Deconstructing national leadership: Politicians’ accounts of electoral success and failure in the Irish Lisbon Treaty referenda

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Abstract

The Self Categorization approach to national leadership proposes that leaders rhetorically construct national identity as essentialized and inevitable in order to consensualize and mobilize the population. In contrast, discursive studies have demonstrated how national politicians flexibly construct the nation to manage their own accountability in local interactions, though this in turn has neglected broader leadership processes. The present paper brings both approaches together to examine how and when national politicians construct versions of national identity in order to account for their failure as well as success in mobilizing the electorate. Eight semi-structured conversational style interviews were conducted with a strategic sample of eight leading Irish politicians on the subject of the 2008/2009 Irish Lisbon Treaty referenda. Using a Critical Discourse Psychology approach, the hegemonic repertoire of the ‘settled will’ of the informed and consensualized Irish nation was identified across all interviews. Politicians either endorsed the ‘settled will’ repertoire as evidence of their successful leadership, or rejected the repertoire by denying the rationality or unity of the populace to account for their failure. Our results suggest national identity is only constructed as essentialized and inevitable to the extent that it serves a strategic political purpose.

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