Founded by three sitting TDs in July 2015, the Social Democrats had high hopes of a breakthrough in the last general election, especially since one of those TDs, Stephen Donnelly, made a splash with his performance in the television debate featuring all seven party leaders in the Dáil.
But the party came back with no more than the same three TDs who went into the election. Worse yet, Donnelly left the party in September 2016 and joined Fianna Fáil. The party has still refused to throw in the towel and rejected overtures from Labour to form some sort of alliance in the Dáil.
The Social Democrats presently have a small office in Westside next to the Blue Note. The party’s local politician Niall Ó Tuathail says that it was swiftly set up in preparation for what looked to be a Christmas 2017 election.
Ó Tuathail outlined the goals of the Social Democrats to me: investing in the basic public services that everyone needs like housing and education, making sure there’s a strong economy, and having more transparency and less corruption in government. “Ireland is kind of strange. We don’t have a big centre-left party that does those things. Most other European countries do have a big centre-left party and Ireland has never had that. So, we’re trying to build that.”
One concern that some have voiced about the Social Democrats is that they haven’t distinguished themselves from other left parties. The Irish Times wrote that the party “battled to forge a distinct identity for itself in the Dáil in competition with other left-wing parties and an array of Independents.”
Ó Tuathail doesn’t spend too much time thinking about other left parties. He says the party is focused on what it wants to do itself.
“Obviously, I think about, ‘Why wasn’t Labour able to build this? Why aren’t the further left parties able to build it?’”
One reason he offers is organisation. “You need to talk to four million people… it’s not easy to build an organisation to do that.”
This recalls their election performance which was a disappointment to some. What do Ó Tuathail and the party have planned to build momentum and make their voice heard?
“Most of the work is getting out and having one-on-one conversations with people,” he says. “It’s about knocking on someone’s door on a Thursday evening and saying ‘Hey, we’re the Social Democrats. Do you have any questions for us?’”
“Obviously, social media is more and more important. It’s a very helpful way for us to get people from knowing about us to actively supporting us. And the traditional media… we’re trying to get our word out through the press as well.”
Asked for his one message to students, Ó Tuathail said: “You are incredibly powerful and you don’t know it.
“Even just making sure you’re registered to vote and getting out and voting. That’s an incredibly powerful thing. I will never get into this thing of saying ‘Oh, young people don’t vote.’ Anyone who says that to me, I say to them ‘Well, what do you do to inspire them to get out and vote?’ If I’m a 20-year-old student, what’s the difference for me between any of the parties?
“I need to be so good and different and positive and speak to what you want and need that it encourages you to get out and vote.”
Ó Tuathail went on to emphasise the importance of volunteer work to support a political party. “You have no idea how much a volunteer in a campaign makes a difference… We were 1,500 votes short last time in Galway West here – not very close but not far away from getting elected. Another ten volunteers would have been the difference between winning and losing. So literally, if your group of friends decide to get involved in an election campaign, you can make the difference between who’s going to win or lose in an election campaign.
“I ran Stephen Donnely’s election campaign back in 2011 and he won by 30 votes. Literally, every single volunteer was the difference between winning or losing.”
Ó Tuathail acknowledged that Donnely’s move from the Social Democrats to Fianna Fáil was “difficult.”
“It was hard for us as a party. He’s a fantastically talented person and it was a pity to lose him. I don’t know if he believed the party could grow to lead a government. And that’s the difference… I disagree. I don’t think that you can really change Ireland by going into Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael… I think the party culture in Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael is very incremental. They just do bits and pieces here and there.
“Until we break up this cartel of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael – and those are Stephen’s words,” he laughs, “then nothing will change.”
He expressed that the problems in Ireland are systemic and so cannot be fixed by making tweaks to what the two Civil War parties view as an essentially functioning system.
The Social Democrats are taking a different tactic. Ó Tuathail wants to bring “big ideas that we know work from the Scandinavian countries,” ideas that “we know are going to improve people’s lives and make sure there’s a bit more fairness and can drive forward the economy.” He was quick to clarify that he wouldn’t be simply implementing policies from other countries: “you have to do something for the Irish context.”
Ó Tuathail’s manner is self-assured and hopeful. Critics will continue to dismiss the Social Democrats as a rudderless ship that has lost its captain. But if he builds some more support, it seems possible Ó Tuathail can help to build Ireland’s first successful centre-left party.