Wednesday 28 September 2016

Social Democrats triumvirate always lacked the one voice

Gerard O'Regan

Published 10/09/2016 | 02:30

Roisin Shorthall Picture: Tom Burke
Roisin Shorthall Picture: Tom Burke

First there were three - then there were two - eventually there can only be one. Stephen Donnelly's decision to call time on the Social Democrats' self-serving leadership experiment was always going to happen sooner rather than later.

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It proves once again the enduring truth of the an adage: Much may change - but the gut instincts of human nature remain a constant no matter what.

When Deputies Róisín Shortall, Catherine Murphy and himself came up with their bizarre, and ultimately doomed, three-way shared-leadership wheeze, it was a trick too clever by half.

The reason this triumvirate had to share the top job, while collectively trying to forge some sort of future for the fledgling Social Democrats, is that they simply could not agree who should ultimately call the shots.

Or perhaps a more grubby way of putting it is that nobody in the threesome could bear to take orders from either of the other two.

In that sense, personality as much as policy has been a simmering problem for the party more or less from the get-go.

While Donnelly is clearly not as left-of-centre as Deputies Shortall and Murphy, an agreed fudge on some thorny topics just might have got them through for at least a little while longer.

After all, they had the luxury of being able to offer endless platitudes safely ensconced in the opposition benches. In any case, anybody labelled a Social Democrat is a member of a fairly broad church, which should offer plenty of leeway when sounding off on whatever is the topic of the moment.

Failure to agree a unified response in the Apple tax controversy has been mooted as one of the reasons for Donnelly's decision to finally pull the plug. But it is clear relations have not been good for some time.

And then there is the question of "going into government".

Róisín Shortall (below) has, as they say, some 'form' on this topic, and most famously fled the coop in the last Fine Gael-Labour coalition, following a high-profile falling-out with some heavy hitters in both parties.

Catherine Murphy has also developed into very much a sole trader. From early involvement with the Workers' Party, she had subsequent flirtations with Democratic Left and Labour, before ploughing an Independent furrow now for well over a decade.

She has been unashamedly left-wing in many of her pronouncements, and for the more mainstream Donnelly, her rigid stance on some core principles may have been just too inflexible.

One way or another, all three are now at a critical crossroads, as the government lurches between periods of reassuring calm, interspersed with bouts of political Russian roulette. All the while, Fianna Fáil backroom planners continue to do their back-of-the-envelope sums.

They know neither the hour nor the moment when an election might be sprung.

Since the days of majority government, the Soldiers of Destiny have been consigned to history, and the big question is what 'extras' can they line up to land them a majority next time out.

If the cookie crumbles a certain way, they will be able to rely on Labour and the Greens plus a couple of Independents.

But they will also feel that in the light of recent events, wooing Shortall and Murphy could be more trouble than it's worth - unless they desperately need them to make up the numbers.

However, getting Donnelly on board might be a coming together of mutually shared interests.

After all, a centrist politician of his ilk should have no problem blending in with the most centre-grounded party of them all.

So where does all this leave Shortall and Murphy? As was shown in the case of Renua - and its one-time shining star Lucinda Creighton - getting a new political party off the ground in Ireland is nigh-on impossible.

Even the giddy success once enjoyed by the Progressive Democrats could not prevent their eventual journey to oblivion.

The leadership duopoly now left guiding the Social Democrats face a mammoth organisational task; they simply may not have the energy for such a relentless and thankless grind at this stage of their careers.

Personality issues apart, Donnelly probably saw the writing on the wall.

Now he has wider options and, who knows, he might yet get his wish and be part of a future government.

And so - once there were three, and now there are two. The conclusion we can draw following the break-up of the Social Democrat troika is that either Shortall or Murphy should give way to allow the other to lead. But will ego and personal ambition allow this to happen?

One way or another, the current arrangement will not survive in the longer term.

To quote the late PJ Mara and his famous aside about a certain Charles Haughey, in the political game, there can be only one driving force at the top of any pyramid. "Uno duce, una voce" - one leader, one voice.

Irish Independent

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