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'No paper candidates': How the Social Democrats' GE2020 strategy reaped electoral success

The Social Democrats jumped from two TDs to six in the general election.

Newly elected Social Democrats TD Gary Gannon celebrates with his two party leaders.
Newly elected Social Democrats TD Gary Gannon celebrates with his two party leaders.
Image: Niall Carson/PA Wire/PA Images

THE PERFORMANCE OF the Social Democrats in the general election was one of the major successes of the campaign, with the party jumping to six TDs. 

Formed in 2015 with three TDs, the party fell short of expectations in the 2016 election and failed to get any additional candidates elected. 

There was a further blow to the party in September 2016, when co-leader Stephen Donnelly announced that he would be leaving the party, reducing representation in the Dáil to only Catherine Murphy and Róisín Shortall. 

Now, things seem to be changing. 

In Donnelly’s own constituency of Wicklow, the Social Democrats candidate Jennifer Whitmore was elected above Donnelly (now with Fianna Fáil), winning more than 2,000 votes than her old party colleague. 

For the first time, the party can reasonably argue it’s an all-Ireland political force, winning seats as far as Cork and posting solid results in constituencies such as Meath West. 

Dermot Looney, the party’s Director of Elections, said that the fact it was a snap election did prove “difficult”. 

“For some candidates and teams, that made things pretty hard,” he said. 

Ahead of the election, the party certainly faced issues. There were no signs of an upcoming electoral breakthrough in the by-elections in November, while in Dublin Fingal and Dun Laoghaire, two well-known local candidates announced that they wouldn’t be contesting the election. 

There were staffing issues too, with two vacancies  – the head of policy and the head of communications – both left unfilled by the time Taoiseach Leo Varadkar announced that an election would take place on 8 February.

With seven staff prepared to run a national campaign, the omens weren’t particularly good.

Facing up to a short campaign, the party had a relatively simple strategy.

“We were very aware of not running paper candidates. Everyone we ran was a legitimate person involved in their community,” Looney said.

Unlike the similarly sized Green Party, which runs candidates in every constituency regardless of the chances of winning, the Social Democrats landed on a more strategic approach. 

“We would be right in targeting seats where we felt the party could grow,” Looney says, referencing the Green Party’s near wipeout in 2011 when it ran 43 candidates but only received 1.85% of the vote. 

It’s a strategy that appears to have paid dividends. Jumping from two TDs to six, the party consciously ran candidates who already had a profile locally. 

general-election-ireland-2020 Roisin Shortall speaking to reporters during the election count in Dublin. Source: Niall Carson/PA Images

Some were well known. Apart from Whitmore in Wicklow, who topped the poll in Greystones in the May local elections, Dublin Central candidate and high-profile councillor Gary Gannon had been tipped to take a seat after narrowly losing out to Maureen O’Sullivan in 2016. 

But there were new faces too in which the party had invested high hopes. Holly Cairns in Cork South-West, despite only being elected to the local council in May 2019, had been tipped as a possible contender to take a seat – and rewarded those expectations by becoming the only female TD in Cork. 

Looney describes the candidates as “rooted” in their constituencies and credits the repeal campaign for offering some of the party’s new faces a way into politics. 

“Almost all of our candidates were involved in the repeal campaign,” Looney said. 

When it comes to candidates, “ideally the party would have run a few more,” he adds.  

Still, it wasn’t all success. In Galway West, Niall Ó Tuathail – one of the party’s hopes – failed to win a seat. 

Some suggested that Ó Tuathail’s failure was partly down to his decision not to contest the local council elections in May. 

“We’re not disappointed at all with Galway West,” Looney said. 

“At the end of the day, Niall didn’t want to run in the locals,” he adds. “His heart wasn’t in it.”

In that constituency, the party puts the blame on the Sinn Féin surge that attracted a younger cohort of voters who on another day might have voted Social Democrat.

Regardless of a few disappointments, the party is certainly pleased with last week’s result. 

It’s now level on seats with its left-of-centre rival – and much more established party – Labour and has a higher proportion of female TDs than any other party. 

Now, as the big parties struggle to form a government, the party wants to be ready for whatever the future brings. 

Looney is clear: “We will need to prepare in the coming weeks for another election.”

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