Readers like you keep news free for everyone.

More than 5,000 readers have already pitched in to keep free access to The Journal.

For the price of one cup of coffee each week you can help keep paywalls away.

Support us today
Not now
Friday 22 September 2023 Dublin: 11°C
GARETH CHANEY Holly Cairns says it would be a good day from a feminist perspective if Mary Lou McDonald were to one day become Taoiseach.
Holly Cairns says she'll talk to all parties after next election but 'change' is in the air
The new Social Democrats leader spoke to The Journal in a wide-ranging interview.

SOCIAL DEMOCRATS LEADER Holly Cairns agrees that it would be a good day from a feminist standpoint if Mary Lou McDonald were to become Taoiseach. 

Speaking to TheJournal in a wide-ranging interview, Cairns said her party would hold discussions with Sinn Féin about going into government together after the next general election. 

Sinn Féin remains the most popular party in the country, sitting at 31%, according to the latest Sunday Independent/Ireland Thinks opinion poll. 

Fianna Fáil is on 19%, with Fine Gael at 20%. 

The Social Democrats fell to 5%, down from the 9% tally last month regarded as a boost  related to Cairns taking over leadership of the party from Roisin Shortall and Catherine Murphy.

In Cairns own Twitter description, she describes herself as a “Farmer. Scientist. Feminist”. 

So when asked would it be a good day if McDonald became Taoiseach from the feminist standpoint of having a female Taoiseach for the first time, she replied: 

Oh sure look, yeah, 100 years since the foundation of the state, and we’ve yet to see a female Taoiseach and women in loads of different positions of power.

“I think it’s really important from a feminist perspective, and from a ‘see it to be it’  perspective, and all of those things, it’s really, really important. We need to see more women in politics and in all those different positions,” she said. 

When reporters in New York asked McDonald in March if she feels threatened at all by the impact of Cairns’ success, McDonald said: 

“I am not, not in the least. I think is incredibly positive to see another woman, a young woman in a position of political leadership. I can commend her for it, because it’s not easy. It’s a very challenging role. And I’m delighted for her quite frankly.”

After the next election

So could it be that Cairns will work alongside McDonald at the helm of a coalition one day?

The West Cork TD said her party, despite what Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have claimed in the past, are definitely open to speaking to Sinn Féin after the next election. 

The Social Democrats are open to talking to all parties, she said – adding they aren’t prescriptive on who they will talk to. However, she said her party have policy objectives, such as serious measures to tackle climate change, that they want to see implemented.

She said there could also be other “red lines” for her party, but it all depends on the political landscape after the next general election and what kind of government formation negotiations take place. 

“We want to govern, basically. We want to implement our policies, but we’re also really clear that we wouldn’t go in for the sake of going in, positions for ministries, none of those things, we want to see our policies implemented,” she said. 

Holly Cairns 015

Sinn Féin’s past 

When asked if there would be a reluctance in the party to go into government with Sinn Féin given concerns over their past links to armed Republicanism, Cairns said: 

“We recognise people have concerns,” she said. 

“Our focus is always on policies and the future. And, you know, we do recognise that. Our concerns will be around things like climate policies, that’s the thing that comes to the front of my mind when I think of it.”

In Irish politics, there are constant conversations around whether proper action will be taken on climate change, she said. 

“And that just blows my mind when you zoom out and think of where we are from a scientific perspective and from a reality kind of a perspective. All of the conversations have to be ‘how do we do this in a fair way, in a way that works?’ All of those things, rather than will we or won’t we?

“And like, that would be more damaging to the future of politics, than historic events, but like, you know, everything needs to be considered,” she said.

Turning the tide on the establishment

Cairns said in her first press conference as leader that change was coming. Repeating that sentiment, Cairns said that people who traditionally voted for Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael are slowly becoming more open to alternatives. 

“The tide is turning in Irish politics and lots of people who have been loyal voters to the more established parties are saying it is actually time for change. The last election felt like a ‘change’ one, but not quite”, she said.

“And look, it’s in the air, everyone can feel that it’s coming. And I do think the type of change that we want is something that everyone’s going to start thinking about quite soon when we’re going into the elections,” she added. 

“I think options and choice are really important in that… I think the general public want that change, but not everybody wants exactly the same type of change. So that’s the joy of democracy, we can have a balance,” said Cairns. 

How many seats will she be targeting in the next election? Cairns wouldn’t give a number. 

