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Analysing populism in Ireland


In November 2013 I was one of the editors of a book entitled The Changing Faces of Populism: Systemic Challengers in Europe and the US published by Lexington Books. This was a collection of case studies that sought to provide a snapshot of the situation throughout Europe. The paper below is the chapter I wrote on the Republic of Ireland. 

Hostage-takers and gatekeepers: Populism and its potential in the Republic of Ireland


In November 2010, University College Dublin economist Morgan Kelly wrote an article in the Irish Times entitled ‘If you think the bank bailout was bad, wait until the mortgage defaults hit home’.[1] He dealt with the human cost for those families struggling to deal with overpriced mortgages and the economic cost for the State, which, he said, was in danger of heading for bankruptcy. Within three weeks of this article being released, the government had agreed to a bailout mechanism with the ECB, the IMF, the European Commission (hereafter Troika) and three individual member states. His final remarks, raised fears of the emergence within five years of a “hard right, anti Europe, anti-Traveller party that will, inconceivable as it now seems, leave us nostalgic for the, usually, harmless buffoonery” of the traditional, established parties. In a country that has never had a strong hard right tradition, such a prospect raised serious concerns not only for Irish political culture but also for similar potential developments elsewhere in Europe.

By his own prediction, it is still too early to say whether his fears could reflect reality. Given the absence of enduring far right parties in Irish history since independence, there is sometimes a tendency to compare Ireland to “the Finnish exception”. [2] However, the growth of the True Finns in that country has shown the danger of unwarranted complacency. As the Republic of Ireland struggles through persistent economic recession and political disenchantment, it is worth assessing the potential for a new populist onslaught in Irish politics.

In the interest of comparative utility, this paper will look at potential areas of encroachment for parties of the Populist Radical Right, and other political tendencies with significant counterparts in Europe and North America. It will therefore be necessary to examine whether there are factors in Irish constitutional design and political practice that encourage the growth of populist movements or that mitigate and absorb such tendencies. In a society that has undergone considerable social flux in the past quarter century, the analysis will examine if circumstances have changed enough to provide new opportunities for political actors of this kind. This will involve an examination of nationalist discourse among the major political parties and the relationship between voters and their liberal democratic institutions.

The paper finds that, thus far, there are two types of actors worthy of scrutiny in the coming years. The first are the “hostage takers” who mainly participate indirectly in the electoral system but who mobilise around referenda and hold politicians to ransom on specific issues. Secondly, there are “gatekeepers” who attract the votes of the Populist Radical Right but who have not behaved like them thus far.

Irish society and political practice

It has sometimes been considered a foolhardy endeavour to attempt to place Irish party politics in comparative perspective relative to the rest of Europe. The endurance within party politics of the divisions established during the Irish Civil War, along with the paucity of explicitly class-based left-right politics, have given Ireland as isolated a position in comparative politics as her geographical position in Europe. Prof John Whyte applied Lipset and Rokkan’s typology[3] of the conflicts that form party systems to the Irish context but concluded that the Irish party system was “sui generis‟.[4] Thus, in the lack of direct counterparts to the British National Party or Front National, it is not the first time that Ireland has been seen as a political outlier in European terms.

However, Irish society has witnessed considerable change in recent decades. The dominance of the Roman Catholic Church has waned amid institutional disgrace and rapid secularisation. Added to the investigations into church indiscretions, a series of tribunals of enquiry exposed significant corruption and endemic dysfunction in the political system. Throughout much of this period, Ireland experienced its most significant economic boom, as free market values overrode religiosity, and as the social and economic effects of globalisation displaced traditional forms of authority.

