Focused Social Democrats could face defining decision at next election
More than 700 sign up for party’s virtual convention in indication of rising profile
Social Democrats TDs Jennifer Whitmore, Cian O Callaghan, Catherine Murphy, Róisn Shortall, Gary Gannon and Holly Cairns outside Leinster House. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins
The graveyard of Irish politics is littered with the tombstones of smaller parties. Most have been forgotten in the mists of time – The Farmers’ Party; Clann Éireann; Ailtirí na hAiséirghe; Clann na Poblachta; and Clann na Talmhan.
In more recent years there have been others that burned brightly for a while before burning out: the Progressive Democrats; the Workers’ Party; Democratic Left; and Renua. Until recently, when a new party was formed, the question was how long before its obituary would be written.
That might have seemed the path for the Social Democrats. Formed by three TDs in 2015, it gained no new seats in the 2016 election despite Gary Gannon coming close. By the end of the year, Stephen Donnelly was gone and the party’s future looked uncertain. It was niche and partially sharing ground with the Greens, Labour and other left-wing parties, including Sinn Féin.
The new party had certain things in its favour. The first was its leadership. Co-leaders, Róisín Shortall and Catherine Murphy, were both veteran TDs but were both dogged, energetic and focused. Shortall is a combative politician who has become synonymous with the Sláintecare policy. Murphy has forged a strong reputation in terms of her investigations, including the sale of Siteserv to a company owned by Denis O’Brien.
The second was its membership. The Greens were not the only ones attracting young idealists. Hundreds also flocked to the Social Democrats from the off. Many had been involved in the same-sex marriage referendum in 2015 and more latterly the Together for Yes campaign and were looking to become more involved in politics. The Social Democrats, with its avowedly right-on liberal outlook, and left-of-centre economic and social polices, provided a good fit.
Of all the parties poised to make gains in the next election cycle, the Social Democrats and Sinn Féin are the best positioned. The Soc Dems won 19 seats in the 2019 local elections and followed it up with a strong general election, where it won six seats (none on the coat-tails of the Sinn Féin surge).
Its four new TDs – Jennifer Whitmore, Gary Gannon, Cian O’Callaghan and Holly Cairns – have all been very prominent in the 33rd Dáil. As a unit, the party’s Dáil team is high profile and cohesive. Shortall and Murphy have been prominent advocates of zero Covid, and have, since last summer at least, highlighted shortfalls in the monitoring of incoming passengers to ports and airports. The party has also put forward motions on workers’ rights, child poverty, ending State funding for the greyhound industry, and extending the term of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes.
It is the first party to hold a convention in 2021 and because of Covid-19 restrictions, this weekend’s one will be virtual. Still more than 700 delegates have registered so far, giving an indication of the party’s current standing. The agenda is intriguing as an indicator of its direction.
For one, Prof Philip Pettit is the guest speaker. The philosopher and political scientist who lectures in Princeton and the Australian National University, is a native of Ballygar, Co Galway. He is perhaps the leading authority in the world on the ideas and rationale that underlie social democracy.
The theme of the conference is Time to Transform. Two of the key sessions will focus on touchstone issues for the party. The prominent UCD academic and architect Orla Hegarty will address the conference on housing while prominent former Green Party adviser Sinéad Mercier (which in itself speaks volumes) will speak about the “just transition” towards climate-friendly agricultural policy. Another academic, NUI Galway human rights lawyer Maeve O’Rourke will speak on, among other things, the controversy surrounding the conclusions of the mother and baby homes commission, an issue on which both Whitmore and Cairns have been prominent.
Some of the motions are common to almost all centrist and left-leaning parties in the Dáil: just transition; universal basic income; a third income tax rate; the under-representation of women in politics; the separation of church and State; a referendum on a right to housing; gender-, and poverty-, proofing policy.
If the party makes gains, at whose expense will they come? As well as its most identifiable rivals, Labour and the Greens, it also might attract “soft” votes away from Sinn Féin and also be competitive for liberal Fianna Fáil voters. One advantage the Social Democrats has is it does not carry the original sin of having being in government like the Greens and Labour.
The downside of a more fragmented political landscape is that voters are no longer loyal. It is rare that parties improve their standing with the public while in government. It’s much easier to be virtuous when you’re not the party making hard choices that will impact on people’s lives. You might have played like Barcelona in opposition but once in government you are Scunthorpe FC.
The party could find itself creeping into double figures in seats after the next election. If that happens, it will be under considerable pressure to enter a coalition. It almost goes without saying that decision will be fateful.