Analysis: Donnelly reflects on next move in wake of exit

Polished media performer unwilling to be drawn – but once linked to Fianna Fáil move

Stephen Donnelly at his constituency office in Greystones, Wicklow. Most traces of Social Democrat signage were removed from the building earlier in the day. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

Stephen Donnelly at his constituency office in Greystones, Wicklow. Most traces of Social Democrat signage were removed from the building earlier in the day. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

 

For a genial politician, Stephen Donnelly – who has traversed the road from Independent deputy to co-leader of a new party and back again within the space of just over a year – evokes the strongest of opinions.

Lauded, for a period, by some sections of the press and a presentable voice on radio and television, he drew scoffs and snorts from the government benches during the last Dáil, with many ministers dismissing him as a show pony who mouthed only platitudes and management consultant speak.

One of the televised leaders’ debates during the election – when he represented the Social Democrats – showed both Donnelly’s strength and weakness: a good communicator who comes a cropper when pressed on the finer points of what he is proposing.

The Social Democrats manifesto, too, was an example of this. Although uncosted, Donnelly defended it as an ideal of how Ireland could be.

Yet Donnelly was the poll topper in the Wicklow five-seater at the general election with more than 20 per cent of the first-preference vote. Show pony or not, many parties would love such a political performer on their team.

Those he has spoken to in recent days say his rationale for leaving the Social Democrats is he wants to achieve things. Coupled with his blunt assertions that he aspires to be in office, it is pretty clear he wants to be a minister. Despite his statements to the contrary, his conclusions indicate that he no longer saw the Social Democrats as the appropriate vehicle for those ambitions.

For now, his former party will be largely unaffected since Donnelly is to remain within its Dáil technical group for the purposes of parliamentary speaking time. Its funding – calculated on the strength of a party at the beginning of a Dáil – will also remain but the reputation of the Social Democrats has been hit. It will need to work hard to avoid being pigeonholed as a protest party.

Next election

Donnelly was keener than Róisín Shortall and Catherine Murphy on entering coalition and some of his former colleagues have speculated that he could yet again make himself available to support the Fine Gael-led Government, if the minority Coalition were to lose a member.

He has also been previously linked to a move to Fianna Fáil, although he denied it at the time, as do some in the party now. Labour too is an option, but both Micheál Martin and Brendan Howlin’s party share his social democratic instincts and could be in power together after the next election.

With the Fianna Fáil rumour in circulation again yesterday, many in political circles felt that such a move would be comparable to that made by RTÉ’s George Lee into Fine Gael amid much fanfare in 2009, only for Lee to quit within nine months, frustrated that he had no influence on economic policies.

Martin already has strong frontbench spokespeople such as Michael McGrath, Dara Calleary and Niall Collins in economic portfolios. The competition in Labour may be less intense, but it is still there.

Donnelly was last night discussing his options with local supporters and said it was too early to say if he would stay Independent or join a party.

He is said to be close to Katherine Zappone, who gambled by declaring early for Enda Kenny during the Government formation and was rewarded with the Department of Children.

That may point the way for Donnelly, rather than attempting to elbow his way into political parties where hunger for office is perhaps even greater than his– and elbows sharper.

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