Holly Cairns: the renaissance we need



There’s a breath of fresh air blowing through the tired old political corridors of the Dial brought by Holly Cairns. In a masterstroke, Social Democrat co-leaders Roisin Shortall and Catherine Murphy stepped aside and gave voters the things they have been looking for — change and choice.

For those who have had enough of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael — whose roots dating back to pro and anti-Treaty divisions are badly in need of a touch up — the polls have shown the choice might lie with Sinn Fein. But following the arrival of Holly Cairns, young at 33, articulate without political baggage and speaking for the ‘boxroom’ generation unable to afford homes, there was a dramatic, overnight shift in the latest poll.

Support for the Social Democrats was up 5% to 9% and Sinn Fein, where support had already begun to drop, down a further 2%. Maybe a party with IRA history, murky criminal connections, unelected backroom decision-makers and brandishing the unity poll in place of an Armalite doesn’t look like such a good choice when there is a vibrant alternative.

The Labour Party, despite the new leadership of Ivana Bacik, and the Greens, busy with cycle paths and bent on punishing us for car use when public transport and park and ride facilities are woefully inadequate, just don’t have that pulling power.

The average age of TDs in the 33rd Dail is now over 50, only 36 out of 160 TDs are women and at the time of the 2020 election only 2% of TDs were in their 20s.  With middle-aged, middle-of-the-road profiles there’s an absence of the diversity that allows a wider range of views and enriched decision-making. The profile of TDs is hardly representative of the younger electorate where, unsurprisingly, young people consistently have the lowest turnout in elections; support for FF is 8% among 25-34-years-old, 10% for 18-24s, with FG not faring much better with 25-34 at 18% and 18-24 at 15%.

A breath of fresh air, though, doesn’t necessarily develop into a wind of change.  Currently Holly Cairns, a farmer and horticulturist, elected TD for Cork South West in 2020, is in a honeymoon phase. There’s a tough road ahead in the run-up to the next general election — about two years ahead if she, as leader, and the Social Democrats are to build on the initial bounce she has given the party. And the chances of doing so successfully depend on a number of factors.

One is organisational ability, an area where Holly, who caught the political bug while campaigning for the repeal of the Eighth Amendment, has shown she can achieve results, founding a constituency branch of the Social Democrats in South West Cork and getting elected to the local county council in 2019.

The party will need boots on the ground, strong funding and more candidates, especially younger candidates prepared to follow Holly’s example,  to run in the next election if the Social Democrats are to grow beyond their current six TDs in the Dail.

Then there is the question of political alliance in a situation where another coalition is likely following the next general election. Inevitably, the Social Democrats will be courted but cosying up to Sinn Fein could lose potential support from older and middle-class voters, while aligning with FF and FG might put off the younger electorate. Never mind the question of gaining ministries in a future coalition or influencing policy when in combination with a larger party.

One hopeful sign is the way that the Alliance Party in the North has been able to break through the mould of politics from the past. Their support is now cross-community, leaving behind the green and orange divisions and in last May’s Assembly elections the party more than doubled their number of MLAs to 17 making them the third largest party.

We will have to see if we are ready to move on here too.

A lot too will depend on the ability of Holly Cairns and her party to heal the generational divide and  the urban rural division. Social values here have changed hugely, especially in the last 20 years. We have become more liberal, more inclusive of difference, more optimistic and forward looking and Holly Cairns represents those values and appeals to people who share them.

Is it not time for a renaissance and to move forward from politics and parties with their roots in the past?

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