Of course, Irish politics has always had outside influences, from the clerical to the (post-) colonial, but the pace of social change that coincided with Ireland’s highly globalised economy has been remarkable. Of the various approaches to globalisation, the “hyperglobalist” thesis holds that we are dealing with a primarily economic phenomenon. The political upshot is that, as the borderless economy and institutions of global and regional governance develop, the nation-state is to experience a terminal decline. The rising interdependence wrought by global capitalism moves the locus of real political decision-making away from the nation-state, sometimes laying the ground for nationalist counter-reactions.[5]

The Celtic Tiger economic model had an overarching focus on attracting Foreign Direct Investment, which invariably affected other aspects of domestic policy. The state’s capacity to provide public services came to depend on duties from an over-inflated property market and the real economy became beholden to a volatile financial sector. While there was evidence of emerging “modernisation losers” during the boom years, the concomitant drop in national cohesion left the state vulnerable to potential upheaval should things go wrong.

Duncan McDonnell wrote in 2007 that “Public anxiety about a downturn in the economy and an increase in the salience of the secular/clerical cleavage could facilitate the rise of populism and, again, both of these are liable to happen in the next decade”.[6] It was not long before this became the lived experience and Irish society was able to test his proposition. Ireland’s implementation of harsh post-bailout austerity measures came at the same time as constitutional debates over issues such as abortion, marriage equality for the LGBT[7] community, and religious patronage in education. In both cases, there is a perception of elites acting with impunity against the interests of ordinary people and there has been a certain level of organised opposition appealing to anti-political sentiment.

The political landscape and its opportunity structures

These wider societal trends leave space for several manifestations of anti-Establishment populism evident in Europe and/or North America: the Populist Radical Right, populist Euroscepticism, religious reactionary movements and broader anti-politics. Whether this grows to become a wider and more dynamic phenomenon depends on factors of history, political landscape and organisational structure. Of the aforementioned phenomena, that which has garnered most attention is the rise of the Populist Radical Right in Europe. The broadest possible definition of this family is that they subscribe to a nationalist worldview. We will define nationalism using John Breuilly’s definition:

“The term ‘nationalism’ is used to refer to political movements seeking or exercising state power and justifying such action with nationalist arguments. A nationalist argument is a political doctrine built upon three basic assumptions:

(a)     There exists a nation with an explicit and peculiar character.

(b)     The interests and values of this nation take priority over all other interests   and values.

(c)     The nation must be as independent as possible. This requires at least the attainment of political sovereignty”.[8]

This typology of nationalism aids our understanding of the nation’s self-identification through time and the socio-political circumstances in which a given nation finds itself.  Breuilly’s thesis focuses predominantly on cases of oppositional nationalism and can be usefully applied to the oppositional discourse of far right parties. In the Irish context, it offers particularly useful parameters as throughout the 20th century, even nationalists in power adopted an oppositional posture in their discourse. Breuilly also outlines a series of ‘classes of nationalism’, among which irredentism and a drive for unification are prominent.[9] Given the irredentism of official state nationalism in Ireland up until relatively recently, this presents a potential platform for the Populist Radical Right during a period of crisis.

Yet nationalism alone is an insufficient definition and the somewhat post-colonial character of much of official Irish nationalism has given the term a more banal connotation than is the case elsewhere in Europe. Cas Mudde makes use of a concept mainly used in American literature but which has utility sharpening our focus for European analyses: “nativism”.

An ideology, which holds that states should be inhabited exclusively by members of the native group (“the nation”) and that non-native elements (persons and ideas) are fundamentally threatening to the homogenous nation-state. The basis for defining (non) “nativeness” can be diverse, e.g. ethnic, racial or religious, but will always have a cultural element.[10]

In many respects, the “cultural element” to which Mudde refers was embedded in the struggles that bore the Irish Free State. In its earliest formation, independent Ireland emerged from four bitter conflicts: Irish and English; Catholic and Protestant; constitutional nationalists and separatists; and, ‘Treatyites’ and Republicans.[11] The state that exists today is primarily a product of the first two conflicts as independence from the United Kingdom coincided with the partition of Ireland into a predominantly Protestant North and Catholic South. While many nationalists genuinely claimed to be guided by pluralism and civic republicanism, the net result was a conception of Irish national identity that was distinctly Catholic and Gaelic.

