2007 - 2022

On Populism and Nationalism

It’s tempting to view everything though our own personal or political experience. Social media is littered with examples of British commentators with little or no understanding of Irish history or politics doing just that, forcing the general election into their own world view.

Here’s Naomi O’Leary on why it’s a mistake to see the phenomenon of Sinn Fein’s electoral success as an example of populism like England’s Brexit experience or “Trumpism”:

“Political scientists usually consider populism to be a tactic – not a political position as such so it can be used by both the left and the right. Essentially populism is when you define yourself as the voice of so called ‘common man’ or ‘ordinary Irishman’, and you define yourself as against a corrupt elite that somehow doesn’t represent the common people. So its the pitting of a kind of ideal country man against an elite. That’s populism. Now Irish media sometimes describe Sinn Fein as ‘populist’ – but they use it with a different meaning, what they actually mean is “playing to the gallery” – they mean this is a stunt to win popular support. That is a rather cynical support for whatever policies are popular with the public even to the extent of being ideologically incoherent. So you might start simultaneously holding both right wing and left wing economic policies, just because they’re both popular with the public. It’s often used when it might not feasible – for example to both cut taxes and increase public expenditure.
It’s important not to see the rise of Sinn Fein as part of what’s been going on internationally with the rise of the nationalist nativist right. Sinn Fein is not nativist. Nativist meaning it privileges an ‘indigenous’ population against incomers. Like so “Irish for the Irish” – “Netherlands for the Dutch” etc. Sinn Fein comes from the anti-colonial tradition – it’s left wing – it shuns anti-immigration policy – its manifesto had proposals to improve the conditions of refugees for example in the country and to introduce hate-speech as an act of solidarity with immigrant an minority groups.”


Comments (13)

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  1. Stuart Clark says:

    I think the SNP could learn a thing or two from Irish politics.
    If you subsitute Sinn Fein for SNP the article reads just as well.

  2. Michael says:

    Government’s which have control over monetary policy like UK or USA absolutely can “both cut taxes and increase public expenditure.”

    That they can’t is a widely held and dangerous misconception and fundamentally misunderstandings how modern economies work.

    Just because Westminster has been captured by The City of London and has therefore had it’s will to use monetary policy for public spending taken from it. Does not mean that it does not have the technical power to both spend more and tax less. After all, what is QE if it is not creating billions of new money for a particular purpose.

    We need to demolish this toxic misunderstandings about modern economics.

    1. That’s true Michael, you’ll have seen our article about this the other day?

      I was quoting Naomi verbatim.

      1. Michael says:

        I just don’t like to see this myth repeated. But I understand you are quoting. Thanks.

  3. Andy Anderson says:

    This is interesting since it is very similar to the misrepresentation of the SNP along the same lines. If Sinn Fein are now to play an important part in the Irish Government this will be important for Scottish independence.

  4. Richard Easson says:

    This will not please some powers that be. Beware Agents Provocateurism. I hope not but the British State is capable of anything.

    1. Charles L. Gallagher says:


      Amen to that even murder, packaged as ‘an unfortunate accident’!!!!

      1. Julian Smith says:

        or suicide.

  5. SleepingDog says:

    Wasn’t Sinn Fein originally a monarchist party, and started moving towards a republican stance nearing the end of WW1? I doubt that could really be described as having anti-colonial origins in the sense suggested.

    1. Josef Ó Luain says:

      Yes, I agree, for the sake of historic accuracy concerning the beginnings of Sinn Fein: Ms O’Leary is wrong. However, the remainder of her analysis stands pretty firm, in my opinion.

    2. If you listen to the podcast SD she goes into some of this – acknowledges that past and also describes their evolution.

  6. Angus says:

    Populism is in the governing also. Brexit was populist as it played on frustrations of ‘the common man’ with appeal to irrational identity and easy one stop solutions to complex problems (i.e. Globalisation and the erosion of ‘the state’ agency vis a vis the transational movement of capital, trade, people etc …) See Susan Strange and Political Econ.

    It’s populist because Brexit won’t solve the problems it rails against – in fact it will probably make things worse.

    Scottish nationalism ditto. Frustration at endemic poverty, declining wages, rising prices and shrinking welfare all apparently solved by the panacea of ‘independence’

    Ireland is the same. Unless the new government changes the current set up of low corp tax (almost the lowest in the developed world) and entire econ reliance on a handfull of big corporations locating in Dublin, then they are bound to disappoint … hence the reason those who can see this called the vote for Sinn Fein populist

  7. Mignon Hornstein says:

    Hi there thanks so much for speaking about this side of working in digital.

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