heartland of ‘clean-living old Catholic Ireland’could find favour. This is particularly so as all the current parties havenow adopted positions on moral issues which conflict with the teach-ings of the Church.  The party system It is to those parties that we now turn our attention. In particular, our focushere is on how has the party system transformed over the last two decadesand how might this benefit/hinder a populist challenger. As with the secular/clerical cleavage, there have also been major changes in the party systemsince the mid-1980s, with a steady decline in the combined vote of the twomain parties, FF and FG, the emergence of new parties, and the decision by FF  202 Twenty-First Century Populism to go into coalition, first in 1989 with a new party to the Right – the neo-liberal Progressive Democrats (PDs) − and then in 1992 with an old adversary,Labour, on the Left. Before 1989, for decades the electorate had been facedwith a choice of single-party FF government versus a possible coalition of FGand Labour. Given FF’s electoral strength and its refusal to countenance shar-ing power, FG and Labour always had to accept that, if they wanted to govern,it would have to be with one another, despite their centre-right/centre-leftdifferences. Indeed, despite the fall in its vote since the 1970s, it remains thecase that, for FF to be put into opposition, FG, Labour and at least one of thenew parties would have to enter government together. If we take FF as beingcloser to the centre than FG (as has been the case for most of the histories of the two parties, although not always), FF fulfil Christoffer Green-Pedersen’scriterion for what he terms a ‘pivotal center party’, by which he means onethat can only be removed from power by an overarching coalition of partiesfrom both Right and Left. (Green-Pedersen, 2004: 337). As Green-Pedersenwarns, however, this can lead to an ‘implosion’ of the party system (as hap-pened, for example, in Holland) in which ‘all major parties become centerparties capable of governing with each other’ (Green-Pedersen, 2004: 324).Certainly, this would allow a populist challenger to accuse such parties of being prepared to sacrifice their principles and identities in pursuit of officeand its spoils. Moreover, the inability since the 1980s of FF to secure enoughseats to govern alone has now made all parties possible coalition partners of one another, with the exception of FF and FG – whose unwillingness to con-template governing together, despite being the two parties closest to oneanother, remains the great Rubicon of Irish politics. The policy convergencebetween these two parties (especially now that they substantially agree onthe Northern Ireland question) offers an obvious opportunity for those wish-ing to paint them as being essentially the same, with only their civil warhistories dividing them (as the PDs, for example, initially did). Indeed, asMichael Gallagher and Michael Marsh (2004) found, even a large portion of FG members see little difference between the two parties in terms of policy.Thus, although no party has polled more than FF since 1928, we can stillsay that if the Irish party system was one which was ‘frozen  par excellence ’for many years, it has thawed significantly over the last two decades (Mair,1997a: 15). As we can see from Table 13.1, the combined first preference voteof FF and FG has fallen from 84.4 per cent in 1982 to 64 per cent in 2002while that of Labour has remained substantially unchanged. This slide inthe vote for the main traditional parties has been accompanied by declinesin party identification and turnout. In the first Irish National Election Study(INES), held in 2002, only 25 per cent of respondents said they felt ‘close to’a particular party (Laver, 2005: 194). The comparison with Mair’s figure(1997a: 128) of over 72 per cent in 1981 expressing a sense of identificationwith political parties tells its own story. Disillusionment with the parties isalso reflected by the fall in turnout at general elections from 76.2 per cent
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