Michael Clifford: Appetite is growing for Sinn Féin’s populism

Michael Clifford: Appetite is growing for Sinn Féin’s populism

WE DO things differently in this country. Following the economic crash and imposition of austerity, there was widespread anger and disillusionment. In a country like Greece, which also suffered hugely during this period, the anger led to riots.

Other countries saw the rise of anti-austerity political parties. Spain and Portugal responded in this manner. In Ireland the pain and anger was largely kept in check.

The 2011 election saw Fianna Fáil decimated to be replaced by its doppelgänger in blue, Fine Gael. The only real manifestation of the pain and anger occurred in 2014 with opposition to water charges.

This was a minor issue in the greater scheme of things, but timing and politics saw its importance inflated.

It could be posited that the failure to charge for a resource like water is a retrograde step, but a small price to pay for the maintenance of public order at a time when a lot of people were suffering hugely.

Internationally, the years of global recession were followed by the emergence of a virulent form of populism.

Disillusionment with political systems and establishment parties from sections of society led to the rise of populist strongmen in various countries around the world, most notably Donald Trump in the USA.

Meanwhile, in this country the economy, in general, soared, but many feel their lives have not improved. And now it would appear that populism has arrived here, albeit a very Irish populism.

Sinn Féin has been the story of this election so far. Some pundits believed that the Greens would be the big story, but climate change has slipped down the hierarchy of concerns during the campaign.

Sinn Féin has soared in the opinion polls, rising from around 13% to 20%.

The party has been here before, ahead of the 2016 general election, when it was on a similar poll rating but slipped back to 13% of the day of the vote.

Michael Clifford: Appetite is growing for Sinn Féin’s populism

Some are saying this time it’s different.

As is the case in other countries, there is a growing cohort of the electorate that is disillusioned with the establishment political parties. And they appear to be turning to Sinn Féin as the only available alternative to Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael.

The party has highly able frontline politicians and presents cogent solutions to some of the national problems, particularly housing.

But what exactly does it stand for? Is it, as it claims, a party of the left?

Or is it merely the latest manifestation of the rise of populism, albeit with a uniquely Irish twist?

The populism that is thriving abroad is nativist, anti-immigrant and promising economic prosperity for everybody, all to be paid for in some vague manner which defies conventional economics.

The Shinners couldn’t be accused of being anti-immigrant. They might actually claim to be the party that has done most to ensure that any latent anti-immigrant sentiment has not found a political platform.

Its own working-class base could have provided a focal point from which to whip up anti-immigrant anger, as has been the case abroad.

But the party has a commendable record in showing solidarity to all groups of minorities, including immigrants and Travellers.

Nationalism is the core value in Sinn Féin as per the international strain of populism.

But in a unique twist, while the party itself is obsessed with the nationalism of the reunification of the island, those now flocking to its standard, for the greater part, probably couldn’t care less about the issue.

Michael Clifford: Appetite is growing for Sinn Féin’s populism

Look at the exhausted commuter, paying through the nose for childcare, thoroughly fed up with the Government. Does she say to herself, “if only we had a united Ireland, my life would be different”?

The attraction of Sinn Féin for those who feel left behind is that it can’t be any worse than what has gone ahead over the last 20 years. The reunification of the island is the last thing on their minds.

Where the Shinners’ populism does come into its own is in the area of economics. Far from espousing left-wing or even so-called republican values, it has something for everybody in the audience to be paid for on the never-never.

The policy to abolish the local property tax at a time of a housing crisis is populism writ large.

There is no left-wing party ever since Karl Marx was in short trousers which would condone such a policy. Doing so at the current time is arguably increasing inequality.

The party’s manifesto also claims that in this brave new world everybody earning under €100,000 per annum will be at least €700 better off.

Is that what the country needs now? Will that tackle inequality, or is it just throwing out money and stuff at everybody on the never-never?

A defining feature of populism is a complete disregard for the future. Sinn Féin’s policy on reverting the pension age to 65 is an exercise in mortgaging the future for the sake of votes today.

Mary Lou McDonald’s response to criticism about how this would affect young workers was: “The demographics will look after themselves.”

As an attempt to deny science, that’s up there with Danny Healy-Rae’s invocation of God as arbiter of the climate.

Populism’s disregard for the future was also on view during last Monday’s leaders’ debate when the Sinn Féin leader said she favoured neither culling the national herd nor imposing a carbon tax to tackle climate change.

Every party that aspires to govern in even a minor capacity recognises the requirement for a carbon tax.

The tax remains unpopular in rural Ireland and tackling that problem would require nuance and resolve. Populism, on the other hand, is concerned with being popular rather than responsible.

Data courtesy of The Irish Times

But so what? The people are sovereign. And this being Ireland, it’s not as if the Shinners’ strain of populism is going to sweep all before it in a wave of radical change as has happened abroad.

If Sinn Féin is in government after the election it will be as a junior partner and its populism will be watered down.

Notwithstanding all that, the party does have a case when it states that the big two are being arrogant and undemocratic in refusing to even contemplate coalition talks with Sinn Féin in the aftermath of an election.

Concerns, justified or otherwise, that the party is in thrall to an unelected group in Belfast is not reason enough alone to exclude it.

For over 30 years we have had a system of government in which coalition is largely dependent on numbers irrespective of ideology.

There is no guarantee that agreement on a coalition between one of the big two and Sinn Féin would prove fruitful.

But excluding a party that may represent up to a fifth of the electorate from such talks sits uneasy with the concept of democracy.

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