Holly Cairns was elected unopposed as the leader of the Social Democrats following the resignation of co-leaders Catherine Murphy and Róisín Shortall. Following months of political scandals involving both the main government parties and the main opposition party, people are fast running out of fresh voices to listen to.
Holly Cairns represents a politician that is closer to the youth than any other leader. She is part of a new generation of Irish people who just can’t get by. Her party does not own a vast portfolio of property and she has no millionaire benefactor to fund staff salaries and campaigns. Her success is entirely founded upon the need for real change in Leinster House because the Irish youth are no longer voiceless.
The baggage of Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, Labour, and Sinn Féin is simply too heavy for some voters to bear, and for those seeking a break from the past, the Social Democrats represents a taster of a potential future.
A party that seeks to build something new, rather than repair the omnishambles it inherited is rather refreshing in the republic, and practically unheard of in the North.
The ugliness of Irish politics is apparent to anyone with access to the internet; one or two parties release their supporters on anyone who disagrees with the party orthodoxy.
The Social Democrats don’t do ad hominem politics. They don’t roll their eyes to heaven or bust up meetings of the Dáil because Leo was mean during question time. It is a mature, competent, and progressive political party that has no ties to corruption, terrorism, or fascism. This may not seem like a high bar, but that’s Ireland for you.
Holly Cairns represents something much broader than the four incredibly comfortable career politicians leading SF, FF, FG, and Labour; she represents something newer, greener, and cleaner than all the rest.
She does not defend murderers, she does not defend water charges, and she does not storm out of the Dáil in order to generate clicks. She has lived in Ireland as students know it, as young women know it, as queer people know it. Few other leaders in the Dáil can claim the same street smarts.
Her performances in the Dáil have been well received online, being one of her parties most valuable TDs prior to her election as leader earlier this month. While barbs flew back and forth over election returns, Cairns and her party needled the government on the many health crises plaguing the HSE, as well as the failure to stem homelessness. They picked up the real business of opposition while the three biggest parties went blood-simple over election returns.
As praiseworthy as Cairns is, she has many hurdles ahead of her. Part of the appeal of the Social Democrats is their lack of baggage, but the only thing you can take away from government is baggage.
So far, the party has never served in government, and this can become an issue, fast. The party is not immune to the effects that prolonged opposition has on a party; SF have dropped in the polls month-on-month since 2022. There is a growing tiredness with Sinn Féin, as it now has become associated with the establishment it so vehemently attacks.
Cairns would do well to engage with government at every opportunity, and she has not ruled out coalitions with any combination of parties, granted it was on her terms. She knows that she can’t just declare the government is doing it badly, she must prove that she could do it better.