An end to ‘tried-tested-failed’ politics? Holly Cairns pitches for change

Social Democrats leader wants to be part of the next government. First, her party must capitalise on its momentum

There is something, in the view of one Social Democrats source, about interactions between the party’s leader and the Taoiseach in the Dáil: it can seem as though she is being “patted on the head”.

“[Voters] see a man in a suit trying to put a young, ambitious, well-meaning woman back in her box, and it doesn’t wash.”

The party gathers this weekend for its first national conference – equivalent to an ardfheis – since Holly Cairns took up her role as leader last March, and there is a strong belief that Cairns’ leadership is a potent political asset. Stalwarts say the mood internally is like “night and day” compared with earlier years.

Its 2020 general election result, returning six TDs, has given it a boost in resources that has enabled a greater ambition for the party. Driven on by those results, with a new leader installed, the ambition – and the challenge – is for the Social Democrats and its new leader to capitalise on its position.


Cairns herself is clear about the party’s ambitions. Asked whether she wants to be in government, her answer is a straightforward “yes”. “I don’t think anyone goes into politics thinking ‘I want to be in opposition’,” she tells The Irish Times.

The Cork-South West TD who took a seat against the odds in 2020 says her aim “is to try and implement the changes you’ve gotten into politics in the first place for”.

Notwithstanding the professed buoyancy within the party, polling data doesn’t indicate a sea change in how voters feel since Cairns’ promotion. There was an almost immediate surge – as high as 9 per cent in one poll, which was also reflected in a jump from 2 to 5 per cent in Irish Times polling last June. However, this newspaper’s polling – a rating of 4 per cent earlier this month was a recovery from 2 per cent last September – suggests the party is yet to consistently establish itself in the 5 per cent-plus range that would mean it has a chance of leading the pack of smaller parties on the left.

There is also a geography issue: five of the party’s six TDs hail from the Greater Dublin Area, while the party attracted zero per cent support in Connacht-Ulster in this month’s poll. Cairns doesn’t shy away from the number. “I think we have so much work to do to build in that area,” she says, arguing that the party has a history of making strides where it previously struggled, including in her home patch of Munster. Party sources say it can build momentum beyond the pale by drawing support and candidates from urban centres within largely rural constituencies – pointing to Kerry, Limerick, Tipperary, Clare and Mayo where the party will run candidates for the council in June.

For the upcoming elections, Cairns says the strategy is to “offer as many people as possible the chance to vote for us”. The intention is to run candidates in all three European constituencies and as many local contests as possible. She will not be drawn on targets, instead pivoting towards the party’s core themes: a change message that contrasts the Social Democrats with the current Government and the Civil War parties in particular. She criticises what she says is a “continued tried-tested-failed” approach, outlining that “this is the time we can really feel the change, I can feel it, I think we all can”.

Much of the Social Democrats critique focuses on housing, with Cairns saying immediate changes could be effective – a three-year rent freeze, banning no-fault evictions, doubling of stamp duty on investment fund bulk purchases and significantly hiked vacancy taxes. These would be followed by lasting reforms of the rental sector and a massive expansion of the not-for-profit sector to deliver 10,000 affordable homes and for the State to deliver 12,000 social homes annually via local authorities and housing bodies.

Her criticisms of Government policy are delivered with conviction (“It epitomises spin. Pure and utter spin”), while there are also jabs at Sinn Féin – particularly its leader Mary Lou McDonald’s suggestion that average prices should fall to €300,000 in Dublin. “We need to be honest with people because we’ve had enough broken promises on housing,” she says. However, she agrees people should be open to, or even welcoming of, the idea that the value of their homes would drop.

Cairns is frosty when it comes to coverage of her own housing situation. Her plan to build a 243sq m (2,615sq ft) house on her family farm hit the headlines. She is dismissive of the suggestion that planning to build such a large home diminishes her claim to speak on behalf of her generation, specifically people in their mid-30s locked out of home ownership. She says the attention on her home is “jarring”. “People do deserve a certain amount of privacy and if we want to encourage more women to go into politics, constantly drawing attention to peoples’ home, address, just isn’t necessary.”

Cairns captures the Social Democrats brand well: since her elevation last March, party sources say her messages and videos online – and those of Dublin Central TD Gary Gannon – do well, capturing something zeitgeisty for younger voters. Her contributions on Gaza, in particular, are said to “do the numbers” on social media.

Cairns says the party will speak to any potential coalition partners after the next election, but is not interested in being in government at any cost. She would find propping up Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil difficult, saying her party is “on the other end of the spectrum” to Fine Gael on economic policy in particular: “It’s not something I aspire to.”

If the party is serious about government, it also must think about thornier questions – which might not quite have the cut-through of housing or the Gaza war. On a united Ireland, Cairns says she “100 per cent” favours a citizens’ assembly, putting her closer to Sinn Féin’s view, saying lessons from Brexit need to be learned “so people know exactly what they are voting on rather than this abstract concept of ‘do we want a united Ireland’”. Universal healthcare and a secular education system are core party goals which could also convince floating and unionist voters in the North that a united Ireland would be a political home for them too, she says.

On security and defence, she is clearly troubled by the revelation in The Irish Times that Ireland quietly entered into a revised co-operation agreement with Nato on protecting subsea infrastructure and countering threats from aggressive nations, arguing it should instead have been discussed at committee and Dáil level first.

When it comes to the perennial question of whether her party would be open to a merger with Labour, she is brief and blunt. Her thinking on it is “not evolving” and a merger is simply “not a runner”.

For now, Cairns insists it would be “presumptuous and strange” to make firm plans about what will happen after the coming elections. “People don’t decide how they’re going to vote until the election is called,” she argues. “We don’t take anything for granted, we don’t know what the electorate is going to return.”

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