On Thursday I’ll be part of a panel hosted by the Clinton Centre at UCD, which will be looking at Populism in the US and Europe. Quite aside from the considerable wooliness of the term, it will be an opportunity to look at what it means in contemporary use and what it probably doesn’t.
— Clinton InstituteUCD (@Clinton_InstUCD) October 13, 2020
In Northern Ireland, the demagogue (an older term for ‘populist’) seems to have been with us for as far back as many of us can recall. Belfast Agreement hinted at a promise of something better; even though, as Eamonn McCann pointed out at the time, it preserved our historic divisions, they asserted control.
The verb means to “rhetorically exploit (an issue) for political purposes in a way calculated to appeal to the desires and prejudices of ordinary people”. And was still very much in evidence in Sinn Féin’s nearly successful attempt (it failed by one seat) to take the First Minister’s seat from the DUP in 2017.
That year’s Election to Nowhere segued into a three-year hiatus, ending only this year with weeks to spare ahead of the onset of the Covid crisis. To this day there is no evidence that anything other Sinn Féin’s own selfish political interest in the southern elections had sparked a sudden change of heart.
It may be that in conjunction with a real collective crisis of Covid, the population of Northern Ireland has had a change of heart too. Twenty years of rowing about culture and not doing very much with their mandates, has triggered a change of view on both sides, but particularly within unionist population.
It would be unfair to argue that SF’s was the only form of populism in Northern Irish politics. Throughout delicate Brexit negotiations, the DUP leader Arlene Foster has had to be stoic in the face of a gaggle of noises off second-guessing her or ramping up the rhetoric when silence might have served.
No doubt internal pressures have been increasing since Sinn Féín decided to brazen out its breach of funeral regulations they’d endorsed whilst holding office in government. This ability to hold to two contradictory things at once, Daniele Albertazzi notes here, is also evident in populist parties in Italy.
Then came Agriculture Minister Ed Poots outburst at the end of last week.
DUP Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots says nationalist areas of NI have more cases of #coronavirus than unionist areas – on a scale of 6 to 1.
He told UTV the breakdown in compliance, in nationalist areas , could be traced back to Bobby Storey’s funeral.
— Darran Marshall (@DarranMarshall) October 16, 2020
Now, if we still care about detail, I doubt there is anything like the detail needed to justify this statement available to the minister or anyone else. That there may be a problem in nationalist areas is beyond a reasonable doubt, but the job of ANY Stormont minister is to fix it, not use it for low political gain.
Slugger understands that the latest figures had been in the hands of Executive ministers for about a week before Poots accusatory statement and had been the subject of strained debate, but that the Executive had decided that a broad lockdown would be in the best interests of all of NI.
Our own Peter Donaghy then leapt into the fray to point out that there are other correlations at play here. Peter argues that the key factor is poverty, and that tallies with data elsewhere. Poorer communities have fewer resources, and are more densely populated with less communal resilience.
That makes sense. We can’t be sure what it might or mightn’t say about political identity. That would take another order of work but there is a prima face case for suggesting that despite the fact that Catholics broadly are upwardly mobile, working-class Catholic areas still endure the worst poverty.
The key factor behind areas badly hit by Northern Ireland’s 2nd COVID-19 wave isn’t religion, but poverty. Only 1 of NI’s 40 least deprived postcode areas has over 400 weekly cases per 100k, ¼ of the most deprived 40 areas do. pic.twitter.com/x7a0tyGrc0
— Peter Donaghy (@peterdonaghy) October 18, 2020
This cuts against established perceptions that working-class Catholics are doing better than working-class Protestants. Covid has provided us with a telling snapshot. The decision by the Executive was (whatever its enormous drawbacks for local business) was to shoot the covid rapids together.
After twenty years of on-off populist/demagogic led administration/non-government, the message is clear: no one gets out of poverty until everyone pulls together as a ‘larger us’. Minister Poots would be better trying to thole the provocations and stick to the task of taking the whole of NI through together.
As Siobhan O’Neill pointed out last week, what’s needed is leadership from right across the playing field and at every single level of society….
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty