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After the Holly Cairns bounce, the Social Democrats must face up to three key questions

Recent polls are promising but the party has big decisions to make

The Social Democrats gather this weekend in UCD for the party’s annual conference, facing some big imminent decisions.

It’s not quite a year since Holly Cairns was elected unopposed as party leader, replacing the co-leaders Róisín Shortall and Catherine Murphy. There were early signs of a “Holly Hop” as the arrival of Cairns – new, young, smart and photogenic – piqued the interest of some voters. But that soon bled away and while last week’s Irish Times/Ipsos B&A poll showed support for the party edging up by two points to 5 per cent, in general the party has bumped along at somewhere around the 3 to 5 per cent range since the last general election. This is the cliff edge existence that small parties often have – perched between a breakthrough (like the Greens made at the last election) and perdition (like the Greens had the last time when they were in government the party lost all of its seats), depending on a handful of strong candidates in a handful of constituencies to make it over the line. They live on the edge, which is not quite as exciting as it sounds.

And yet small parties in the Irish system often have an outsize influence on the governments in which they serve. The Progressive Democrats did it; Labour used to do it; the Greens are doing it, bartering their dozen seats into a disproportionate influence on the Government’s policy and programme. You think Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael would be doing all that climate action stuff if they were in government with someone else? Yeah, right.

As the Social Democrats, and every one else, faces into the decisive part of the electoral cycle, it will soon be time for people to start making up their minds about things. I think there are three essential questions that the Social Democrats will have to answer. This weekend is as good a time as any to start.


Question 1: Does the party want to be in government?

You might think everyone in politics wants to be in government. You’d be wrong. Loads of people in the Dáil have no intention ever of being in government, because they know that being a small party or an Independent TD in a coalition frequently has terminal consequences for your seat. Some small parties – usually those with a strong ideological identity such as the Greens or the PDs – are prepared to pay that price, or at least are prepared to risk paying that price. But many others aren’t. It is unlikely, for example, that any imaginable government would be sufficiently socialist for People Before Profit to join it.

Ireland no longer has governments formed, as it did for so long, immediately after a general election. Instead, with a fractured party system, it now takes a few months for a coalition to be put together. In 2016 and again in 2020, the Social Democrats didn’t really make any serious effort to be part of those discussions, partly because to do so would have meant engaging with Fine Gael and/or Fianna Fáil. We know that the party would like a coalition without either Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael. And maybe that will happen. But unless it does – and the polls don’t currently hold a great deal of encouragement for it – the party will be faced with the FF-FG question again. Actually, the question is twofold – is the party prepared to enter such discussions, and if so, what are its red-line demands? In other words, what is Cairns’s price for joining a coalition?

Question 2: Where are they going to get the extra votes they need?

On a series of issues, Cairns and her colleagues are effective critics of the Government. But it is unlikely to win many votes from Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, whatever about the Greens (a much more realistic, if thinner, target). There is a large pool of broadly anti-Government votes – trouble is, competition for them is acute. Since the last election, Sinn Féin has been hoovering them up, giving the party that spectacular lead in the polls that it enjoyed for so long.

Last week’s poll, however, suggested that something new is happening – a division opening up, perhaps, between the populist and the progressive elements of Sinn Féin’s support. If that trend continues, it suggests that the Social Democrats could leech some votes from the larger party – if it has the cojones to go after them.

Question 3: Should it merge with Labour?

Social Democrat TDs hate being asked about a merger with the Labour Party, partly because they get asked it all the time, and partly because they know, I suspect, that the reasons they give against it are not very good. You could put the question another way, I suppose – is the party interested in building a social democratic force in Irish politics that would apply its principles in Government, or is it just interested in building the Social Democrats? If it is interested in the former then it will be open to joining forces – not necessarily in a merger, but certainly in some form of alliance – with Labour and with independent centre-left TDs.

But there are a lot of Social Democrat candidates who could do with Labour votes, and vice versa. And a centre-left bloc with 15 seats would certainly be a player after the next election – if it wanted to be

Personalities always complicate things in Ireland’s highly localised and personalised politics, but personalities change, or change their minds. The party founders will not be around forever. There will always be difficulties. But there are a lot of Social Democrat candidates who could do with Labour votes, and vice versa. And a centre-left bloc with 15 seats would certainly be a player after the next election – if it wanted to be.

I’m not certain what the right answer is these three questions. But I’m pretty sure that how the party develops in the future depends on how it answers them.

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