Always, inevitably local: Ireland’s strange populism and the trouble with theory

Austerity and economic hardship are common themes in the narratives about the causes of contemporary populism. Ireland, having endured a decade of austerity and a very severe EU-IMF bailout, might therefore seem to be a fertile bed for populism. But Ireland has (so far) seen the effects of populism only in a limited and unusual form. Populism manifested chiefly in a movement – powerful and influential in its limited way – to resist payment of water charges. This is a strange story of populism. On the one hand, many of the risks often associated with populism – government capitulation to populist demands, creep of mainstream parties towards populist causes, a splintering of the parliament – actualised in Ireland. On the other hand, they actualised in an unusual way that has left the political establishment largely intact: the party that led the imposition of austerity remains in power; political and structural reforms have been minor; concessions to populism have been largely limited to the issue of water. It seems as though populism was contained.  In this paper, I first map the idiosyncratic Irish experience, so that it can be considered in discussions of populism; and secondly, I argue that Ireland’s unique experience shows the irreducible complexity and locality of populism. Populism is always contingent and local, reacting the peculiarities of political culture and circumstance. The best way to study populism is not through theory and search for similarity, but through observation of diversity. While we might see some similarity, pattern, and convergence in populism around the world, this is largely happenstance, and populism will always be recast and remade in each and each place to produce distinct and often unpredictable results. It is, even if while it seems to sweep the world, fundamentally a local phenomenon.