Cairns could be the change we need

An Cailín Rua

LOOKING TO THE FUTURE Outlining her ‘unashamedly ambitious’ plans for the Social Democrats, Holly Cairns declared: ‘Politics in Ireland is on the cusp of change. I can feel it. I think we all can.” Pic: Twitter/@SocDems

New Social Democrat leader brings hope for an end to the hackneyed politics of combative point-scoring

An Cailín Rua
Anne-Marie Flynn

Mná na h-Eireann, there’s a new face in town, and she means business.
Holly Cairns, barely five years into her political career, has swept into a leadership with the Social Democrats, and she’s going to shake things up. But quite the challenge lies ahead.
The Social Democrats hadn’t been in bad hands prior to this. Co-founder and former leader Róisín Shortall is one of those rare politicians with a relevant qualification – a degree in Economics and Politics – and she has consistently highlighted the importance of governance.
Catherine Murphy has also long been an advocate for accountability, and she demonstrated this by taking on the behemoth that is – or was – Denis O’Brien.
But isn’t it refreshing to see a young woman (Cairns is just 33) take the reins?
The Dáil, despite being democratically elected, is incredibly unrepresentative of the population. Less than a quarter of TDs are women, and people of colour, people with disabilities and people outside of the middle classes barely feature. This has directly impacted on social policy – and consequently, on under-represented groups – since the foundation of the State, and young women have all too frequently been the victims.
Maybe change is coming. The road ahead will not be easy, however, and the honeymoon period will quickly pass.
Increased prominence for Cairns will come with increased scrutiny. The online abuse directed disproportionately towards women, which has already affected her will undoubtedly increase. While there is no question around her quick-wittedness and ability to hold her own in a room full of pale, stale males, the cynics on the sidelines will now be keen to see something fresh.
If hearts and minds are to be won, these political watchers will want to know what practical, creditable and actionable solutions the Social Democrats can bring to address crises like housing and health. Younger parties – and women – will also always be held to higher standards than the old guard.

New way of doing things
The new, younger electorate has little regard for combative politics and point-scoring. Instead, they want to see reason, logic, honesty and an openness to reaching out and working on cross-party initiatives for the greater good (something that does already happen quite a bit, but is rarely highlighted).
Younger voters also want to feel inspired, and they are seeking hope for a generation battered into submission by a cycle of political and economic disappointments. They want to see compassion from their politicians, and most importantly of all, empathy. On that, there are plenty of learnings for politicians to glean from their colleagues on the left.
Labour in 2016 were annihilated not simply because of the hard decisions made by the Fine Gael-led government of the time; they were destroyed for their inability and unwillingness to empathise with a worn-out electorate. Without Labour, there is no doubt that greater savagery would have been inflicted on vulnerable people during the recession, but understandably, very few people appreciated their playing the victim.
The Social Democrats now need to prove that they can and will listen to their electorate, but more importantly, that they can place aside their own egos and empathise with those they are representing.
Risky strategy
Like her predecessors, Cairns has categorically ruled out a merger with Labour. While she is correct in her assertion that Labour have broken trust with the public, and that the two parties appeal to slightly different voter bases, it is a risky strategy. For those who would favour a left-leaning government, there is strength in numbers, and it is notoriously difficult to recruit left-leaning politicians from activism into the traditional political system.
Could two parties with many similarities become stronger than the sum of their parts? Cairns does not appear to think so; she has stated that she is ‘unashamedly ambitious’ for the Social Democrats. She appears confident that the party can appeal to and recruit as members and candidates those who have until this point felt represented.
She herself came to political life from an activist background, campaigning for a ‘Yes’ vote in the Referendum to repeal the Eighth Amendment.
Her confidence in her party stems from this experience of winning hearts and minds, and a fervent belief that when progressive alternatives are presented to the Irish people, they will take them.
As a woman in rural Ireland – which is not as conservative as the Dublin media would have us believe – I am thrilled to see a young woman succeeding in politics without the typical ascendancy through a family dynasty or a youth party structure. I am overjoyed to see another woman speaking on behalf of women, and highlighting the issues we face, and it is refreshing to hear a politician speak with compassion and empathy.
But the big tests are yet to come. Go n-éirí an t-ádh leat, Holly.