Noel Whelan: Donnelly plots his course to ministerial office

He may well be rewarded for supporting the Government as an independent

The Social Democrats had too little time, too little money and too few candidates of calibre to make a definitive break through in last February’s election. It was disappointing for the party to return with just the three deputies who had originally formed the party. That said, they achieved a lot for a party which at that stage had only been in existence for six months.

Their three co-leaders, Catherine Murphy, Róisín Shorthall and Stephen Donnelly, each topped the poll in their constituencies. Were it not for the extraordinary performance of Maureen O Sullivan in attracting transfers in Dublin Central, Gary Gannon would also have won a seat for the Social Democrats in that constituency. The party also had good first time performances in Dublin Mid-West, Galway West and Dublin Bay South .

Even before this week's events the Social Democrats faced a difficult challenge in growing beyond this core. There will be space for the party if Labour doesn't recover and if the Social Democrats – although a left-wing party – can anchor itself close to the centre.

These are big ifs. The Social Democrats have now put in place a basic party infrastructure, they have talented and innovative volunteers some of whom are tech-savvy, have marketing flair, and others who have applied themselves diligently to work on policy.


Now because of their vote in the general election the Social Democrats also have significant State funding, which means they can the hire a small team of full-time professional staff.


Stephen Donnelly’s decision to return to being an Independent is clearly a blow and it hurt. At 12.58pm last Tuesday members received an email from the party telling them of Donnelly’s decision to go. The party wished him well but noted: “This is a long-term project which requires dedication, hard work, long hours and a major commitment from all involved including our elected representatives. The levels of dedication required for such a major undertaking can be overwhelming for some.”

Donnelly, reacting on local radio, described his former colleagues as having stuck the boot in. In fairness to those left behind,Donnelly’s departure was a precarious moment for the party and if was understandable that its defensive tackle might have been a bit rough.

It is not clear what Donnelly is up to. He was the driving force behind setting up the new party. He benefited the most – not least from the high-profile opportunity of participating in a leaders debate during the election campaign.

He told Murphy and Shortall he was leaving to be an Independent “for the time being”. He either genuinely hasn’t decided what he is doing, doesn’t yet want to reveal it or wants to keep his options open.

Donnelly is able and understandably ambitious for ministerial office. What he will have to weigh up, however, is whether he has a better chance of achieving such office, for any reasonable length of time, by staying as an Independent or by joining another political party.

At first sight it might appear, in pure constituency terms, to make sense for him to join Fianna Fáil. That party had two seats in Wicklow/East Carlow in 2007, lost both of them in 2011, but recovered one in 2016.

Its new deputy Pat Casey is based in the southern part of the constituency.

In contrast Donnelly's base is in the Bray and Greystones end. It is not at all clear that the Fianna Fáil brand, albeit resurgent, would bring Donnelly more votes than he would lose from those of his supporters angry at his joining an establishment party.

Fianna Fáil blooded a new candidate for north Wicklow in the last election. They persuaded the Dún Laoghaire councillor Jennifer Cuffe to transfer down. Party headquarters put a lot of effort into her campaign. She and her people would be none too pleased to see Donnelly and his formidable personal machine lobbed in on top of them.

Place in the queue

Of course if Donnelly were to join Fianna Fáil, his ministerial ambitions would have to take their place in the queue with many up-and-coming Fianna Fáil deputies who will feel their time has come if the party is in government after the next election.

Such is the volatility surrounding the current Government that Donnelly’s faster route to Cabinet may come by staying Independent.

Before the summer recess the spin was that the tumult between Fine Gael and the Independents would ease, as both sides "bedded down" together in Government.

Since politics resumed after the break, however, the Government has had a new crisis every week.

Fine Gael is now clearly seeking to design buffers and fallbacks to shore up its position if any of the Independents it is currently in Government with jumps ship.

Now that he has left the Social Democrats, Stephen Donnelly is well positioned to switch to the Government side.

If called on to serve . . . in the national interest.