Tuesday 25 October 2016

Social Democrats are now just another far-left party

Donnelly departure will see new party of protest facing an uphill battle at the next general election

Published 11/09/2016 | 02:30

Recent departure: Stephen Donnelly with former Social Democrats colleagues, deputies Catherine Murphy and Roisin Shortall Photo: Tom Burke
Recent departure: Stephen Donnelly with former Social Democrats colleagues, deputies Catherine Murphy and Roisin Shortall Photo: Tom Burke

This day last week, Stephen Donnelly sat down with his now former Social Democrats colleagues to discuss his departure from the party.

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They met in Roisin Shortall's home in north Dublin. Catherine Murphy was at the table, as was the party's political director, Anne-Marie McNally.

The meeting was very civilised and professional. It was decided the Social Democrats and Donnelly would release separate statements the following day.

Both sides agreed the wording of their statements and shook hands before leaving to prepare for the next day, according to Donnelly's camp. The Social Democrats claim there was no agreement and said Donnelly cancelled a conference call due to take place on Monday.

Either way, just before lunchtime, Donnelly was sitting in his constituency office calling friends and supporters to personally tell them about his decision to leave when suddenly his phone exploded with calls and text messages.

The Social Democrats decided to get out ahead of Donnelly in an attempt to control the news agenda. Not only that, the statement released to the media was drastically different from what Donnelly's team had expected after Sunday's meeting.

There was a snide and personal undertone to the statement. It said Donnelly "decided to walk away" from the fledgling political party and suggested this was because he found the workload "overwhelming".

He was forced to deny accusations of being "work-shy" during interviews, while Murphy and Shortall insinuated he wasn't up the task. And that was only the start: it was later suggested by 'sources' that Donnelly could not commit to the party because he had a young family.

The Wicklow TD's supporters were incensed by the crassness of the Social Democrats' political manoeuvring, especially the suggestion that his family life was in some way stopping him from contributing to the party.

They wanted to react, lash out at Murphy, Shortall and the rest of the party who were briefing against their former colleague.

But Donnelly simply told his supporters: "Look, I left the party for this very reason."

Of course, the deep irony of Murphy and Shortall questioning his work ethic is mirrored by the fact that he was the one pushing to enter government negotiations after the General Election.

Murphy and Shortall betrayed their hard-left leanings by running scared of responsibility when it was offered to them by Fine Gael and Fianna Fail.

The Social Democrats' decision to remain in opposition was frustrating for Donnelly and disappointing to voters who believed the party to be different to the other left-wing options.

But the internal problems date back to before a single vote was cast.

During the election campaign in February, the party held daily meetings in their campaign headquarters in Dublin city centre.

The meetings were long, fractious and resulted in tense stand-offs between the three leaders.

The Social Democrats saw the election as a success as they returned their three TDs and came close with a few other candidates. Successful elections strengthen bonds between party members, while divisions emerge after bad campaigns. But rows over policy and chain of command continued within the Social Democrats after the election.

In May, Donnelly organised a meeting with Shortall and Murphy to discuss the future of the party.

He was not looking to become the leader but was anxious that a system be put in place for decision-making.

Social Democrat insiders say Donnelly felt he was being squeezed out of policy decision by Murphy and Shortall.

The EU Commission's €13bn tax ruling against Apple was not the reason he left, but it does provide a good example of why the Social Democrats and Donnelly do not suit each other.

Once the judgment was published, Catherine Murphy rushed out a press release saying the Government's decision to appeal the judgment was "intolerable". Roisin Shortall released a similar statement.

Donnelly was more measured in his response and said questions needed to be answered on the EU's intentions before an appeal was lodged.

It is not surprising that Murphy and Shortall's view on the Apple controversy was shared by Sinn Fein and the Trotsky parties, such as the AAA-PBP and others.

The Social Democrats also struggled to present a united platform on the divisive issue of water charges when they first launched the party.

Murphy, after all, was originally a Workers' Party member, before she quit and joined Democratic Left; before quitting that party and joining the Labour Party; after which she quit and became an Independent. And that was all in the space of 10 years.

Shortall also knows a thing or two about quitting parties and if her more forthright approach to politics is not adhered to, she might follow Donnelly out the door.

So where does this leave the Social Democrats?

Donnelly will argue his social views are as left-wing as his former colleagues, but his business background

Stephen Donnelly writes about why he left the Social Democrats: Back Page

and economic outlook made the party more attractive to centrist voters.

With him gone, centrist party activists fear the growing number of populists within the Social Democrats will drag it further to the left and away from the centre ground, where the key to electoral success lies .

There are nauseating levels of self-congratulation among the party's younger members which distract them from the realities of politics.

Anne Marie McNally, who tried but failed to get elected in Dublin Mid-West and is now the party's political director, leads the charge. McNally and her colleagues spend a lot of time posing for selfies and praising each other on social media.

It would be unfair not to note that their online presence did help them win some votes in the general election.

But when the party receives negative publicity or they simply do not agree with a news story, they employ the same tactics as Sinn Fein and the hard left, which is to attack the media outlet or journalist in question.

As any seasoned politician will tell you, there is only so far you can get attacking the very agencies you depend on to get your message to voters.

This is one of the reasons why Sinn Fein continues to struggle to get over the 15pc hump of the national vote and why hard-left politicians will always remain a niche brand of politics.

Of course, there are also many other reasons.

Naivety aside, the post-Donnelly Social Democrats will face an uphill challenge convincing voters that they are any different from the other left-wing parties they align themselves with on many policy issues.

Labour will undoubtedly resurge in the coming years, as they have done in the past after election drubbings.

Fianna Fail, under Micheal Martin, will also eat into the left-of-centre vote and is likely be in government after the next election, whenever that may be.

Martin said he was interested in doing business with the Social Democrats during the election campaign, but his advances were rejected.

After seeing how the party has evolved and how it treated Donnelly, he might reconsider his offer next time. Then again, the Social Democrats will probably be more comfortable in opposition.

Sunday Independent

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