Youthful candidate hopes Social Democrats become a serious force

Children of internet age – and recession – in late push for votes

"Since when did your party send out 15-year-old candidates?" Social Democrat candidate for Galway West Niall Ó Tuathail laughs as he recalls the reaction of a Renmore householder to his door knock earlier this week.

The dimpled software designer knows he doesn’t quite look his age, but hadn’t expected to mistaken for an Osmond brother or a boy scout. A child of the internet age, Ó Tuathail (31) began his campaign last year with “town hall meetings” on Twitter, but believes there is nothing quite like the physical foot on step.

“I’ve worn out three pairs of shoes since July, because I’ve found that you really have to bypass all social media and make that one-to-one contact.”

Chatting with students in the arts building concourse in NUI Galway (NUIG), Ó Tuathail is already a familiar face there. He came to city prominence when he ran Galway's successful Yes Equality campaign last year.


“And our work on that referendum here means that most students are registered,” Maria Ní Fhlatharta from An Spidéal, who is auditor of NUIG’s Social Democrats branch, says. “We really believe students are disconnected from the older parties founded on Civil War divides,” she adds. “We are the first generation that will be poorer than our parents, having direct experience of recession, and for us it’s about building something bigger now.”

Postgraduate student Chris Noone from Ennis, Co Clare, concurs. He attended a Social Democrats public meeting in Salthill last October and says he was very impressed by TDs Stephen Donnelly, Catherine Murphy and Róisín Shortall.

Noone has long admired the Scandinavian social democratic model of governance, where people feel they are being “looked after” with adequate public services funded by taxes. “Ours is the generation that turned 18 when the recession hit and we are used to surviving on less and looking for quality of life, rather than a fat wallet,” he says.

Ó Tuathail's first engagement with politics was a canvassing campaign he ran for Stephen Donnelly, elected to the Dáil as an Independent for Wicklow. He also worked for David Hall's Dublin West byelection campaign in 2014.

“I was based abroad with McKinsey and around the time of the bank guarantee, I decided that I had to get involved.”

He had met his Portuguese wife Eva in London, and the couple, who have two young children, lived in Lisbon for a period, before moving to Galway.

They have first-hand experience of the rental market and say Galway has a full-blown housing crisis. They are also well attuned to the priorities of health, childcare and public transport. “I worked on the British National Health Service reform when I was with McKinsey, and I think a restructuring here to focus on primary care would prove to be far more economically and socially beneficial,” he says.

Back in the city centre, Green Party candidate Séamus Sheridan and Labour TD Derek Nolan are making a late last push within 10 metres of each other, canvassing votes. The word on the street is that Ó Tuathail is in contention for the elusive fifth seat.

Labour councillor Niall MacNelis has booked a flight to the Galwayman’s dinner in Coventry on Saturday, however, and does not anticipate results before Sunday or Monday. He says it is impossible to call. “With so many candidates, and no knowing with transfers, it’s going to be a long few nights.”

Lorna Siggins

Lorna Siggins

Lorna Siggins is the former western and marine correspondent of The Irish Times