Will TikTok taoiseach Simon Harris succeed in his promise to fight populism?

Ireland is going through a period of transition. How Simon Harris navigates the role of taoiseach will be a test of whether we can resist the destructive excesses of elsewhere

In his book Ruling the Void (2013) the late Irish political scientist Peter Mair suggested “the age of party democracy has passed”, with political parties disconnected from wider society and pursuing “a form of competition so lacking in meaning” that they damaged their standing, legitimacy and effectiveness throughout Europe. The early 21st-century rhetoric of political leaders encapsulated this, he suggested, citing Tony Blair’s assertion in 2000 that “I was never really in politics ... I don’t feel myself a politician even now”. What was deemed necessary instead of politics, Blair contended, was “to help people make the most of themselves” rather than exercising the “directive hand” of government, its authority supposedly becoming redundant.

As a self-declared non-politician, Blair dominated British politics while his chancellor Gordon Brown waited in the wings, regarding himself as Blair’s intellectual superior. Anthony Seldon’s book The Impossible Office, The history of the British Prime Minister (2021), suggests that during Blair’s first term, 1997-2001, “Brown’s simmering resentment that Blair had become leader rather than him exploded”. He found having to face and serve a Blair he considered lightweight intolerable.

But Blair was much better at selling himself. In his diary, the journalist Piers Morgan noted after a dinner with Brown in 2004 that he was “a strange Jekyll and Hyde character”. Off screen he could be relaxed and “extremely charming” but once on television, he spoke “in a relentless high-speed monotone, performing one of the worst stage smirks I’ve ever seen when he thinks he should lighten up a bit and generally comes across as a dour, stiff Scots bloke who looks after our money. Which is a perfect image for chancellor but hopeless if you want to make the move to prime minister.”

At the same time, waiting in another kind of wing was Conservative MP Boris Johnson, who was sacked that year by his party leader Michael Howard for lying. Morgan noted of the “Boris the Buffoon” act that Johnson “knows exactly what he is doing. Boris worked out long ago that the public are suckers for that dithering, bumbling upper-class twit stuff so he gives them exactly what they want, and they lap it up. Underneath the phoney bluster is a keen political brain calculating a path to power.”


Morgan was wrong, however, about one crucial thing. Johnson did not possess a keen political brain. He was completely devoid of politics, in the sense of public service or ideas. Blair, for all the spinning and polish, at least had some sense of political service. Johnson was pathetically inept, shallow and permanently adolescent – or, in Seldon’s more polite description, a “high-stakes chancer” – and could not cope with power or ideas. Entirely predictably, he did great damage to politics and to Britain, powerfully underlined by this month’s series on Channel 4, The Rise and Fall of Boris Johnson.

Vanity and ego have always been powerful propellers for a political career. When political journalist Olivia O’Leary asked John Kelly, a Fine Gael TD from 1973-1989, why he chose politics, given that he had an alternative career path in legal academia, Kelly responded “I often wonder if it’s from an insatiable desire to have notice taken of ourselves, like toddlers who have been left too long on their potties”. But many of them, including Kelly, also took the business of politics and the notion of public service very seriously, which was another reason they chose the less stable path.

There has been much reference to the scale of electoral contests this year because a historically unprecedented number of voters globally will have the opportunity to vote. The threats posed by viral misinformation are many and Ireland will not be immune to those dangers. The elections will also occur at a time when those who denounce a traditional sense of politics can build alliances on the back of deriding those who take that politics and the public sphere seriously. Many of these strains have been building for years, and this year will witness an American presidential election poisoned with its worst excesses, as the void identified by Mair will be filled with bile.

Presumptive taoiseach Simon Harris has committed himself to a mature politics; to “fight against populism and deliberate polarisation ... with civility, with honesty, with a determination to debate without rancour and personal demonisation”. How that is handled in Ireland, especially given the role of social media – use of which has been widely touted as a forte of Harris - will reveal much about Ireland’s continuing ability to resist some of the destructive excesses evident elsewhere. In 2021, the Oxford Handbook of Irish Politics suggested Ireland was going through a “hybrid phase” of political communication characterised by “the integration of old and new media ... with implications for democratic and civic discourse that are as yet unclear”. Those implications are likely to become clearer soon.