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Saturday 3 December 2016

Andrew Lynch: Social Democrats must move fast or get trampled in rush

Social Democrats
Social Democrats
Catherine Murphy

Murphy, Donnelly and Shortall. It sounds like a bread company or a firm of solicitors. It is in fact the leadership team behind Ireland's latest political party.

The Social Democrats could be in power this time next year or they might just as easily fall flat on their faces. Either way they have made the upcoming general election harder to predict.

This new initiative has apparently been brewing for months, fuelled by some marathon coffee-drinking sessions in Roisin Shortall's kitchen. At a low-key launch in Dublin's Civic Offices yesterday, she, Catherine Murphy and Stephen Donnelly nailed their colours to the mast.

The clue is in the name - essentially these three TDs believe Ireland should adopt the Scandinavian model of first-class social services funded by relatively high income taxes.

In concrete terms the Social Democrats want October's budget to be split 2:1 in favour of spending increases over tax relief, instead of the 50:50 split promised by Enda Kenny's coalition.

They are promising to abolish Irish Water, without explaining where the necessary €900m would come from. On the thorny issue of abortion, they support a referendum to repeal the Eighth Amendment but are mysteriously quiet on what sort of legislation to put in its place.

In other words, the Social Democrats' first policy menu comes with a strong taste of fudge. They have even ducked out of electing a leader, announcing that all three TDs will run the party together until after the general election.

This dubious triumvirate idea was first tried out in ancient Rome - where Julius Caesar quickly established himself as top dog and the other two wound up dead.

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True, the new party's biggest assets by far are Donnelly, Shortall and Murphy themselves. All three come with a strong national profile and can handle themselves in any media debate.

Donnelly is widely respected for his financial expertise, Shortall won plaudits by quitting Labour over its broken promises and Murphy recently used Dail privilege to make serious allegations about the former Anglo Irish Bank.

Right now, however, the Social Democrats looks like a classic case of too many chiefs and not enough Indians. Apart from the leaders themselves, they have yet to unveil a single new candidate (although independent Dublin city councillor Gary Gannon and former Fingal lord mayor Cian O'Callaghan are involved).

Creating and funding a political party organisation from scratch is no joke. With 38 weeks at most to go before the general election, this one has left it dangerously late.

If the Social Democrats can get their act together, then the potential rewards are huge. With opinion polls showing Fine Gael and Labour still way off the support they need for a second term, Enda Kenny may well go looking for some smaller parties to prop him up as Taoiseach.

In that scenario, it is quite easy to imagine Shortall, Donnelly or Murphy sitting around the Cabinet table.

One thing for sure is that the Social Democrats' arrival is a real headache for Tanaiste Joan Burton. The party appears tailor-made for people who voted Labour last time and feel that Burton's outfit has failed to put manners on a rampantly right-wing Fine Gael.

The new party could also attract votes from Sinn Fein supporters, who are currently reeling from the humiliation of their Syriza comrades in Greece.

What the Social Democrats need above all else now is a sense of momentum. They must use the next few weeks to unveil more eye-catching policies, attract a few big names and spell out their core demands for joining any coalition.

Otherwise, they risk going the same way as Lucinda Creighton's Renua, a party which launched itself in a blaze of hype last March but seems to have been stuck in a rut ever since.

With Shane Ross's alliance of independents also in the pipeline, Ireland's political pitch is getting more and more crowded. Murphy, Donnelly and Shortall may be three talented players but relegation looms unless the Social Democrats quickly prove that they can also play as a team.

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