A bright future for the Social Democrats?

The Soc Dems are carving out a new space

The Social Democrats have come a long way since their founding in 2015. Their first General Election outing saw the three Independent TDs who co-founded the party retain their seats. After several years lost in the wilderness of the crowded opposition benches, and losing co-leader Stephen Donnelly to Fianna Fail, the Soc Dems have tripled the size of their parliamentary party. Building on their modest successes in last year’s local elections, their parliamentary party is now equal in size to Labour. Having surged ahead despite many writing them off, several questions now arise. Where do they fit in the Irish political landscape? Would they go into government and if so with whom? If not, why not, and what do they think they can achieve from opposition? What will those new members expect from the party? Why did students pick them over other Irish parties, or not?

Ben Graham, the PRO of the Trinity Soc Dems, was impressed by the Social Democrats’ representatives, particularly by the newest four in the Dáil. He found that they represented his politics far better than any other party and ‘more importantly they felt genuine and informed on the issues.’

The priorities that Graham apparently shares with the party include ‘state housing, climate and biodiversity – particularly the rural and agricultural transition – education, local government reform and a tighter corruption accountability and government transparency.

‘I felt it [the party] was ambitious but realistic and well researched and actually based on proper evidence and ready to be put in place which was important. Also that the party would take on board criticism.’

The first candidate to be announced for the party was Gary Gannon, now TD for Dublin Central and the Social Democrats ultimately unsuccessful candidate for the European Parliament elections in 2019. ‘I was originally elected in 2014 as an independent [councillor] and I was angry because at the time we were going through austerity,’ says Gannon. ‘I asked myself “how can I best serve my constituents?” I thought that as an independent, in my own experience, I was just telling people what was wrong with things and what I was against. Going door to door I was telling people what I was against and then I found myself talking about what I was for. I found my tribe.’

Some attribute the party’s Dail successes to their campaign efforts being concentrated in constituencies where they had a good shot at picking up a seat, rather than spreading their resources thin across all 39 constituencies. While there may be some truth to this, it doesn’t explain the whole story. The party managed to prevail, capturing seats in notoriously difficult areas such as Cork South-West with new TD Holly Cairns. According to Cairns, the party is the perfect fit not only for her, but for most people in the country. ‘My biggest bug bear with irish politics is inheriting votes. I think most people in Ireland are social democrats but don’t realise because they vote the way their family always has done.’ Cairns continued, ‘Like the area went to having a {Social Democrats’} Councillor and a TD in the space of a year. So it absolutely can happen. People said ‘Oh that’s a Fine Gael seat or a Fianna Fail seat but it’s the people’s seat.’

It seems as though the strong election performances have also caused a spike in membership. According to Anthony Keane, Secretary of the TCD Soc Dems. ‘Branches are definitely noticing a large swell in membership, even those without a candidate in the GE. My own local branch, Longford Westmeath, didn’t run anyone but we’ve been getting loads of members recently. On one hand it’s unfortunate with covid because we can’t do a lot of what we’d normally do (meet ups, public meetings, door to door canvassing, stalls in town etc) but we’re finding ways to keep people active in the branch.’

This is being reflected across the country. In Dublin Central, Gary Gannon says, ‘I’ve got an incredible branch, there was about 15 or 16 of us originally and we’ve just had a massive surge. Like when you’re dropping leaflets, we’d get through 1000 houses a night and we’d never be able to do it without them.’ The same is true for Cork- ‘We formed the branch in Cork South West just after Repeal the 8th and there were only three of us,’ says Cairns. ‘They were so supportive but there were three of us. Now we’ve got about 80.’

The party has plans to turn that new support into further action. This week Wicklow TD Jennifer Whitmore is introducing a motion to the Dail that would commit the government to eradicating child poverty in Ireland within the lifetime of this government.

For Holly Cairns, one of the stark problems in Irish politics is the lack of female representation, noting that ‘there’s 17 TDs for all of Cork and I’m the only female. A bill I’m working on at the moment is to introduce parental leave for public representatives because right now they can only take sick leave. And they’re not sick, but they get their wages docked and I think if women were able to take maternity leave there might be less stigma about women in politics.’

Gay Gannon as the party spokesperson for Education and Social Protection, says a huge priority for him is reform of the Leaving Certificate exams. He is also determined to see welfare rate linked to minimum essential standards of living, and substantially investing in the Arts, ‘to at minimum the European average.’ A very personal ambition to Gannon centres around the Magdalene Laundries. He is determined to shed light on the ‘incarcerations and institutions of abuse in this country and I wont stop till I get that museum on Sean MacDiarmada street for the victims and survivors of institutions of abuse. Gannon is also working on a bill to give access to adoption records.

When looking to the future of the party itself, Anthony Keane believes there is a lot to be hopeful about. ‘At the moment we’re working on internal communication, which is probably one of the biggest issues the party is facing and one of the last ones left that we need to establish as a “new” party. So we’re working on that and trying to create secure channels through which we can communicate without worrying about leaks or anything. Our head office has just two or three full time staff so that’s a challenge, but thankfully as we grow we’re better placed to hire more people.’

Growth certainly seems to be where the party is focused now. Yet Keane and others are unfazed by the possibility of new members bringing more voices to the table. ‘The grievance processes were laid out in detail early on in the party’s lifetime, and they haven’t had to be used that often which is brilliant. Internal debate is common, but it’s always civil. Because we’re a policy driven party with a common ideology, unlike say FF or FG to an extent, we know that we all have the same end goals, i.e. a socially democratic Ireland, so whatever little spats we might have with each other never grow beyond small arguments and are forgotten about in about a week’

Student supporters of the Social Democrats will find their aspirations shared with their elected representatives. ‘‘Catherine and Roisin are just fonts of knowledge,’ Gannon says. ‘The TDs are doing quite well in terms of performance in the Dail, we have a great councillor base, I think we can recruit some more, and we’re hiring new staff for the party, the Press Officer, Political Director. I’d like to see us hitting over 10% in the polls and having a really strong election.

Questions remain over if they would join a coalition government, and if so, exactly who. This year the party signalled that it would not join a coalition with both Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, suggesting that the possibility remains they may come to support one or the other in the future should they get strong commitments to investing in public services. For this to happen, they would need significant Dail strength to leverage over the Civil War Parties. This may seem over-ambitious as the party only achieved around 3% in the election this February. However, Holly Cairns comments, ‘If we’d a euro for every time we did something that someone told us we couldn’t do. Like I just think we’ll be growing and growing through this term, in the local elections and while we focus on building branches. People want an alternative. It’s a really exciting time for the party and we just need to build and build- and we can!’

Sean Gordon Dalton

Sean is a Deputy Features Editor at Trinity News