In the southern state, the third and fourth conflicts offer an interesting dynamic that still has a bearing on the potential for populist and anti-parliamentary discourse. The “constitutional nationalists” to whom Fitzpatrick refers were the “Home Rulers” of the Irish Parliamentary Party who sought incremental independence by parliamentary means through Westminster. They faced stiff internal opposition from the militant secessionists of Sinn Féin. As an oppositional force, Sinn Féin challenged the position of the Irish Parliamentary Party as the single voice of Irish nationalism, arguing that it had become too normalised in the British political system to adequately represent Irish identity. This critique, drawn from cultural nationalist ideas purported that “As it ossifies, political nationalism not only reflects the norms of the dominant state, but it also lays a dead hand on the national community, attempting to stifle any extra-parliamentary movements outside its control”.[12]

This type of political practice adheres to Mudde’s description of populism as it divides society into ‘two homogenous and antagonistic groups, “the pure people” and “the corrupt elite”,’ and argues that democratic politics represents an expression of the general will of the people.[13] Having stoked the flames of anti-parliamentarianism and populism, the descendants of early Sinn Féin were placed in the awkward position of attempting to govern while stifling subsequent extra-parliamentary movements. The Anglo-Irish Treaty, the terms of which brought the break with Great Britain, was to cause Sinn Féin to split and led the country into Civil War. This division crystallised to form the Irish party system, as the parties of the split, Fine Gael (pro-Treaty) and Fianna Fáil (anti-Treaty), went from undermining the pre-independence elite to becoming the post-independence Establishment. The centre-left Labour Party has been the only other permanent participant in Irish parliamentary democracy, while other parties have appeared, only to again disappear or become absorbed in the pre-existing system.

Fianna Fáil holds a particularly paradoxical position in the system. Since their entry to the Irish parliament, and up until recently, they have dominated political life while still playing to anti-political and anti-parliamentary sentiment. The party exemplifies what Canovan and McDonnell describe as “politicians’ populism” and this has permeated throughout the Irish party system.[14] The inconsistency inherent in being both populist and Establishment has meant that subsequent non- and semi-parliamentary actors, ranging from Saor Éire to the present day incarnation of Sinn Féin, have regularly challenged the dominant parties. Some of these movements and parties claim to be the genuine political descendants of those who fought in the War of Independence and hold that the contemporary Establishment has become ossified just like the pre-independence Irish Parliamentary Party.

The third main characteristic outlined by Mudde in his assessment of the Populist Radical Right is authoritarianism, mainly as a by-word for law and order issues.[15] For a long time this was also embedded in Irish political practice, in part due to the challenges wrought by non-parliamentary actors on the system, with successive governments dealing harshly with republican nationalist challengers. [16] Added to this, post-independence Ireland came to be dominated by the Roman Catholic Church in a manner that reflected sociological realities from before independence. The main parties acquiesced in this and the outsourcing of civic moral authority to a religious institution has left the political system in poor shape to deal with many of today’s challenges in a healthy manner. The Church’s downfall amid scandal and institutional self-preservation has left a vacuum and the absence of sufficient secular support systems leaves the Republic of Ireland vulnerable to political entrepreneurs.

Structuralist arguments link the shape of the Irish political landscape to the electoral system, which is based on Proportional Representation by Single Transferrable Vote (PR-STV).[17] While brokerage and patronage existed in Irish politics since the 19th century, [18] it is argued that the patron-client relationship fostered by PR-STV exacerbates the localism and parochialism of political life. This has had a constant effect of undermining the practice of party politics. Clientelism mitigates socially minded political organisation and serves as an impediment to the aggregation of demands or mobility in horizontal associations for the prosecution of such demands.[19] Furthermore, it causes political and ideological development to stagnate within political parties. While this might appear to further facilitate populist pretenders, it combines with localism to engender a particularistic form of political organisation. This system can facilitate independent public representatives but it makes it difficult for new mass organisations to enter the system. Multi-member constituencies and candidate-based elections offset the potential for a new party to grow quickly under a charismatic leader, as might be the case in a list system.

