Technopopulist Northern Ireland

An obsession over what you believe in politics is often at the forefront of people’s minds but the question of how you want to achieve those beliefs appears to have taken a new precedence in the 21st century. In a world where every politician proclaims to have cookie cutter beliefs it is not surprising that the audience wants to know how the politician wants to approach change when so many before them failed to do so. The question between Sanders vs Clinton or Trump vs Biden was as much about people power vs technocratic power as it was about ideological differences, with Sanders and Trump pulling from an anti-establishment position. At the same time, Sanders and Trump resided in completely different ideological camps while their support came from a similar sentiment channelled in very different ways.

The thing which set Sanders and Trump aside from the establishment figures was the skillset which they drew from. For Sanders it was likely from his grassroots position which exposed him to first hand accounts of the disenfranchised while Trump approached the campaign like a businessman sensing a vacancy in the market. Regardless, it was their charisma which helped them through, both following populist paths centred around their recognisable voices. This followed a decade where America had been defined by technocratic politics. Policy which had been focus grouped, run under expert microscopes and drafted with manicured details but at the same time felt somewhat detached from the people it was meant to help. It was the reign of Obama the Technocrat.

However, we should not consider the ideas of technocracy or populism to be antonyms. They can better be viewed the same way we now look at left vs right ideology, as a set of principles which often get clustered together, rarely producing an individual who is purely one or the other but more likely a synthesis. Even in the most technocratic individual there is some particle of populism. It is the technopopulist paradigm as presented by Christopher J. Bickerton and Carlo Invernizzi Accetti in their book ‘Technopopulism: The New Logic of Democratic Politics’.

The South is no stranger to the concept. It could be argued that when Fianna Fail and Fine Gael looked indistinguishable on a left vs right paradigm, they often differed on how they wanted to approach government.  Fianna Fail were the people pleasing populists from the schools of Lynch, Haughey and Ahern. They were not necessarily the wisest in the ways of policy making but were certainly able to build upon a certain charisma that they portrayed and known for their giveaway manifestos. On the other hand, it was Fine Gael who often had to be the sensible, moneywise option from Cosgrave to Fitzgerald and Kenny. A set of Taoiseachs who were definitely closer to technocrats rather than populists.

However, it is Sinn Fein (as of recently) who appear to be able to portray themselves as the technopopulists of the South. All at once, they speak to the average disenfranchised individual by appealing to a set of highly visible policy topics while also proclaiming that they have expert plans to approach those policy issues. For example, on housing they balance the line of being able to criticise the FG+FF establishment on their historical approach to housing while also being able to boast that their housing spokesperson, Eoin Ó Broin, literally wrote the book on the Irish housing crisis and how it should be fixed. It probably also helps that Sinn Fein have been able to portray a certain form of nationalism which inspires a populism for those who would be averse to supporting establishment powers. All of these components lead to a conflicting duality in Sinn Fein’s current makeup but it is that conflict which gives them such widespread success. They are able to be all things to all people while not in power. The question will remain whether they can balance their populism and technocracy when they have to step foot in government.

Stormont should not be left out in the technopopulist discussion either, as we have one of the strangest specimens around in Jim Allister, a man of intriguing duality. While boasting a Paislian form of populism which focuses on ideological staunchness, the TUV leader also comes from a background as a barrister (a technocratic profession). Allister is able to take his knowledge of the legal system and apply it to his arguments within Stormont as a one man battering ram. In nearly every assembly discussion, Allister is able to participate in the discussions with a breadth of detail that few other MLAs would profess to have. On top of that, Allister is well versed in the rules of the Assembly and quite happy to point out when he believes that other members are attempting to skip protocol. Despite that (or maybe because of it), he clearly has populist tendencies which rely on conspiracy theory-esque logic and extreme anti-nationalist arguments. It is those populist tendencies which saw the TUV balloon its first preference vote share even if they did not achieve any actual MLA growth. 

Alternatively, it has been Naomi Long’s Alliance who has finally found their populist voice. For years, their technocratic elements were obvious. They ran on sensible policy making and critiqued the two major populist parties from their minority position. However, it was this election where they were able to find a message which stuck, hook line and sinker. It only took a health care crisis, years without government, a global pandemic and a cost of living crisis to finally break the barrier for Alliance’s message of alternative Northern Irish politics to break through. Yet, even their populism seems to stem from a core of technocracy (with the opposite being true for Jim Allister). It was a particular focus on the preferential voting system, deep dives into the numbers of constituencies and a set of technocratic policy messages which helped Alliance take advantage of their newly found potential voter bases (canvassing areas where they knew they might not get a first but could convince people of a second or third preference that would make all the difference).

Technopopulism can appear in many different forms from Sinn Fein to Jim Allister to Alliance, that is why it is better described as a lens than an ideology in itself. You can look at the political world through the idea of technopopulism rather than pretend that there is a right or wrong in populism or technocracy, as they are simply different ways of approaching circumstances. One of the key issues of our time has been how you get things done rather than what you even want to get done. Obama’s second term was highlighted by a stagnant democratic system which couldn’t pass any bills, the South has been defined by two parties who seem to have forgotten how to make change and Westminster can barely get past the legacy of Blair and Thatcher. In Northern Ireland, everyone of our guarantors have had to struggle with their technocratic politics (and populist reactions) while we internally have watched the populist rise of Sinn Fein and the DUP. Northern Irish politics has had to be technopopulist for some time.

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