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[Lionel Laurent] Ireland brings new twist to populism

Sinn Fein’s electoral smash in Ireland is a historic moment for a party that has long had difficulty shaking off its past ties to the sectarian violence of the “troubles.” It’s clear that the party’s new leader and a policy platform based around fixing the country’s housing crisis and improving public services have struck a chord with the public. That was especially true with the under-35s, for whom peace in Ireland has been the norm rather than the exception.

It’s less clear what winning the popular vote will really mean for Sinn Fein in a country where the two dominant establishment parties, Fine Gael and Fianna Fail, still command a sizable chunk of the vote and have more middle-of-the-road policy ideas. If this is the moment populism breaks the two-party grip on the Irish government, it will be very different to the forces that have shaken neighboring Britain, be it the euroskepticism of the Brexit vote or the sweeping hard-left economic changes espoused by Jeremy Corbyn before he was defeated in December.

It must be said that Sinn Fein’s victory did not come out of the blue. The party’s process of “normalization” has been going on for years as it gradually built up support at successive elections -- in fits and starts, as seen elsewhere when armed rebel groups become unarmed political parties. Between 1997 and 2005, Sinn Fein’s share of the vote went from 16.9 percent to 23.3 percent, according to Birmingham University’s Matthew Whiting; grabbing a quarter of the first-round preference vote this weekend was a big improvement on its 14 percent share in 2016.

This latest jump in popularity reflects a policy platform and new leader able to connect with voters exercised about inequality, but it also reflects public frustration with the status quo. Prime Minister Leo Varadkar’s Fine Gael party and center-right rival Fianna Fail are often described as “Tweedledum and Tweedledee,” given their similarity on big issues like Ireland’s low-tax economic model, Brexit and pensions.

The popularity of Sinn Fein has understandably prompted investors to scan the party’s manifesto pledges of taxing the rich and squeezing the banking sector and to sell Irish stocks as a precaution. But the reality of coalition building means both that the party cannot be ignored and that it cannot avoid compromising on its pledges. Ireland’s ranked-choice system, and a broadly split vote between Sinn Fein, Fine Gael and Fianna Fail, makes partnership a necessity in forming a government.

That’s why the focus is now on Fianna Fail -- which is on track to win the most seats in parliament -- and its dilemma over whether or not to begin talks with Sinn Fein. Fianna Fail’s deputy leader appeared to walk a fine line on the topic, as Bloomberg News reports. Giving Sinn Fein a taste of power might actually take some wind out of its sails: It would still put one of the Tweedledums in the driving seat, and curb the more extreme parts of the populists’ platform while still making them accountable to taxpayers and voters. It wouldn’t be a free ride.

Europe has little reason to worry about Ireland tipping into a destabilizing political crisis just yet. The UK’s former Europe Minister Denis MacShane tells me that all three top Irish parties look pro-European, though in different ways. While Sinn Fein’s demands for a border poll on Irish reunification should be taken seriously, a poll is unlikely to happen for several years, and there’s no guarantee that the UK would accept it.

And despite Sinn Fein’s history of criticizing European integration, it’s taking a more mixed tone of late -- in fact, it even supports Brussels’ decision to fine Apple Inc. over 14 billion euros ($15.3 billion) in unpaid, illegally-avoided taxes in Ireland. And for all of the similarities with Corbyn’s hard-left agenda that was recently rejected by Brits at the polls, Sinn Fein’s platform doesn’t call for a change to Ireland’s 12.5 percent rate of corporate tax that’s a linchpin of the country’s low-tax model.

Varadkar said during the election campaign that Sinn Fein was not a “normal political party.” It’s a proposition that’s worth testing. Ireland looks set to pursue a different populist path to Brexit and Corbyn.


Lionel Laurent
Lionel Laurent is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Brussels. -- Ed.

(Bloomberg)
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