We have seen, thus far, how historical circumstance and political practice have limited the scope for the evolution of new populist parties. The catch-all nature of the two historically dominant parties, their localism, their invocation of principles of nationalism and adherence to church authority absorbed many of the elements that might otherwise facilitate the growth of dedicated populist movements. However, the fall from grace of the pillars of society has allowed for openings that might not previously have been in existence. Political conflict has a dramatic effect on the manner in which a system forms and re-forms. Some conflicts become intertwined and bound up in other relationships. The linkage between social and economic change and EU membership has a significant impact on the discourse adopted by oppositional actors. Several borrow from the tactics employed by Eurosceptic populist movements elsewhere in Europe.

Potential openings for populist movements

In the time since Professor Kelly made his dire warnings about the emergence of new actors on the “hard right”, there has been some evidence of three strands of populism with counterparts elsewhere in Europe and in North America.

  1. The fallout from rapid secularisation and the recent re-emergence of significant “Culture Wars” (to borrow from the term used in the US) have refocused attention on reactionary religious organisations operating at the margins of mainstream Irish Catholicism.
  2. Harsh austerity measures – imposed by the Irish State at the behest of the Troika – have created space for Eurosceptic reaction, both from the right and the left. While left-wing opposition comes from a familiar narrative that stretches from Keynesian to Marxist perspectives, this paper is more concerned with right-wing manifestations. In comparative terms, they have more in common with the anti-statists of the Tea Party in the United States, or with the 5-Star Movement in Italy.
  3. Economic displacement, social flux and demographic challenges also provide the potential for Populist Radical Right parties based on Mudde’s typology.

Voters of parties like those populists mentioned in strands 2 and 3 above tend to be the most alienated from the liberal democratic political system and much of their discourse revolves around efforts to lay claim to the definition of “real democracy”.  In this sense, they seek a radical regeneration of democratic institutions; a “hyperdemocracy” which regularly uses referenda and open lists, and removes moral and political legitimacy from elites.[20] The PR-STV system offers a level of proportionality akin to an open list in a PR-List system but in comparatively small, discrete constituencies. It offers plenty of opportunities for Independent parliamentarians. However, for a new political party to succeed, each candidate needs to build his/her profile over time, embedding him/herself in local social structures in each constituency. A charismatic leader of a new party might win his or her own seat but the task of building a party is a long-term one.

It would be a mistake, however, to assume that populism only rears its head through direct participation in the party system. While Church influence has been on the wane, lay religious organisations have still been vocal on the so-called Culture Wars. Most mainstream lay Catholic organisations behave just like other civil society actors in a liberal democracy, but there is a rump of dangerously reactionary organisations that correspond to strand 1 above. Although they operate on the margins of society, they have been effective in adapting to the structures of the political system for their specific interests. Thus, since the 1980s, proposed legislation to liberalise divorce, contraception, reproductive rights, LGBT equality etc. has been met with highly organised campaigns of opposition. Given the personalist nature of politics fostered by the PR-STV system, groups like the Life Institute, Cóir and Youth Defence individually target public representatives in their localities. Their tactics often involve severe intimidation and threatening behaviour. In June, Prime Minister Enda Kenny (himself a conservative Catholic) spoke of letters sent to him written in blood, and branding him a murderer, as a result of his agreement to ratify limited legislation on abortion when a mother’s life is in danger. One parliamentarian even received death threats.[21]

Irish law requires a referendum to ratify any amendment to the Constitution, Bunreacht na hÉireann, including every EU Treaty. While the referendum has often been a useful democratic instrument for the purpose of citizen engagement in important decisions, it has sometimes been usurped to raise concerns that have nothing to do with the issues being voted upon. This has especially been the case with EU Treaties but populist organisations have utilised referenda to mobilise their activists for other votes too. Religious reactionary groups (strand 1) have their most effective mobilisation campaigns around referenda and it is evident that they are well organised and well resourced, with some evidence of funding from like-minded organisations in the US.[22]

Interestingly, they have often mobilised around EU Treaty referenda under the guise of specific Culture War issues. For example, during the Lisbon Treaty referendum campaign, the Cóir (who identify as a “patriotic, religious and socially conscious” organisation)[23] argued that its ratification would empower the EU to force Ireland to change its laws on “legalization of abortion and euthanasia; homosexual marriage and adoption; freedom to teach and practice religion; and, legalization of prostitution and hard drugs”.[24] While they have only a fringe appeal, they could still play to fears of unknown or unidentified elements in the treaties. They instrumentalise their populism to direct it towards target issues which they consider elitist, in this case the European Union and what they see as aggressive liberal secularism.

