A Populist Vote in the 2016 General Election in Ireland?

Guest post by Dr Deirdre Tinney (independent researcher) and Dr Stephen Quinlan (GESIS Leibniz Institute, Mannheim)

Immigration…Populism…Brexit…Trump… These words had become clarion calls by the end of 2016. Parties and politicians articulating what are regarded as populist views have gained increasing electoral success in many democracies over recent years – including European countries from Austria to Switzerland to Denmark.  Syriza governs in economically troubled Greece.  Alternative für Deutschland challenges Angela Merkel’s CDU in Germany.  But the decisions by very large numbers of voters in 2016 to make choices advocated by strong populist rhetoric – taking the United Kingdom out of the European Union, and electing Donald Trump as President of the United States – has brought the debate about populism to a whole new level.  It seems that a greater focus is required on what role so-called populist attitudes have on the vote.  Is the populist wave flowing over Ireland too?  Our contribution here seeks to offer some insight into a) whether Irish voters expressed populist attitudes at the time of the 2016 Irish general election and b) whether such sentiments influenced the vote.  Using data from the 2016 Irish National Election Study (INES) (Marsh et al. 2016), we show that some populist attitudes did motivate vote choice for some parties in the 2016 general election, (namely Sinn Féin, and smaller parties and independents) and that contrasting – specifically anti-elitist – dynamics had different implications for different Irish political parties and politicians.

Populism has a chameleon-like tendency to change its colour depending on its context.  The definition that it: ‘…considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogeneous and antagonistic groups … [and] that politics should be an expression of the volonté générale of the people’ (Mudde 2007) captures the crucial perspective of two sets of people pitted against each other in a struggle for supremacy/survival.  The antagonist to the ‘worthy people’ can be the political elite, or different ethnic or religious groups, or immigrants, or the mega-rich enjoying the fruits of globalization.  Attempts to classify populism more specifically can run into a Pandora’s Box of ifs, buts and maybes.  But fulminations against ‘the elite’, arguments that immigrants should ‘go home’ and leave employment and cultural autonomy to the ‘native’ people, and suggestions that the nation’s wealth is being ring-fenced by ‘the system’ for a golden circle rather than spread around fairly, reflect three of the most common dimensions of what is today referred to as ‘populism’.

Where does Ireland fit into all of this? On the one hand, vote share of the traditional, established parties, Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Labour, dropped to its lowest ever level in 2016.  Filling this space are greater numbers of TDs from newer, more anti-status quo, parties, not to mention a historic record of 23 independent candidates.  But there is no Nigel Farage with his UKIP or Marine Le Pen with her Front National on the scene.  Recent attempts to set up an Irish branch of German-grown Pegida, and to launch a home-grown National Party, mobilized energetic counter activism (Griffin 2016; D’Arcy 2016) and do not seem to have gained traction.  Does this mean that Ireland has no populist vote? Ours is by no means the first word on the subject, see for example: (O’Malley 2008; Costello 2012; O’Malley and FitzGibbon 2015; Suiter 2016), but so far most of the focus has concentrated on political actors and ideas, rather than on voters in an Irish election, which is what we seek to explore here.  And considering the Global Financial Crisis (GFC), which brought to the fore criticisms of elites, the management of the economy, and immigration, we expect sentiments about these issues to be some of what was on voters’ minds at the time of the election.

So what populist-type sentiments might we expect to find among Irish voters?  Not the anti-immigrant dimension it would seem.  Irish respondents were among the most positive among EU nationals in their attitudes to immigrants from both inside and outside the EU (Eurobarometer Standard Report 2016), and immigration was not a major election issue either (Marsh and McElroy 2016). However, we might expect anti-elite views to have featured.  Successive governments have implemented the Troika’s (EU, IMF and ECB) agenda, and the reappearance of ‘bankrupt’ developers, along with cranes on the skyline, could spark views that the economy is serving the needs of a golden circle rather than the wider populace.  Perceptions of a mismatch between the recovering economy and continuing personal financial difficulties experienced by many  Marsh and McElroy 2016, p.169) might feed into anti-establishment views.  Further, trust in political parties, government and parliament, which had plummeted during the GFC, remained in the doldrums post bailout (Quinlan 2016). Widespread refusal to pay water charges, and successive anti-austerity marches suggest that the volonté générale was exerting itself. The key question is did such attitudes influence Irish voters when they went to the polls in 2016?

We turn to the Irish National Election Study (INES – Marsh et al. 2016) to explore this. As part of the wider Comparative Study of Electoral Systems (CSES – http://www.cses.org) project, the INES included a battery of questions tapping voters’ sentiments on so-called populist dimensions. We confine our analysis to voters and examine attitudes towards political elites and attitudes towards immigration. We recognize that other motivations for populism exist, for example economic concerns, but the data available does not allow us to study these in greater depth. The fieldwork for this data was conducted among a representative sample of 1,000 Irish people by telephone in March 2016 by polling company RedC.


