Friday 20 April 2018

Three Amigos nervously saddle up for the ride of their political lives

Will the party founded in Roisin Shortall's kitchen find the recipe for electoral success

Roisin Shortall, Catherine Murphy and Stephen Donnelly pictured at the launch of The Social Democrats party
Roisin Shortall, Catherine Murphy and Stephen Donnelly pictured at the launch of The Social Democrats party
Philip Ryan

Philip Ryan

Stephen Donnelly awkwardly embraced Catherine Murphy as she introduced him to the audience at the launch of what was billed as a "new political venture".

Moments later, he confused her name with the only other member of the newly formed party, Roisin Shortall.

Perhaps it was nerves.

After all, Roisin - actually, it was Catherine (see, it's easily done) - dropped her pen during her maiden address as a part of the Troika of Independent TDs calling themselves the Social Democrats.

And the most independent of Independents are determined to become a unified, three-headed beast in the run-up to the next election.

Even an arranged meeting with Donnelly last week was changed last minute to include the rest of the party, in what was presumably a show of strength.

They do seem to enjoy each other's company, but how long that will last remains to be seen.

Shortall has previous on run-ins with party leaders, Murphy quit a few parties herself and Donnelly was linked with most of the fledgling parties, not to mention the Banking Inquiry, before dropping out.

The Wicklow TD insists a government TD spread rumours about him joining Fianna Fail, a claim he insists is not based on any truth.

All three held talks with Shane Ross about joining his political umbrella group for Independents but, as Donnelly says, it became clear we were "looking for very different things".

Shortall says she didn't want to be part of a "random collection of individuals".

To avoid any rows, they've decided they'll share the leadership for the time being.

But when, or if, they return to the Dail after the next general election, they will have a vote among the parliamentary party to decide who should be the official leader.

Anyway, that's a while away yet.

Interestingly, at last Tuesday's party launch, it was Donnelly who put himself forward to take the questions on leadership.

But going back a few months, it was only in January, after bonding over their condemnation of water char-ges, that the trio held their first formal discussions in Shortall's kitchen.

They were naturally cautious of each other, but that was outweighed by their frustration with the strangleholds the rules of the Oireachtas put on Independent TDs.

It's only the three of them now, but they plan to run a candidate in every constituency - this is highly unlikely, but, as Shortall said last week, they are "thinking big".

It's all well and good to sit around drinking coffee and having grandiose thoughts about political life, but rounding up an army of candidates is a whole different ball game.

You only have to look to Renua to see the uphill challenge facing a new party hoping to roll out a decent squad of troops to take on the establishment parties.

At the last count, Lucinda Creighton's party will contest 11 constituencies.

This will increase, but in reality, building a national organisation takes time and the clock is ticking, with speculation of a post-Budget November election gathering pace.

"The fact we are doing it in the run-up to an election has caused us all to wake up in the middle of the night and worry about it," Murphy admits to the agreement of her colleagues.

"As the Chinese proverb says, the two best times to plant a tree are 20 years ago and today," muses Donnelly.

Then there's the issue of money, as all great ideas come with a cost. A €1m price tag was put on making an impact at the ballot boxes by Creighton when she launched Renua.

Donnelly also believes a cool million is the necessary war chest needed to make a dent in the political sphere.

When Creighton was last asked about fundraising a month ago, she said the party had raised around €40,000.

Luckily for the established parties, Oireachtas rules make it very difficult for fledgling political organisations to get their hands on any State funding ahead of election day.

Murphy openly admits the group never discussed how much their new venture would cost. "We still haven't," Donnelly adds, almost proudly.

Even if they don't raise a penny, and even if, when the polling booths open, Social Democrats feature on only three ballot sheets, at least they'll have their "political soul".

"People vote on policies, but you can't start on policies - you've got to have a foundation, you have a political soul and then your policies become a political manifestation of your soul," says Donnelly.

"We didn't get into the business of election politics," adds Shortall.

They are not the Labour Party, even though two of them - Catherine and Roisin - sported the red rose for many years.

But they are very much a left-leaning party and will pursue policies in this realm.

They favour better services over tax cuts with a focus on childcare, the health service and education.

And if they had their hands on State coffers they would dish out the budget goodies two-to-one in favour of spending over tax cuts. The Government has pledged 50/50. They also want to repeal the Eighth Amendment and introduce legislation to deal with abortion for certain cases.

A big bugbear for the Social Democrats is that they believe we are being governed by a "secret, closed and centralised" government.

"We would restructure that relationship between ministers and senior civil servants. We would amend the legislation because it is all shrouded in secrecy," according to Shortall.

So political reform and open government is a core value they would hope to implement should they find themselves sitting around the Cabinet table.

They will also be big on social values and ensuring everybody gets to share the benefits of a "vibrant economy".

Much of what they are offering is being pushed for by the other new and established parties, but the Social Democrats claim their proposals are more credible because they are not tainted by past failings.

However, there is a space for them in the crowded market mostly left open by the failings of the Labour Party, but also because of the electorate's yearning for something new.

They do risk tarnishing the coveted Independent brand they have so successfully developed individually over the past four-and-a-bit years. But the reality is that they are unlikely to get much done from the opposite side of the Dail chamber.

Sunday Independent

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