The Irish election and the possibility of a left populism

A second election later in 2020 could potentially change everything of course and, based on the opinion polls producedsince the election, Sinn Féin will be the only one of the three main parties relishing the prospect.

However, even if the possibility of a “government of the left” seems remote right now, Sinn Féin’s openness to coalition with one of the other two big parties, and especially Fianna Fáil (“the Republican party), suggests it harbours a vision of a different kind of left-leaning populism, which, if it materialized, would inevitably invite the scorn of other left parties. In this scenario, the party uses its newfound political authority to steer Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael in a more social democratic direction, appealing to a capacity for ideological heterogeneity that has been part of the history of the other two parties. The two-party hydra of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael could no longer be posited as the defining adversary, even if the party excluded from any coalition with Sinn Féin would inevitably take on the role of primary antagonist within the theatre of everyday politics. Instead, the amorphous, but not necessarily politically incoherent, target of everything that could be subsumed under the heading of the “excesses” of “the Celtic Tiger” and “the Celtic Tiger 2.0” might become the defining antagonists in the political project of constructing a “new” or “second republic”.

The outlines of such a vision – one malleable enough to be adapted to the realpolitik of different coalition formations –can perhaps be discerned in a short 2013 article by Eoin Ó Broin, Sinn Féin’s most impressive left-wing thinker. It cites Laclau’s theory of populism (O Broin also reviewed Mouffe’s most recent book in 2018) and explicitly affirms the party’s “populist” credentials, but without explicitly describing them as left-wing. “Sinn Féin’s political project is truly populist”, Ó Broin suggests, “but a populism that is democratic, egalitarian and progressive”. “[We] seek to mobilise in support of a New Republic in which popular sovereignty is restored and political and economic power returned to where it rightly belongs, in the hands of the people”.

Radical democracy and the national question

It would be remiss to write about the Irish election without saying something about the national question, particularly since the legacy of Sinn Féin’s role in the Troubles seems to be the principal factor animating the hostility of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, and especially Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin, to the prospect of any coalition with the party. There is an obvious aspect of Sinn Féin’s history that invites a very tendential reading of Ó Broin’s appeal to a “New Republic”, which makes it less about the establishment of democratic-egalitarian alternatives to a world of “capitalist realism”, and more about the establishment of a 32 county united Ireland. Sinn Féin would no doubt like to frame these struggles as equivalent, part of the same hegemonic project of political emancipation. But for many people – including many people on the left – these tensions bring up the jarring memories of a political party acting in the name of “socialist” and “egalitarian” principles, while supporting a paramilitary wing that carried out some appalling acts of violence as part of a nasty sectarian conflict.

There is something rather hypocritical about the predominant moral-political critique of Sinn Féin in the South, which continues to represent the party as beyond the pale “down here” even as the Irish state insists it must be part of the government of Northern Ireland. Conversely, there is something less than convincing about a Sinn Féin tendency to dismiss any questioning of the status of the party’s present relationship with the residues of the provisional IRA as “nonsense”, even when evidence is presented of relationships between elected representatives and non-elected figures that – however you spin them – do not look like models of democratic accountability.

Mouffe lauds forms of democratic engagement where the sectarian dynamics of a “friend/enemy” model of politics is transfigured into an “adversarial, agonistic politics orientated towards the establishment of a different hegemonic order within the liberal-democratic framework”. She makes the argument as part of a familiar narrative where her commitment to a radical democratic left populism is framed in opposition to neoliberalism and the “sterile reformism” of “third way” politics. More strikingly, she also distinguishes her position from what she calls the “revolutionary strategy of the ‘extreme left’”. The implications of the argument are not satisfactorily explicated; Mouffe has nothing to say, for instance, about how a signifier like the “extreme left” can be weaponized by contemporary enemies of any left politics. Nonetheless, the core point seems clear: the construction of a left populism might necessitate confronting and rejecting other dogmatic articulations of a left-wing identity. Put another way, it will militate against unthinking agreement and solidarity with everything legitimized in the name of a revolutionary left politics.

By any measure, the decision of Sinn Féin to sign up to the terms of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, and become a political actor in the governance of a Northern Ireland statelet that it previously represented as illegitimate, signified a shift to a more agonistic mode of politics – a strategic break from a revolutionary imaginary that saw politics as little more than an extension of warfare and armed struggle. The implementation of this strategy was a major political achievement. To the dismay of the party’s critics, it often necessitated wider political acceptance of a culture of Sinn Féin “doublespeak”: the crafting of party-political messages that could simultaneously appeal to a micro-public of potentially sceptical IRA militants and the general public’s desire for peace.

The party’s strongest critics today continue to see nothing other than a culture of doublespeak, no matter how many thoughtful policy proposals it formulates in different domains. The truth of the doublespeak is ritualistically animated in moments of media spectacle where – as the metaphor has it – the “mask slips away” and the party is exposed for “what it is”. This was the case when video circulated after the election of the re-elected parliamentarian, David Cullinane, proclaiming “up the Republic, up the ‘RA” to a gathering of party members in Waterford. In the extended version, Cullinane’s comments were prefaced by a speech by a local party delegate who boasted that the party “broke the Free State” (Sinn Féin’s preferred nomenclature for a Southern state that it refuses to call the Republic of Ireland).

The Cullinane video has already generated enough commentary of a kind that Sinn Féin still likes to dismiss as incantations of the “politics of condemnation”. However, in the context of my argument here, it also suggests a more novel question: in light of the party’s assumed role as the leading party of the Irish left, what might such moments say about Sinn Féin’s commitment’s to the necessarily “inclusionary” character of any left populist project?

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