Never before has there been such scrutiny on the social contract we as a society have with each other. The Government's handling of Covid-19 has highlighted many of the long term inefficiencies in the State’s two-tier healthcare system, its unaffordable housing, and the precarious economy.
One of the biggest changes of fortune we have seen in Irish politics since the beginning of 2020 has been the rising tide for the Social Democrats. The past five years, since the formation of the party, has seen ups and downs but the ‘Soc Dems’ recent emergence due to its no-nonsense, progressive credentials could see the next election be truly transformative for it.
A party on the rise?
Party founders Róisín Shortall and Catherine Murphy, with SD Galway West candidate, Niall Ó Tuathail (photo taken 2018 ).
In 2015 the Social Democrats emerged as the shiny new party on the scene led by political stalwarts Róisín Shortall and Catherine Murphy. Before the 2020 General Election they spent several years in the harsh reality of being a small party in a fractured political climate.
Beyond a decent showing in the 2019 Local Election, which saw breakdowns in a number of councils, including Galway city, leadership on healthcare reform with Sláintecare, as well as anti-corruption, being a party of two TDs did not lend itself to favourable coverage on the party’s prospects from media commentators.
In Irish politics we have seen many micro parties go faster than they arrived, so that, in Insider’s view, makes the success of the Soc Dems all the more impressive.
Behind the spectacle of the Green wave and Sinn Féin surge, the Social Democrats have been making modest yet steady gains, plus a handful of surprise wins. In 2019 it trebled its number of elected councillors and in 2020, when some forecasted its demise, it saw six TDs elected - a breakthrough for the party, resulting in waves of new members.
One of the biggest shocks in recent Irish politics was the election of Social Democrats' Holly Cairns, the rural Cork farmer who has been a strong first-timer in the Dáil making her impact on the biggest political issues of the past year and giving voice to a much needed generational paradigm shift.
'Galway West still presents the best hope for the party in the region and it has cemented an impressive base for the party in the last two elections in the constituency'
There Is a quiet confidence in the Social Democrats that Holly Cairns is not a one-off, but representative of their broader pool of talented young individuals who would not be involved in traditional Irish politics.
Beyond personalities, politics is based on a strong identity of policy priorities that not only resonate with the electorate, but returns a meaningful improvement in people's lives. Social democracy has done that for other European countries with progressive housing, health, and climate action, so is it Ireland's time?
The Social Democrats hit its all-time highest polling numbers in recent months, with even one Red C poll showing support for the party above Fianna Fáil in Connacht. However, as is often said and always true, only one poll matters and that is the votes cast by voters.
The Social Democrats will have significant challenges ahead to scale up the amount of quality candidates and campaigns it runs across the country in the next election. Some progress is being made on that with four out five constituencies in Connacht now having established a branch. However, with a relatively young membership and lack of experience will it still struggle to meet its baseline support among the public?
Galway West still presents the best hope for the party in the region and it has cemented an impressive base for the party in the last two elections in the constituency. While there are undoubtedly five solid incumbent TDs in Galway-West, anyone who bets on all incumbents being returned in a five-seater will lose money more often than not.
Current polling would suggest Fine Gael is most likely to make a gain and get its second seat back at the expense of the hopes of the other Government senators Ollie Crowe or Pauline O'Reilly. However, the next General Election is likely some time away and government popularity tends to wane the longer it preserves.
'It is difficult at this early stage to predict the make-up of the next Dáíl, a by-product of a rapidly changing political environment'
It is possible for the Social Democrats to run a strong enough campaign to make history for the party and win the first seat in Connacht. In the Social Democrats, Galway-West has its best hope of electing a new TD to displace the current FF-FG-GP Government whose TDs will be busy scrapping with each other for votes.
What then? If the Social Democrats can increase its Dáil representation, will it take on the kingmaker role in a split Dáil and decide which parties make up the next Government? It is difficult at this early stage to predict the make-up of the next Dáíl, a by-product of a rapidly changing political environment.
No doubt the Social Democrats will want to see a sturdy block of TDs to hold their own against the more established parties in any programme for Government, especially to push on their core issues of health, housing, and community infrastructure.
Right now, the Social Democrats could go in a variety of directions. It could follow the path into oblivion like many new parties before. Or with leadership, focus, and consistent work on policy demands, it could very quickly emerge as one of the central players in Irish politics.