Varadkar marks Holly Cairns’s big day by talking about Varadkar

New leader of the Social Democrats receives world-weary advice from Taoiseach on the burdens of leadership

Wednesday was a Holly Day of Coronation.

The baton officially passed at midday. Ten minutes later, Holly Cairns rose to her feet in the Dáil chamber and faced the Taoiseach for the first time as the new leader of the Social Democrats.

Leo Varadkar congratulated her on her elevation.

“As one leader to another, it is an enormous honour to be chosen by your party to lead them.”


Then he told her she was taking on a different job and would probably get precious little thanks for all her hard work “whether it’s fundraising, dealing with party accounts, disputes between public reps, staff matters...”

“It’s all before you,” sighed the Fine Gael leader, marking Holly Cairns’s big day by talking about Leo Varadkar.

“Speak for yourself,” snorted Sinn Féin’s David Cullinane, who had just filled in at Leaders’ Questions for his boss Mary Lou McDonald and was thrilled.

The first-time TD for Cork South-West looked quite nervous before making her gladiatorial debut. With another female party leader in the ring to join Mary Lou and Ivana Bacik, the Dáil’s daily set piece is no longer the cosy ladoritorial contest it once used to be.

Family and friends watched from the public gallery as she pushed off for the first time, her five party colleagues with her for support.

“Taoiseach, I’m a member of the first generation who’ll be worse off than their parents – that didn’t happen by accident,” she began as Catherine Murphy and Róisín Shortall, the co-leaders she replaced, smiled benignly from the seats directly behind her.

As this was not a day for cynicism we concluded their positioning was sending out a message: “Don’t worry, Holly. We’ve got your back.”

New party leaders are not elected too often in Ireland, so one might have expected a decent turnout in the chamber for the occasion.

Not one Government backbencher turned up. The Sinn Féin benches weren’t as well populated as they usually are because the bosswoman wasn’t around. The People Before Profit TDs didn’t arrive until much later, when they had their own questions to ask but a smattering of Independents wandered in for a gawk.

They included some of the Rural Independents who may have been there in solidarity with a young woman who lives in the beautiful wilds of west Cork, but as Holly is passionately against greyhound racing it seems unlikely. Nor does she sound like she comes from that mythical land they so adore, that place known as “Beyond the Red Cow Roundabout”.

In fact, Holly speaks like she is a product of south county Dublin, which is perfectly in keeping with many denizens of her dreamy neck of the woods in west Cork.

So when she addressed the housing crisis as her opening topic, Holly talked to the Taoiseach about “haumes” in the way the judge in the red trousers on Home of the Year would pronounce it. Arch urbanite Leo will have been confused yet comforted by this.

Labour leader Ivana Bacik showed up in sisterly solidarity, leaning across to say “well done” to her Soc Dem counterpart after her opening contribution.

“Fine Gael has been in government for almost my entire adult life,” the young new leader told the youngish second-time-around Taoiseach. “Your party first promised to address what was a housing crisis in 2014. Nine years later, promises have been broken, targets have not been met and lives are being ruined as a result.”

She wondered, like the generation now shut out of the housing market: “How much longer must we wait for your Government’s plan to work?” It was an unspectacular but assured performance from a woman who entered politics only four years ago when she squeaked on to Cork County Council with one vote to spare. Now, she is the only female TD – think about that – the only female TD in the entire county and city of Cork.

The Taoiseach had some nice words about her predecessors and their success in founding and nurturing the party, which now has six TDs after eight years. He didn’t think any other party has managed to achieve this since the time of the Progressive Democrats RIP.

And then, with the new incumbent taking her initial steps and everyone hoping she would get through the session, Leo added helpfully: “Of course, most new parties don’t survive their second leader but, hopefully, that won’t be the case in the case of the Social Democrats.”

Maiden speech

A few hours and a change of outfit later, party leader Cairns left Leinster House for Tara Street, where she was due to make her maiden speech. She wore a white blouse and black trousers in the Dáil but switched it up for the launch with a silky sage green jumpsuit-style two piece.

The meeting area in the Tara Building Coworking Space – bang on trend – was packed with Soc Dem members, many from the party’s very active branch in nearby Trinity College, along with members of Holly’s family.

How would she fare, this largely untried political newcomer?

Surprisingly well. Understated but assured, she delivered a speech which will resonate with people, particularly younger people, who are finding the going tough in the Ireland of today. She had a message for them: get involved and join her in the Social Democrats for a fresh take on politics here.

She was at her most impressive during the question-and-answer session with journalists. On her own at the top of the room, turning to address everyone directly and dealing head on with the questions.

Yet again, the possibility of a merger with the Labour Party was raised. The audience groaned loudly and booed.

“Eh, I hope I only have to say this once!” she replied to a chorus of cheers.

Then she explained she joined the party because of Catherine and Róisín and the trust she had in them and their leadership. “I think that trust has broken between people and the Labour Party,” she said, adding that she is “unashamedly ambitious” for the Social Democrats.

After she was elected, despite being written off by the commentators, she says they now call her an outlier. “But I know different. I know there are tens of thousands of people like me who do not feel represented… I may not fit the stereotype of a politician, but that’s not a bad thing. And let’s not forget, some of the most experienced politicians in the country bankrupted us a decade ago.”

After the speech, rapturously received by the mainly youthful audience, the new leader posed for photographs with Dublin county councillor Catherine Stocker, who brought along her adorable three-week-old baby, Kate.

Afterwards, a veteran political reporter said he was very struck by the scene.

“Did you notice anything?” he asked. “Holly didn’t kiss the baby. It’s the new politics in action!”

The leader’s mother, Madeline, watched proudly as her daughter took everything in her stride. The family lives on a farm in Turk Head beside Roaring Water Bay. Mother and daughter also run a successful company called Brown Envelope Seeds.

Not the best business name for a TD, given the key role of the brown envelope in the evolution of modern Irish politics – they weren’t to know when the business was set up in 2004.

But Madeline McKeever wasn’t as proud as Holly’s grandmother Sylvia Cairns. “She’s absolutely fantastic,” she declared. “I believe Holly will be a game-changer for women in politics in Ireland. She is making history today.”

And how was she as a youngster?

“She was always very confident but never precocious.”