EU referenda also provide useful avenues for mobilisation of more anti-statist groups, similar to the US Tea Party or the Italian 5-Star Movement (strand 2). Parallel to Cóir, the organisation Libertas emerged from out of nowhere to oppose the Lisbon Treaty. Headed by a wealthy and articulate businessman, Declan Ganley, Libertas succeeded in raising enough red herrings to defeat the first referendum. For instance, Ganley cited the reduction of the College of Commissioners in the original draft as an attempt by elitist, faceless Brussels bureaucrats to reduce the influence of the member states. Thus, the second time round, the legislation included a Commissioner for each member state, ironically increasing the attendant Commission bureaucracy. Interestingly, Ganley describes himself as a Euro-federalist but he is prone to simplistic analyses of certain aspects of EU legislation. However, the convoluted nature of much EU legislation greatly facilitated his efforts in the referendum campaign.

After that campaign, Ganley reconstituted Libertas as a European political party to run in the 2009 European elections. In doing so, he highlighted the vast chasm between running a negative referendum campaign and finding success as a political party. He came within respectable distance of winning a seat in the Ireland North-West constituency but none of his other Irish candidates even came close. Following the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty in the re-run referendum, Ganley stepped out of political life for a time to focus on other interests. However, has reemerged during recent debates on the aforementioned abortion legislation. In Libertas and Cóir, we see that there is some crossover between organisations from strands 1 and 2.

There has been a more recent phenomenon of groups that borrow from anti-statists elsewhere in Europe as well as Anglo-American conspiracy theorists. Direct Democracy Ireland made headlines in a recent by-election in the Meath East constituency when its candidate and leader, Ben Gilroy, pushed into fourth place, ahead of the Labour Party. There are several points of comparison with Italy’s Beppe Grillo and the 5-Star Movement. Both oppose austerity but also the traditional means of opposition to it. Direct Democracy activists, and organisations linked to it, have disrupted anti-austerity demonstrations organised by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, hijacking it to demand opposition to the proposed property tax. They advocate Swiss-type recall referenda as a means to greater accountability. Their economic views are largely orthodox, while their constitutional and legal perspective is chaotic and confused.[25]

Their political allies include UKIP leader Nigel Farage but it is their links to the “Freemen of the Land” movement that is most novel. The Freeman movement is based on several pseudo-legal conspiracy theories “such as the belief that birth certificates create a legal fiction in your name” and legal premises purporting that “simply by declaring themselves to be ‘free men on the land’, they are removing any vestiges of consent to be governed by the Government of Ireland, thus obviating the necessity of obeying statute-based law ”.[26] The ideology originated in Canada before spreading to the United States, the United Kingdom, and Ireland. There is little or no chance of them penetrating the party political system beyond occasional flashes in the pan for the likes of Ben Gilroy. However, their danger emanates from the false hope they offer to people in mortgage distress or at risk of home repossession through their bizarre constitutional fantasies.

We have seen how the Irish electoral system and political landscape make it difficult for organisations like those in strands 1 and 2 to penetrate party political life to any great extent as frontline participants. However, they manipulate the system through targeted pressure and intimidation of public representatives in a highly personalised environment. Further to this, they make ready use of referenda to mobilise their well-organised activists. The case of Libertas shows the vast difference between running a referendum campaign and mobilising as a serious electoral prospect against the existing parties and their political machinery. The opportunity structures indicate, however, that there is space for a Populist Radical Right party as described in strand 3 of the division above.