Figure 1 Attitudes towards political elites and immigration among Irish voters during Irish general election 2016 (%). Source of data: INES – Marsh, McElroy, and Farrell (2016).

Please note: Voters only (N=898).

We explore attitudes towards political elites by gauging responses to two different questions, one examining trust in politicians and the other probing the view that politicians favour privileged elements of society. Figure 1 shows that voters’ views were rather split on both questions. Forty-six per cent of voters agreed that politicians are trustworthy yet 41 per cent disagreed (about half of those disagreeing did so strongly). We see a similar pattern for the more probing question about politicians’ motives and whether they favour the rich and powerful, a consistent critique of populist rhetoric. Forty-eight per cent of Irish respondents agreed with this statement, with 45 per cent disagreeing. Thus, we can see a significant divergence among Irish people regarding views about the elites. Sizeable pluralities of voters believing politicians were untrustworthy and represented only the rich and powerful – supposed key tenets of populist attitudes. Yet, on another dimension of populism – attitudes towards immigration – most Irish voters expressed positive views about immigration. Seventy-two per cent rejected the idea that immigrants harmed Ireland’s culture. Yet, a portion of the electorate did express some dislike of immigrants, with 18 per cent believing that they harmed Ireland’s culture. So while attitudes towards immigration are in the main positive, there is less enthusiasm among a segment of voters.

But did these sentiments shape vote choice?

To assess this, we turn to multivariate regression analysis. This allows us to examine the impact of these attitudes on the vote, while also considering the effect of other variables, Our analysis estimates the likelihood of voting for four main groups (the outgoing government Fine Gael/Labour, Fianna Fáil, Sinn Féin, and other smaller parties/independents) separately through a series of logit regression models.[1]

We found no evidence that negative attitudes towards either political elites or immigration had any impact on the likelihood of voters supporting Fine Gael/Labour or Fianna Fáil.[2] However, in analysing support for Sinn Féin, we observe that strong feelings that politicians only serve the interests of the rich and powerful increased the chances of voting for the party. Independent of other factors, Figure 2 shows the probability of voting Sinn Féin rose by 11 points between those who strongly disagreed with the statement that politicians only serve the interests of the rich and powerful compared with those who strongly agreed with it. Given that over two fifths of the Irish respondents felt this way, it meant Sinn Féin was fishing into a significant pool of voters, who would be likely to support them.


Figure 2 Average predicted effect of feeling that politicians only care about rich and powerful on the likelihood of voting for Sinn Féin in 2016 Irish general election.

Source of data: INES – Marsh, McElroy, and Farrell (2016). Please note: Voters only (n=795). Predicted effect based on logit model considering other variables which are held at their mean values.

On the other hand, a more general distrust of politicians did not translate into support for Sinn Féin. The more untrustworthy people felt that politicians were, the more likely they were to vote for smaller parties or independents, to the tune of 12 percentage points (see Figure 3). We also saw that negative attitudes towards immigrants had a small likelihood of increasing the vote for others and independents. However, the effect was not particularly robust and if attitudes towards migrants were a factor in shaping vote, we conclude it was a small part at best.


Figure 3 Average predicted effect of feeling that politicians are trustworthy on the likelihood of voting for smaller parties and independents in 2016 Irish general election

Source of data: INES – Marsh, McElroy, and Farrell (2016). Please note: Voters only (n=795). Predicted effect based on logit model considering other variables which are held at their mean values.

So what do these findings suggest? First, populist attitudes did motivate a segment of the Irish electorate to vote in a certain way in the 2016 general election. Thus, Ireland was not immune to the populist wave that other countries have experienced in recent years. Second, and unlike other states experiencing a rise in populism, immigration had little impact on the vote in the 2016 election, making Ireland sui generis compared to other populist votes we have seen elsewhere. Instead, it was primarily anti-elitism that motivated a significant segment of Irish voters. Lack of trust in politicians was key in the success of the smaller parties and independents.  We recognize that it can be argued that distrust of politicians can exist outside populism.  However we maintain that a blanket, unconditional lack of trust in politicians in general is a hallmark of one dimension of anti-elitist populism, and that the expression of such a view can be regarded as populist sentiment.  Meanwhile, a belief that politicians favour the rich and powerful was a strong motivator for voters to support Sinn Féin. In sum, populism was a key component of the success of these groups in increasing their representation in the 32nd Dáil.


