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What happened to the Social Democrats?

The party was divided by Stephen Donnelly and remains divided by how much it should emphasise identity politics. 

By Ronan Daly.

In another world, pundits might be predicting a purple, rather than a green wave, on the 8th of February. We might today be talking about how Stephen Donnelly, Catherine Murphy and Róisín Shortall had turned their shared leadership from a weakness into a strength. 

When the Social Democrats (SDs) were established in 2015, many believed that was exactly what would happen: that their brand of middle-class-friendly progressivism could make real electoral gains. Instead, they have become a rump of a party, less relevant to Irish politics than even Democratic Left once were.

At the heart of their slide to irrelevance was a failure to realise that much of what made the party worth talking about in 2015 was highly transient. The party was anti-water charges, pro-Repeal and wanted root-and-branch reform to the parliamentary whip system. It promised increased social spending but emphasised fiscal responsibility. It is all hardly the sort of stuff that’s getting voters blood pumping right now, but remember that back in 2015 this was a relatively unusual combination. In the midst of Labour’s spectacular betrayal of their centre-left base, Joan Burton was refusing to identify Repeal as a red-line issue in potential coalition talks. So for Shortall, who had left Labour in 2013, an alliance with Murphy and Donnelly looked like an attractive prospect indeed, not least because of its potential to vindicate her resignation. 

Donnelly left the world of consulting for politics in 2011; he ran in Wicklow and won, one of many independents who profited from the Fianna Fáil rout. Before the Social Democrats’ foundation, Murphy and Shortall were independents as well, with a decade separating their respective departures from the Labour party. Shortall and Murphy had both opposed the merger of  Democratic Left and the Labour Party, though from opposite sides of the divide. 

Here were three politicians who represented wildly different traditions and approaches to any cogent interpretation of leftist politics in Ireland. If they could work together, and profit from their co-operation, it could have heralded the birth of a progressive party who voters could genuinely trust to govern. 

Of course, in the end, the SD triumvirate failed to add to their party’s seat count in the 2016 election. Gary Gannon got within sniffing distance of a seat in Dublin Central but late-stage transfers saw Maureen O’Sullivan win instead. Still, returning all three of their leaders put the party ahead of Renua, which managed to lose both of the seats they’d held before the election. 

It’s hard for a new party to expect much better in their first outing: the Social Democrats lacked funding, volunteers and really any of the kind of party machinery that matters in Irish elections. Next time though, party members said, the Social Democrats’ electoral success would catch up to the appeal of their message. But between then and next time was five years where a great deal could go wrong. 

And a lot did go wrong, starting with Donnelly jumping ship to Fianna Fáil in 2016. Rather than strengthening the party, its three-way co-leadership proved impossible to sustain. 

Donnelly’s much-lauded performance in the 2016 Leaders’ Debate ended up being a mixed blessing for his party. In a country which has always been more worried about the competence of its political newcomers than the corruption in its government, the SDs hoped to win over that segment of Irish society who want a fairer and more equal economic system, but need the comforting voice of a management consultant to convince them to actually vote for it. Donnelly provided that voice for the SDs, only for his brief popularity to backfire internally, with Murphy and Shortall resenting the disproportionate attention he received. 

With his departure the SDs were dealt a triple blow: they lost their most popular figure and their veneer of competence, and voters started wondering whether there was any difference between the SDs and Fianna Fáil – a subversion of everything they stood for.

For his part, Donnelly has been a much less electrifying presence without the SD platform. The eery reproduction of his “no-nonsense” approach in service of a party he once so vociferously attacked as part of the “stale cartel” of Civil War politics is Janus-faced, and reveals that in Donnelly’s instance, as is so often the case, pragmatic is a synonym for more power-hungry than you admit.

With Donnelly gone, Murphy and Shortall found themselves with a budding party infrastructure that they didn’t quite know what to do with. Despite their distinct origins, they quickly found out that they disagreed with each other much less than did the new members of their party with them. Shortall is a far more capable media performer than Murphy, but little else separates them, after all they’ve been through. 

They are both well established, female, centre-left politicians who bring out the worst in each other. Any time spent pondering why it is that Murphy and Shortall have their own party at all points towards the inescapable conclusion that it has a lot to do with tactics and little to do with ideology. Their close alignment on the issues and outsized stature in the party compared to most leaders has meant they have felt entitled to circumvent, out-manoeuvre and otherwise ignore the wishes of their party membership. 

Consider the Ellie Kisyombe affair, which last year laid bare the cracks in the foundations of the young party. Kisyombe, an asylum seeker originally from Malawi and a direct provision campaigner, was standing for the SDs in the 2019 Dublin City Council elections when the Sunday Times reported that there were inconsistencies in her account of her time in Direct Provision. 

After Murphy and Shortall wrote a letter which suggested that Kisyombe should be taken off the ticket, the reaction from SDs based in Dublin, of whom Gannon had the highest profile, was explosive. In their eyes, this interference was emblematic of the high-handed approach of the party leadership on issues that demanded transparent discussions and open procedures. Carly Bailey and Joe O’Connor resigned from the party’s board and further resignations were threatened. In the end, Kisyombe stood unsuccessfully for the SDs in Dublin North Inner City. 

