Vulcan Insight

Social Democrat co-leaders announce that they will be stepping down

24 February 2023

Earlier this week, Róisín Shortall and Catherine Murphy announced they are to step down as co-leaders of the Social Democrats saying “now is the time to hand over the leadership reins to the next generation”. Speaking at a press conference this afternoon, Deputy Shortall told reporters that they have informed the party’s National Executive of their decision and have requested it to set the process in motion for electing a new leader. Both women have made it clear that they will continue to represent their constituencies in the Dáil. 

Ms Shortall, a former Minister of State for Primary Care in a Fine Gael-Labour coalition, recently became the longest serving female TD in the history of the state, overtaking Mary Harney in August 2022. She is also one of the longest serving Deputies currently in the Dáil, having first assumed her seat in 1992 for the Dublin North-West constituency. Ms Murphy, meanwhile, has been in the Dáil since 2005, when she won the Kildare North by-election. 

Explaining the timing of the decision to step down, Ms Shortall said that with the local and European elections in 15 months, they wanted to ensure that the new leadership had time to “bed in and get established, get to travel to country and meet the various branches”. The outgoing leaders have been praised by their colleagues in the party, with the pair largely credited for building the Social Democrats’ national operation since its inception in 2015. Tánaiste Micheál Martin has also paid tribute, commenting that the Deputies have made a “very significant contribution to public life in their capacity as leaders of the Social Democrats”. 

The party’s national executive agreed the rules underpinning the resulting leadership election on Thursday night, stipulating that any candidate seeking to run will need the support of at least one other TD to nominate them. Nominations will open at 9am on Friday, February 24th and will close at 12pm on Wednesday, March 1st. If there is a contested election, polls will close at the end of March and voting will be by digital ballot.

At present, three of the Social Democrats’ TDs appear to be considering whether or not to contest the party leadership. Holly Cairns, Cian O’Callaghan and Jennifer Whitmore are said to be consulting with their families and political teams ahead of making a decision on a bid to fill the vacancy at the top of the party. Only Deputy Gary Gannon of Dublin Central has unequivocally stated that he will not contest the party leadership. It also remains to be seen whether the Social Democrats will retain the co-leader model previously favoured. 

Of the TDs in contention, Ms Cairns has emerged as the frontrunner. During an interview with Claire Byrne, where he ruled out his own candidacy, Mr Gannon described his colleague as a “generational politician” who “appeals to a multitude of different demographics and age groups. I think she is absolutely fabulous.” Ms Cairns has been an outspoken critic of the current government, notably in recent times concerning the redress scheme for mother and baby home survivors.