Many commentators point to the present-day incarnation of Sinn Féin – the political wing of the Provisional IRA, who were central to the conflict in Northern Ireland – as the most obvious Irish contender for entry into the pantheon of European Populist Radical Right parties. Some of this is based on conjecture surrounding its mix of nationalism and eternally oppositional economic perspective – “If it walks like a duck, swims like a duck and quacks like a duck, then it must be a duck” – while others point to their historical trajectory as a more extreme manifestation of nationalist phenomena already embedded in the Irish party system. Their recent elevation in political status (14 seats in parliament; second largest opposition party) has brought them greater attention. From a comparative perspective relative to elsewhere in Europe, Sinn Féin occupies the position of potential Populist Radical Right challengers. Its voters tend to be young, on lower incomes, with low levels of political knowledge and trust, as well as a low sense of their political efficacy. [27]

They have enormous organisational and financial resources, and have been embedded in communities for long enough to have a sufficient grassroots network to make them serious challengers in the political system. Added to this, they have been able to effectively exploit discontent with the other main parties on issues ranging from the economy to the European Union. They have opposed every EU Treaty since it became a requirement to hold a referendum for their ratification. Sinn Féin have projected an image of the EU as beholden to a distant, self-serving elite.[28] In the context of harsh austerity measures in post-bailout Ireland they can point to the EU compromising Irish economic interests. In addition, they put themselves forward as the true descendants of the early revolutionary leaders.

Media outlets and other political parties have regularly accused Sinn Féin of populism in their anti-austerity utterances but their strategy has been to face this head-on and re-appropriate the word. As such, their main ideologue and strategist Eoin Ó Broin recently wrote and article ‘In Defence of Populism’ in the Irish Left Review. The elite conception of populism, he argues, is based on an unstated prejudice, which “betrays a worldview that is deeply distrustful of public opinion” and “pits the rationality and expertise of the expert against the irrationality and gullibility of public opinion”.[29] Ó Broin quite effectively presents Sinn Féin’s approach as a viable alternative to the crises facing the EU, its technocratic institutions, and its discredited elitist politics. Their entire political project “is populist, and unashamedly so”. While acknowledging that populism can be progressive or reactionary, democratic or authoritarian, Sinn Féin’s brand is “democratic, egalitarian and progressive”.[30]

There is nothing novel about populist parties presenting themselves in more palatable form for public consumption. The litmus test must be whether they combine the political practice of populism with the authoritarianism and nativism of Populist Radical Right parties. Sinn Féin would completely deny any relationship to the radical right on the basis of their avowedly left-wing economic positions. However, it is not unusual for Populist Radical Right parties to instrumentalise left-wing economics for temporary gain, sometimes even using economics as a tool to attain support among their perceived “in-group” while excluding outsiders. Therefore, in this context, the left-right spectrum reflects one’s perspective on (in)equality, seen differently by left and right.[31] Sinn Féin have shown a tendency to pick and choose ideological positions depending on the exigencies of the moment. Their Members’ Training Programme differentiates between “ideology” which can be “flexible and constantly evolving”, and “principles”, which are held as “fundamental truths” and include the core nationalist and irredentist aspirations of the party.[32]

According to Duncan McDonnell, Sinn Féin, rather than presenting a major risk of developing into a Populist Radical Right party, acts as a bulwark against others entering the system. He argues that:

the main obstacle impeding the emergence of a new populist party is the recent success of the left-wing nationalist party Sinn Féin which, while unwilling (and unable) to embrace anti-minority or anti-pluralist positions, not only displays many of the characteristics of populism, but has occupied much of the political and electoral space where a populist challenger (of the Right or Left) would seek to locate itself.[33]

Sinn Féin has rejected anti-pluralist, anti-immigrant, racist and homophobic positions often associated with Populist Radical Right parties. However, some commentators have pointed to a disparity between policies promoted by the leadership with regard to immigration and the views of their grassroots membership. They therefore have the potential to appeal to xenophobic discourse “sotto voce” when electioneering. This also raises the possibility that a change in leadership could potentially change the party’s direction on such issues.

