Labour and the Social Democrats: is it time for a conscious coupling?

Fergus Finlay, an adviser to former Labour leader Dick Spring, said he was surprised at the ‘animosity’ to the idea of merging from the Social Democrats

Labour Party leader Ivana Bacik: she said a merger with the Social Democrats was 'possible' in an interview in recent months, and that there were no ideological differences between the two parties. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Should Labour and the Social Democrats merge? That is the question that has resurfaced again after the success of both small parties in the local elections over the weekend.

The Social Democrats almost doubled their local authority representation, going from 19 to 35 seats, most notably becoming the second largest party on Dublin City Council.

The Labour Party will also be pleased with its performance – retaining 56 seats, down one on its 2019 showing – but very much above expectations, and mostly notably, securing an MEP seat in Dublin.

Both parties are on the centre left, hold similar views on most political and social issues, with relatively new woman leaders guiding them.


Looking at the local election results, combining the support of both parties leaves them at about 9 per cent, which could present a stronger alternative offering to Sinn Féin on the left, say political commentators.

Speaking on the airwaves on Sunday, former Labour minister Pat Rabbitte said it was “inevitable” they would merge, while Fergus Finlay, an adviser to former Labour leader Dick Spring, remarked that he was surprised at the “animosity” to the idea from the Social Democrats.

To date, Labour has been more receptive to the prospect of a merger. Leader Ivana Bacik said a merger was “possible” in an interview in recent months and that there were no ideological differences between the two parties.

Her predecessor, Alan Kelly, also said a merger was a possibility, describing the Social Democrats as “like first cousins” while party leader between 2016 and 2020 Brendan Howlin said a union should happen.

When the question was put to Social Democrats leader Holly Cairns on RTÉ radio on Monday about a merger being “back on the table”, the Cork Southwest TD responded: “As far as I’m concerned I didn’t know it was really ever on the table because it would take the two parties wanting to do that.”

She also said in recent months that Labour’s approach to Government was not “compatible” with her party.

Cairns said Labour’s previous record in Government supported the privatisation of Bord Gáis and penalised lone-parent families, adding: “It’s all well and good to say ‘oh they think they have the same policies as us.’ They don’t have the same practices. That’s the overall difference between us.”

Many have pointed to Cairns’s predecessors in the leadership, Róisín Shortall and Catherine Murphy, and say there is no prospect of a merger while they are TDs for the party. Both women are former Labour members and founded the Social Democrats in the summer of 2015, with opposition to policies pursued by Labour in the 2011-2016 Government as one of their original drivers.

Cian O’Callaghan, deputy leader of the Social Democrats, said the focus was to continue growing the party, while also pointing to when the Labour Party and the Democratic Left merged in 1999.

“There was a lot of commentary at the time that [merger] would lead to them being larger than the sum of the parties,” he said. “What actually happened was the vote contracted, so it didn’t lead to a larger grouping, it led to a small electoral offering. I think the assumptions of some commentators make that if you put two parties together it will add up to such and such, I don’t think that holds true.”

He added that a merger was “not something under any form of consideration”, and calls for it were coming from “one particular direction”.

Labour TD Ged Nash said his personal view was that any talk of a merger between the parties was “disrespectful”, but that there should be more co-operation between centre left parties, including the Greens.

“When you look at it in the cold light of day the combined progressive left vote in the local elections more or less matches Sinn Féin’s vote and their seat total in local authorities across the country,” he said.

“As younger people especially take a closer look at Sinn Féin they are clearly deciding that they don’t like what they see, and I think there’s a responsibility then on the centre left to present a form of co-operation and more coherence on broad policy issues than we’ve been prepared to do to date.”

His party colleague and newly elected MEP for Dublin, Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, also said on Wednesday night it was time for “people on the centre left; ourselves, the Social Democrats and the Greens to realise what we can achieve together”.

While stopping short of calling for an amalgamation, Ó Ríordáin added: “I think the idea of being in competition with each other and trying to take each other out or take seats off each other, it doesn’t wash any more.

“Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have decided to stop pretending that there’s any difference between them, and we need to stop pretending that there’s any difference between us.”