“I’m really ambitious about it. I know that numbers are so much easier to explain than ambition, but like I would literally just be picking a number out of thin air. That’s the truth… the truth is, I don’t know.” 

The new leader said it will all depend on her plan to recruit people who never thought that politics would be an option for them.

She said most people don’t think that they would ever get involved in politics. Cairns said she was one of those people less than five years ago – but she has gone from being someone with no political background to becoming a councillor then a TD and now a party leader.

“I hope that as somebody who was that person only four years ago that I can reach those people. So really trying to say to people, ‘if you want to change, please get involved and become a member of the party’.

“You don’t need a special invitation or qualification to be in politics, to be a member of a political party, to be involved and to be campaigning for a change that you want. Because I think that’s what it seems like when you’re not involved,” she said. 

Abuse of politicians

Cairns has been very vocal in the past about the abuse female politicians experience in the job – but she thinks getting more women into politics is the answer. 

“It’s an absolute must,” she said, while adding that she recognises that the abuse politicians receive appears to be getting worse. 

Her comments came as the Cabinet signed off on new measures that will reimburse politicians 50% of the costs towards security measures, such as CCTV, personal alarms and panic buttons for staff at their constituency offices. 

The Social Democrat’s leader said it is “such a shame” that something of that nature is needed, stating that one of the really great things about Irish politics is politicians are very engaged in their communities and have an “ear to the ground” in their localities through meeting with constituents.

“The more that kind of security and stuff comes into this, it feels like more of a barrier between us and the public. And that seems really sad,” she said.

The new scheme for security costs is a “precautionary thing”, said Cairns, who said that there is no harm in protecting people when the reality is abuse and harm is increasing.

“I hope it’s not seen as too much of a deterrent, but more that there is measures being put in place, this is being addressed, and you probably won’t need them,” she said. 

A number of politicians have experienced protests outside their homes and constituency offices over recent months, particularly relating to the issue of immigration and refugees.

When asked about whether she has noticed any targeting from the far-right towards her party, Cairns said “there’s always an undercurrent of it”.

Don’t condemn 

While Ireland – until recently – has always been almost immune to the far-right, “it’s so important that we’re not complacent”.

“The most important thing we can do, as a political parties, is try to show leadership in relation to it and that’s like when people are stressed and struggling, and the far-right use clever tactics and language to try and bring people in who are struggling, that we don’t condemn those people.

“I think it’s important to say to people, like if you find yourself outside accommodation for people who are fleeing war saying, ‘Get out’, then you need to really check yourself and wonder if you’ve maybe been misguided by your genuine concerns.

“So I think just to keep checking in with the general public and I think that’s really important because we can’t be complacent, but it’s important to not give the messaging from them any airtime. So it’s a difficult balance I think for politicians and politics to strike, but a really, really important one,” said Cairns. 

Demonisation of farmers

The new party leader from West Cork has a background in farming and also has a MSc in Organic Horticulture from UCC.

She has previously said that she believes there is a lack of respect for farmers.

So are farmers being demonised, in her view? 

“Yeah. But I think that it is the fall out of a government narrative that has always been any suggestion of, for example, reducing the herd will decimate rural Ireland… what will decimate rural Ireland is if there’s no future for the agriculture sector,” she said, adding that “we’ve always been so proud of our agricultural sector”. 

The narrative is that all farmers are all anti-climate action, she claimed, stating that is just not the case.

“Any farmers I speak to are more aware of the kind of negative impacts that will happen from climate change than anyone in a city because they just work engaging with the environment all the time, and they see the reduction in biodiversity, they see all of these things, and like, it’s just such a taring everybody with the one brush,” she said.

“It’s a shame that it’s kind of come to that,” added Cairns, who said the answer is more engagement. 

Cairns said she herself lives 15 minutes from a main road, not to mention the village, which is further again. She said talk about reducing car use without offering those in rural areas any alternatives is unhelpful

She said the absence of engagement and “telling people what to do” is not helpful and is actually more damaging to the cause.

“If you back anyone into a corner and they’ll fight against it. But then the narrative is the farmers are somehow fighting against climate action. Utterly ridiculous,” she said. 

Your Voice
Readers Comments
This is YOUR comments community. Stay civil, stay constructive, stay on topic. Please familiarise yourself with our comments policy here before taking part.
Leave a Comment
    Submit a report
    Please help us understand how this comment violates our community guidelines.
    Thank you for the feedback
    Your feedback has been sent to our team for review.

    Leave a commentcancel