This leads us to a rather odd conclusion, that in Irish politics, Sinn Féin acts as a “gatekeeper”. Their composition as an All-Ireland party mitigates the temptation to appeal to nativist discourse as to do so in the Republic of Ireland might damage their position in Northern Ireland. They are in a peculiar position, governing in a power-sharing executive in the North while appealing to populist tendencies in the South. Just as they claim the legacy of the revolutionary generation from constitutional nationalists in Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, their participation in parliamentary politics has coincided with the growth of extremist dissident groups who did not accept the 1997 Peace Agreement. Thus, “Republican Sinn Féin” and the 32 County Sovereignty Committee, along with their respective paramilitary groups, the “Continuity” IRA and the “Real” IRA, hold more sectarian and nativist views and still have the potential to cause huge upset and violence. These groups are currently more active in Northern Ireland but have members and aspirations in the Republic too. The republican-socialist group Éirigi also bites at Sinn Féin’s heels in the Republic. The manner in which Sinn Féin navigates the political process will have a significant bearing on the success or failure of dissident republicans as well as more comparatively European style Populist Radical Right parties.


If “opportunity structures” consist of short-, medium-, and long-term variables, which capture the openness and accessibility of a political system to would-be political entrepreneurs,[34] then Ireland is certainly susceptible to populist growth. We have seen how long-term variables have been absorbed into the system through the exigencies of historical context, the mores of political practice, and the exhaustive requirements for high levels of local political organisation.

In Ireland, the short- and medium-term variables derive from a type of discourse around elitism more comparable to the rest of Europe. The Celtic Tiger boom era saw the practices of old rural brokerage politics writ large. Those who were left behind amid Ireland’s rapid modernisation saw a particularly close and inappropriate relationship between banking and the state and its agencies as senior politicians, civil servants, business interests and bureaucrats rode the waves of good fortune. [35] In tandem with this, religious conservatives felt left behind amid social modernisation as Ireland shed the vestiges of its clerical dominated past. The main parties converged around particular areas of consensus and, when the economic crash happened, the system was left open to serious upheaval.

Conservative religious reactionaries have attempted in the past to enter the party system but with little or no success. They have found themselves better served by pursuing single-issue referendum campaigns and, where applicable, bullying and harassing elected representatives. While they represent a minority viewpoint, they are well organised and capable of holding the system hostage from time to time. This is an unfortunate side-effect of the PR-STV electoral system. The most novel strand has been the anti-statists, ranging from the Eurosceptics to the Irish “Grillini”. These groups are not sufficiently embedded in Irish society to mount a serious challenge. They might occasionally upset a referendum campaign or emerge as flash-in-the-pan electoral successes but until they manage to organise at constituency level beyond their leaders’ strongholds they have little future.

Sinn Féin is the only party with the resources and organisational capacity to mount a serious populist challenge. Yet in spite of themselves, by virtue of their participation in the peace process, they are part of the system. Indeed, they are the gatekeepers to it. Their actions will do much to determine the ability of other actors to enter.

[1] Morgan Kelly,. “If you think the bank bailout was bad, wait until the mortgage defaults hit home.” Irish Times, November 8, 2010.

[2] Duncan McDonnell “The Republic of Ireland: The Dog That Hasn’t Barked in the Night” in Twenty-First Century Populism: The Spectre of Western European Democracy, ed. Daniele Albertazzi and Duncan McDonnell (Basingstoke; New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), 199.

[3] Stein Rokkan and Seymour Martin Lipset, “Party Systems and Voter Alignments: Cross-National Perspectives”. International Yearbook of Political Behavior Research (New York & London: Free Press; Collier Macmillan, 1967).

[4] John Whyte, “Ireland: Politics Without Social Bases” in Rose, R. (ed.), Electoral Behaviour: A Comparative Handbook, New York: Free Press/Macmillan, 1971, p. 650.