Dr Deirdre Tinney is an independent researcher. During 2016 she lectured in an adjunct capacity on Comparative European Politics, EU Politics, and Research Methods at the Department of Politics and Public Administration, University of Limerick.

Dr Stephen Quinlan is Senior Researcher at the GESIS Leibniz Institute, Mannheim. He is the Project Manager of the Comparative Study of Electoral Systems (CSES, http://www.cses.org) project, which explores electoral behaviour in over forty states worldwide.

The authors are sincerely grateful to Michael Marsh, Gail McElroy, and David Farrell for making the 2016 Irish National Election Study data available to interested scholars. This component of the Irish National Election Study was made possible with funding contributions from Trinity College Dublin, University College Dublin, University College Cork, and Dublin City University.

Costello, R. (2012) ‘Why hasn’t a far-right party like Golden Dawn emerged in Ireland?’, TheJournal.ie, 14 Nov, available: http://www.thejournal.ie/readme/far-right-ireland-golden-dawn-673169-Nov2012/ [accessed 14 Jan 2017].

D’Arcy, C. (2016) Merrion Hotel Cancels Launch of Anti-Immigration Political Party [online], The Irish Times, available: http://www.irishtimes.com/news/politics/merrion-hotel-cancels-launch-of-anti-immigration-political-party-1.2870264 [accessed 15 Jan 2017].

Eurobarometer Standard Report (2016) Eurobarometer 84 National Report for Ireland, available: http://ec.europa.eu/COMMFrontOffice/publicopinion/index.cfm/Survey/getSurveyDetail/instruments/STANDARD/surveyKy/2098.

Griffin, D. (2016) RTÉ to File Complaint after Cameraman Is Injured in Protest [online], The Irish Times, available: http://www.irishtimes.com/news/ireland/irish-news/rt%C3%A9-to-file-complaint-after-cameraman-is-injured-in-protest-1.2525530 [accessed 15 Jan 2017].

Marsh, M., McElroy, G. (2016) ‘Voting Behaviour: Continuing De-alignment’, in Gallagher, M. and Marsh, M., eds., How Ireland Voted 2016: The Election That Nobody Won, Palgrave Macmillan.

Marsh, M., McElroy, G., Farrell, D. (2016) ‘INES – Irish National Election Study 2016’.

Mudde, C. (2007) Populist Radical Right Parties in Europe, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.

O’Malley, E. (2008) ‘Why is there no radical right party in Ireland?’, West European Politics, 31(5), 960–977.

O’Malley, E., FitzGibbon, J. (2015) ‘Everywhere and nowhere: Populism and the puzzling non-reaction to Ireland’s crises’, in Kriesi, H. and Pappas, T.S., eds., European Populism in the Shadow of the Great Recession, ECPR Press: Colchester, 287–302.

Quinlan, S. (2016) ‘Understanding Election 2016: Perspectives from Eurobarometer 84’, Irish Politics Forum, available: https://politicalreform.ie/2016/03/12/understanding-election-2016-perspectives-from-eurobarometer-84/ [accessed 15 Jan 2017].

Suiter, J. (2016) ‘Ireland: The Rise of Populism on the Left and Among Independents’, in Aalberg, T., Esser, F., Carsten, R., De Vreese, C. and Stromback, J., eds., Populist Political Communication in Europe, Routledge and online via TandF.

[1] Our models controlled for partisanship, economic perceptions, leader likeability, and a series of socio-demographics of each respondent namely: age, education, residency, and gender.

[2] We did find that agreement with the statement that politicians are trustworthy correlated with an increased likelihood of voting Fianna Fáil.


5 thoughts on “A Populist Vote in the 2016 General Election in Ireland?

  1. What do you think is the causal relationship here between public opinion and the type of populism that has prospered over the past decade in ireland, ie is public opinion anti elite rather than anti immigrant because Sinn Fein and the independents have explicitly framed public anger against the “elites” rather than against immigrants? Or are Sinn Fein and the independents *responding* to public anger, which is anti elite rather than anti immigrant independently of how the breakthrough parties have framed the issue ?

    • I don’t think SF and Independents have many friends in the media who will propagate their lines. It’s probably the lack of a mass medium that blames immigrants for Ireland’s social problems, and the fact that the obvious culprits for those social problems are the pre-crisis governments and some bankers.

  2. “suggestions that the nation’s wealth is being ring-fenced by ‘the system’ for a golden circle rather than spread around fairly, reflect three of the most common dimensions of what is today referred to as ‘populism’”

    theres another word you could call this, not populism, you could call it the truth.

  3. the author says “However we maintain that a blanket, unconditional lack of trust in politicians in general is a hallmark of one dimension of anti-elitist populism” what conditional questions did they ask them?

