It’s become a sort of cliché in comments sections of websites like The Journal to say that Ireland needs a “new political party”. Yet there is often a lack of specificity as to what kind of new party would improve political life, when there is already a multiplicity of registered parties in the state. However, this recurring theme obviously reflects widespread disillusionment with the political system. It is a trend evident in many parts of Europe and should not be ignored. As such, it is worth reflecting on where openings exist for a new party in Ireland. Previous research for the Foundation for European Progressive Studies has identified several potential openings on the right of the spectrum: 1) parties espousing traditionalist conservative Catholic values; 2) a Eurosceptic party like UKIP or the 5-Star Movement in Italy; and 3) the “Populist Radical Right” (term borrowed from the Dutch political scientist, Cas Mudde) akin to the French Front National or the Sweden Democrats. It has also been suggested that there is space for a grouping to the left of the Labour Party for those who cannot stomach Sinn Féin or the Trotskyist left but that is beyond the scope of this article.
While the Reform Alliance possibly reflect the first trend, the National Independent Party (NIP), reported upon in the Irish Times this week, have their eye on the second and (to a lesser extent) third openings. They know what they don’t want, decrying the Euro, multiculturalism, immigration, austerity and lax banking regulation. Their Ireland South candidate for this year’s European elections says that they are neither right nor left nor centre “we are directly forward…we are liberterian [sic].” In fact, they are ideologically incoherent and self-contradictory. To oppose austerity is to favour the protection of the welfare state and to oppose lax banking regulation is to interfere with the markets, neither of which is especially libertarian. Still, the use of this language reflects the derivative nature of their narrative which is borrowed largely from UKIP.
True to type, NIP offer simple answers to complex questions and negate the constitutional impediments to such simplicity. The political system will be saved from localism and parish-pump by reducing the number of TDs and increasing the size of constituencies. Their job creation strategy is based on leaving the Euro. Their social policy is an appeal to paranoid discourse about cultural dilution and the perils of immigration. Interestingly, their assertions come without any empirical evidence to substantiate their claims. The rest is rather vague, with aspirations towards a “free and mutual society”.
Should we be worried?
Depending on your worldview, many will be concerned about the impact of a party like NIP on the political system. Realistically, it will only have as much of an impact as we allow it. If other politicians begin to engage with this discourse on immigration and Europe, the salience of such issues will increase and the lowest common denominator becomes more normalised. Even this is a small victory for the xenophobic right.
There are also opportunities created by the media. Effective media performers with a touch of novelty attract viewers, listeners and readers so there is inherent media self-interest in reporting on them. At the same time, the populist and Eurosceptic right enjoys a narrative of a media elite out to get them, even when their coverage is proportionate, thus establishing a remarkable vicious circle of discursive acrobatics. In 2009, Declan Ganley came within respectable distance of getting elected on a Eurosceptic vote in Ireland North West with no little help from the media circus created around him. Still, he maintained a persistent narrative of an Establishment out to get him.
In real terms, however, the NIP has little electoral potential. The PR-STV electoral system mitigates the successful sudden growth of new parties, in part due to the localism it engenders. For a party to grow, each candidate must do enough long term groundwork to get elected in their own constituency or ward and this must happen across multiple constituencies and wards. In a continental European PR-list system, a charismatic leader can bring other candidates over the line but Ireland’s candidate-based voting counters this. For example, Ganley’s appeal did little for Caroline Simons’ vote. Once again, calls for a new party negate the organisational capacity it takes to run a party effectively.
At this early stage, the relative success or failure of the National Independent Party and its ilk will be determined by how the rest of us react to it. An overreaction creates martyrs and heroes while friendly engagement nurtures media darlings. Then their medium-term future depends on their own capacity to organise and institutionalise their party structures, which currently seem to be lacking. The safest option is to nip it in the bud now and calmly leave them out in the cold before anything gets nasty.
None of this alters the on-going sense of disillusionment with politics in Ireland and elsewhere in Europe. That is a huge matter that needs to be addressed by both citizens and politicians. Yet simply saying that things are wrong will not make them right and in politics, simple answers are about as useful as ignoring the question.
* I’ve deliberately avoided providing a link to the NIP website.