[5] Montserrat Guibernau, “Globalisation and Nationalism” in Understanding Nationalism, edited by M. Guibernau, and J. Hutchinson (Cambridge: Polity, Blackwell, 2001), p. 242.

[6] McDonnell, p. 215.

[7] Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender.

[8] John Breuilly, Nationalism and the State, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1993), p. 2.

[9] Ibid. p. 12.

[10] Cas Mudde, Populist Radical Right Parties in Europe (Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007), p. 19.

[11] Diarmaid Fitzpatrick, “Commemoration in the Irish Free State: a chronicle of embarrassment” in History and Memory in Modern Ireland, edited by I. McBride (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001) p. 186.

[12] John Hutchinson, The Dynamics of Cultural Nationalism: The Gaelic Revival and the Creation of the Irish Nation-State (Allen & Unwin: London, 1987) p. 282.

[13] Mudde, p. 23.

[14] McDonnell, p. 199.

[15] Mudde, p. 23.

[16] Diarmaid Ferriter, The Transformation of Ireland: 1900-2000 (London: Profile Books, 2005), p. 419.

[17] Under PR-STV, you vote for candidates in order of preference. You mark the ballot paper by putting 1 opposite the name of your first choice candidate and, if you wish, 2 opposite the name of your second choice and so on. What you are saying is: “I want to vote for candidate A. If the situation arises where A does not need my vote because he/she has been elected or excluded from the count, I want my vote to go to candidate B.” And so on. You can choose between candidates of different parties or non-party candidates and you can order your preferences, as you wish. For a more detailed account of the process, visit:,1895,en.pdf.

[18] Michael Gallagher, “Does Ireland need a new electoral system?” Irish Political Studies, Vol. 2, (1987) pp. 27-47.

[19] Michael D. Higgins, “The Limits of Clientelism: Towards an Assessment of Irish Politics”, in Private Patronage and Public Power: Political Clientelism in the Modern State, edited by C.S. Clapham (London: Pinter, 1982), p. 92.

[20] Montserrat Guibernau, “Migration and the rise of the radical right: social malaise and the future of mainstream politics”, Policy Network, (2009), p. 10.

[21] Colin Gleeson. “TD receives death threat over abortion views” in Irish Times, June 14, 2013, accessed September 4, 2013.

[22] Angela Nagle, ‘Why American Pro-Life Dollars Are Pouring Into Ireland’ in The Atlantic. January 2013:

[23] Mary Minihan, “Anti-treaty Cóir may register as political party, says spokesman” in Irish Times, October 5, 2009. Accessed: September 5, 2013.óir-may-become-political-party-says-spokesman-1.750912

[24] Irish Election Literature (website), “Coir Leaflet – ” Lisbon: A Step Too Far? – 4 Things You Should Know About The Lisbon Treaty”.” Last modified September 21, 2011.

[25] Frank Connolly, ‘Gilroy – Irish for Grillo?’ Village Magazine, May 2013. Accessed September 4, 2013.

[26] Keith Rooney, “Land of the Free, Home of the Deluded.” The Law Society Gazette, April 2012, p. 12.

[27] McDonnell, D., p. 204.

[28] Ibid. p. 207.

[29] Eoin Ó Broin, “In Defence of Populism.”  Irish Left Review, January 2013. Accessed September 4, 2013.

[30] Ibid.

[31] See David Kitching, “Facing Down the Far Right in Europe: A challenge for progressive politics”, Foundation for European Progressive Studies, FEPS: Brussels, 2011. 2011, p. 8.

[32] Agnes Mailot, New Sinn Féin: Irish Republicanism in the Twenty-First Century (Oxford: Routledge, 2005) p. 4.

[33] McDonnell, p. 199.

[34] Kai Arzheimer,  “Contextual Factors and the Extreme Right Vote in Western Europe, 1980-2002.” American Journal of Political Science, Vol. 53, no. 2, (2009) p. 261.

[35] Fintan O’Toole, Ship of Fools: How Stupidity and Corruption Sank the Celtic Tiger, (Dublin: Public Affairs, 2009) p. 52.



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