Social Democrats blossom as Renua withers

As the Social Democrats ate into older parties’ vote, Renua’s candidates fell at the first electoral hurdle

General election 2016 was a good one for the Social Democrats and a terrible one for Renua, whose party leader Lucinda Creighton failed to retain her seat in Dublin Bay South.

The two small parties did not exist the last time Ireland went to the polls but were established as recently as last year.

With the national mood swinging in favour of Independents and small groupings with a fresh message, there was everything to play for in the battle of the minnows.

The three prominent former Independent TDs who came together to form the Social Democrats in July 2015 offered what they characterised as a “relatively mainstream” alternative to larger parties.


All three were poll-toppers in their respective constituencies at the weekend. Róisín Shortall became the first Social Democrat to be elected when she topped the poll in Dublin North West on Saturday. She exceeded the quota on the first count with 10,540 votes.

Her popular colleague Stephen Donnelly was elected on the first count in Wicklow. He topped the poll with 14,348 first- preference votes, 21 per cent of the vote.

There was no surprise either that Catherine Murphy was elected on the first count in her Kildare North constituency. Her David-and-Goliath-style tangle with businessman Denis O'Brien over the Siteserv controversy brought her to national attention last year, and she faced into this election sprinkled with political stardust as a result.

The party ran 14 candidates. None of the others will make it to the Dáil this time, although Gary Gannon in Dublin Central polled well. He was overtaken by incumbent Independent Maureen O'Sullivan on the 11th and final count in the constituency.

The solid result leaves the party well positioned for future contests.

It certainly ate into the vote of more established parties. Some commentators remarked if the Social Democrats had been able to field candidates in so-called liberal constituencies such as Dún Laoghaire they could potentially have polled well.

First step

For Renua, the story was much less positive. The omens were bad from early on Saturday, when Ms Creighton was saying the party would continue in existence irrespective of whether or not it succeeded in winning any Dáil seat. Ms Creighton, who founded the party, said she was very proud of what Renua had achieved and described the election as a “first step” for the party.

Initial tallies indicated she represented Renua’s only hope of winning a seat. She was locked in a battle with other candidates for the last slot in the four-seat Dublin Bay South constituency.

A glimmer of hope for Renua was extinguished yesterday evening when Wicklow TD Billy Timmins lost his seat after a tight battle. Terence Flanagan polled poorly in Dublin Bay North and failed to make the grade. Among the party's other lower-profile candidates, none made an impact.

Ms Creighton had spoken of targeting 10 seats in the election. In reality, the party had been hoping to return its “big beasts”, three incumbent TDs, at its first national electoral test, with any additional seats a pleasant surprise.

As the party has no seats in the next Dáil, the key question for Ms Creighton, Mr Timmins and Mr Flanagan, was whether enough voters who had supported them in the past would be prepared to turn their backs on Fine Gael, as the party's best- known candidates did in 2013. The answer to that question was a fairly clear No.

Fickle constituency

Dublin Bay South (formerly Dublin South East) is often described as a fickle constituency, and voters there are certainly unpredictable. It was difficult to foresee a politician with Ms Creighton’s profile failing to return to the Dáil, but that is what happened.

In Wicklow, proven vote-getter Mr Timmins also tested whether previous backers were willing to transfer their Fine Gael loyalty to the Renua logo. The long-serving deputy is a political grafter and his personal brand in the constituency clearly remained quite strong.

Ms Creighton, then minister of state for European affairs, voted against the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill 2013, forfeiting both her ministerial office and Fine Gael parliamentary party membership. Mr Timmins and Mr Flanagan also lost the party whip because of their opposition to the legislation.

Although Renua was at pains not to allow itself be characterised as a “right- wing” anti-abortion party, that perception may have damaged the candidates’ chances of success.