  4. Populism certainly seems to be the word du jour at the moment! However, it’s a word that comes with a lot of semantic baggage and connotations, and almost inevitably used in a pejorative or condescending sense also. That’s hard to escape that even when it’s being used in terms of a particular academic definition (Muddle’s in this instance).

    Populism can even sometimes be positive. In many respects, FDR and his New Deal could be considered a populist response to the Great Depression (FDR, though usually reckoned by historians to be the greatest US president since Lincoln, could border on being illiberal at times when he felt it necessary, e.g. his threat to pack the US Supreme Court with his appointees). Of course, there was a populist madman of a much different hue across the water in Germany at the time.

    In the US, this is IMO all eventual consequences of gradual decades-long rise in inequality since of the unwinding of the New Deal and its successors in the 1970s. That was the point at which income/wealth equality reached its height in the US and in most of Europe (when the “post-war consensus” still held). Since then, globalization and “neo-liberal” deregulation have benefited third world workers quite a lot (Ireland has seen advantages too in its own way). There have been benefits in the West, but almost all concentrated in the top 1 or 2%; some crumbs for the next 18-19%, but stagnation of real incomes otherwise (and even a fall at the bottom end of the distribution). As described by Piketty and others, inequality in the US is heading back towards Gilded Age levels, with a similar, but not quite as severe trend, in Europe (more precarious working conditions for many, the “gig” economy etc.). A credit-driven boom masked that trend for quite a time, but no longer though. That kind of plutocratic inequality is not good for democracy.

    We are supposed to be living in “liberal democracies”. “Liberalism”, like “populism”, is another chameleon-like word (often even used pejoratively these days). There is always going to be a certain inevitable tension between the principles of liberalism and democracy (combining these best requires a somewhat careful balancing act). Liberalism in various guises has, since the 1980s, been in the ascendancy (whether of the economic “neo-liberal” kind or social liberalism with an emphasis on minority rights). Minority rights are, of course, all to the good. However, one issue is that many European socialist parties have in economic terms mostly abandoned any great emphasis on improving conditions and decent wage levels for working class voters, and veered to more centrist economic policies (with a hoped broader electoral appeal I guess), and in compensation put on the clothes of a certain type of radicalism that emphasizes rights for more exotic trendy minority/ethnic groupings (in parallel with the rise of so-called “identity politics”).

    Whereas populism can be accused of imposing the artificial construct of a single “worthy” homogeneous populace pitted against an elite, more extreme versions of social liberalism veer to the very opposite pole: artificially fragmenting and dissecting the polity into overlapping splintered subgroups (emphasizing social/cultural differences, even grievances, between them rather than shared values, perhaps distracting at times from economic inequality). There are aspects of truth to both sides, but IMO neither is the full story, and given the 1-2% in the West who have hugely benefited in disproportionate terms over the past several decades, one cannot entirely dismiss a populace versus “elite” narrative either.

    With a heavy emphasis on social liberalism and widening economic inequality being mostly ignored, there has been a danger of a creeping resentment against liberalism (immigration being an easy target). From studies the economic impact of immigration seems on wages seems to be weak, but it is inevitably the working classes that have to live side-by-side and primarily bear any cultural or social impacts, and depending on where migrants come from there may be long-term social and cultural impacts, e.g. the development of alienated somewhat disadvantaged parallel societies in Europe. There are pros and cons, but it’s nearly impossible to rationally debate such issues in the current environment, which also allows resentment to breed. The rise of the internet and social media is probably another significant force. The traditional media is less able to shape public debate. There are alternative narratives (both positive and negative).

    The pity is that Bernie Sanders (who also could be considered a populist, though a socially liberal one) would likely have been a saner answer to these trends in the US. He very likely would have won against Trump (though how much the system would have allowed him to then do is another question). He seems to be essentially a modern-day New Dealer. Of course, the US Democratic Party is nothing like what it was 40 or 50 years ago. It seems largely in hock to Wall Street (the unions are a long spent force; the “populist” coalition elements that underpinned the New Deal and its successors mostly long gone). Voters were given a choice between a rather unappealing more-of-the-same candidate or a problematic illiberal populist one. Trump still managed to win in spite his illiberality, which would have probably have been a step too far for many Sanders supporters to transfer to him. Sanders would probably have easily won if he had been the other alternative (easier for “populist” votes to have flowed back the other way). However, the odds were too stacked against him given the current nature of the Democratic Party. Instead of getting something of a pendulum swing back in a neo-New Deal direction, we seem to have gotten instead an unpredictable wrecking ball! 🙂

    There are several real undercurrents driving current events (definitely worthy of study), but I can’t say I really like the “populism” term. It just seems to me too inherently catch-all, vague, reductive and even condescending in nature (no matter what context in which it is used).

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