A populist is defined as “a member or adherent of a political party seeking to represent the interests of the ordinary people.” This may be one of the most abused terms in the history of politics. We in Ireland suffer from a total misrepresentation of populism as a result of our two major parties, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, lacking any kind of backbone or ideological principle. And of course a servile fourth estate exacerbates this.
You can see similarities with the post-Clinton era in America and the post-Blair era of British politics. Centrism created a complete vacuum of free thought in the public arena. All the major political players of the day had homogenous views on policy issues that were slightly tweaked to suit the situation. Think of the interchangeable way in which Mícheál Martin, Leo Varadkar or Simon Harris would perform their respective duties. They are are all centrist Europhiles, who are happy to continue allowing our finances to fall apart while placating international corporations to the detriment of the ordinary citizens that they are supposed to represent.
There are a variety of reasons why there could be a populist breakout in this country on May 24th, as we take to the polling stations for the local and European elections. In my view there are two primary vehicles for a populist revolt in the Ireland of 2019.
At a local level, there is a growing grassroots disaffection with the centrist elites in government (Fine Gael) and those propping them up (Fianna Fáil), meaning that there is an opportunity to run against the establishment on a platform exemplified in many ways by someone like Gemma O’Doherty’s ‘Anti- Corruption Ireland’ movement.
This organisation, although brand new, may well function as a template for many independent candidates – bringing to the fore issues like corruption, the deterioration of our sovereignty, and negative international influences on the nation. Broad policies like transparency in public office, the creation of ethical banking, and mild euroscepticism suggests such a platform would have some credibility in both Left and Right-wing populist camps.
There may even be shades of Italy’s FiveStar Movement in a situation where disparate groups of populist candidates get the benefit of a general anti-establishment sentiment for their campaigns. It is also much more effective to grow populism within the confines of local and European elections thanks to the skewed electorate. Centist establishment parties are less likely to turn out their voters in these elections because their support just isn’t that motivated. On the other hand, the populists have the advantage of a riled-up base who know that they can make a difference.
UKIP were very successful in 2009 and 2014 at using these elections as a focal point for growth, given that the UK’s First-Past-the-Post electoral system ruins the capability of non-establishment parties to contest general elections. Indeed, the UKIP’s success was one of the core reasons why the Tories promised a referendum on EU membership in 2014.
One of the reasons why O’Doherty is such a relevant character when it comes to shaping this year’s local elections is her much-maligned presidential bid which was highly unpopular with the media and their paymasters. The Guardian however published a very positive piece in which her campaign was portrayed as a crusading, truth seeking, tour of the county raging against the establishment despite little chance of her appearing on the ballot paper. If she can successfully push her agenda of anti-corruption, returning power to the ‘little guy,’ and encouraging local business, then perhaps localism will topple globalism this May. Even a small victory may well be a springboard for real change.
In regards the European elections, for the very first time Ireland’s merry band of eurosceptics may finally gain some traction in the form of the new Irexit Freedom to Prosper party. This group is led by the EFDD’s communications director Hermann Kelly and has become a regular sparring partner of Matt Cooper on Virgin’s The Tonight Show. With the EU aiming to homogenise member states’ fiscal and defence policies, this party offers an alternative to Irish men and women who fear the intrusion of foreign powers in their country.
One of the main differences between this party and the Eurosceptics who have gone before is that there is a clarity to their Euroscepticism when compared to the now defunct Libertas party which was in favour of EU reform rather than the clear separation proposed by Irexit. Through hosting meetings all over the country as well as protests outside Dáil Éireann, they have raised awareness of the alternatives to a government which has shown more loyalty to the EU than to their own citizens. They’ve also shone a light on the fact that Ireland is currently paying over a billion euro a year into the European Union.
There is certainly a feeling that nationalists and populists are gathering momentum in the lead up to these electoral challenges on the horizon. There are now hundreds of people throughout the country in both a local and European setting, who are willing to put their reputations on the line in order to offer a new vision of the future. Those who dream of an autonomous, self governing Ireland might soon see it made a reality.