Catherine Murphy and Roisin Shortall

It would be easy to look at the return of someone like Carly Bailey (she’s running for the SDs in Dublin South-West) and conclude that the party has moved on, but there is little reason to believe that the divide between the party’s leadership, and its young, enthusiastic but fragile organisation has been bridged.

That divide is firstly one of priorities. Identity and immigration are formative issues for Gannon and Bailey in a manner that just isn’t the case for Shortall and Murphy, whose political outlook was shaped in an Ireland that was far more homogenous than it is today. 

So what does this all mean for the SDs’ prospects on Saturday? Five years of party activity have shattered the illusion that the SDs are much, if at all, more capable than other parties on the left. To varying extents, the Greens and Labour are beginning to emerge from the political exile that resulted from their betrayal of voters during their time in coalition with Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael respectively.

 The electoral corridor for SD candidates is ever-narrowing. And given that there is a Green candidate in more or less every constituency where the SDs are standing, the much heralded Green-wave could further erode the SD vote count.

They did manage to get nineteen candidates elected to Council seats last year, but Murphy and Shortall must have been disappointed that more of the seats lost by Sinn Féin and People Before Profit didn’t go the way of the SDs. They are running twenty candidates in the upcoming election. Murphy and Shortall will most likely keep their seats but have essentially no chance of reaching their goal of six additional TDs.

Admittedly Gannon’s chances in the newly expanded constituency of Dublin Central look fairly good, especially after he came so close last time. Even though SD hopes are pinned on Gannon, a victory for him won’t mean much for the future strength of the SDs. Gannon’s political career predates the establishment of his party and if he wins it’ll be on the back of his consistent efforts in community activism, though his talent for getting his name into newspapers is probably a bigger factor in his success thus far. 

If Gannon is elected, expect the tensions between the party and its leadership to become more public, especially since the SDs current campaign strategy appears to be primarily focused on reminding voters that Shortall and Murphy exist and are important. Every Social Democrat poster has the constiuency’s candidate eerily flanked by the two TDs. My suspicion is that the Goodfellas approach was just something that went down well in a focus group, but the message it sends is undeniable  – there is no difference between the party’s co-leaders and the party itself. Murphy and Shortall would definitely like to get eight seats but it’s unclear whether they’d be more enthusiastic about three than two. That’s because the limited size of the party is in many ways convenient for its co-leaders. They get outsized media attention and a platform that is positive both for their egos and their personal re-election chances.

All of this is to suggest that Murphy and Shortall may have reason to be uncomfortable in the event of Gannon’s election. All three are “strong personalities” (a media euphemism for quasi-narcissist), which could easily replicate the dynamic that we’re told contributed to Donnelly’s departure. And if the Kisyombe affair tells us anything it is that Gannon does not share the political instincts of his party’s leaders. The co-leadership setup has meant that until now, every sitting TD of the SDs has shared that position. But Shortall and Murphy might find it difficult to cede parity to the younger, and less experienced Gannon. Likewise, Gannon will hardly be satisfied operating as lackey to the other two. His support will be strengthened by his links to the grassroots of the SDs, who until now were able to exercise only limited control over Shortall and Murphy for fear of alienating the party’s only TDs.

This fracture could be exacerbated by the strong potential that the SDs will form part of whatever government emerges post-election. It’s difficult to say whether entering into a coalition would be positive for the future of the party. It would be challenging for the SDs to show voters the impact of their participation in a Fianna Fail government, especially since Michael Martin’s renewed enthusiasm for spending has drawn the two parties together, at least in terms of economic policy. 

Though the SDs might dream about a united-left coalition, Murphy and Shortall have refused to rule out entering into a coalition with any partner so long as they could influence the direction of the government. Recently introduced rules mean that they’ll require 60% of their membership’s support at a special conference if they wish to do so. Expect Direct Provision to rear its head again if this happens, since neither Fianna Fáil nor Fine Gael have committed to abolish it, and the SD membership could well demand its end as part of coalition negotiations. If Murphy and Shortall appear reluctant to commit to the issue, it could well threaten the party’s unity. 

Coalition politics are at their most effective when the minority party is unified under decisive leadership so that negotiations with a majority partner can be backed up by a credible threat of walking out. It’s hard to imagine that the party’s current leadership structure will be conducive to that effectiveness, but neither would three co-leaders who do not like one another.

Still, the SDs have been making positive noises about wanting to go into government. What remains of their pragmatist image won’t last long if they don’t seize the opportunity to govern. If that coalition includes the Greens or even the Labour party, it shouldn’t be a surprise if we see the SDs go the way of  Democratic Left. Governing together often has the effect of drawing parties closer, or at least realising that their differences were far smaller than they’d like to admit. Whatever happens, the SDs’ best days look to already be behind them – an unwelcome locus for a party only five years old.