Tuesday, February 28, 2023

Fiachra Gallagher

Holly Cairns, TD for Cork South-West, will become leader of the Social Democrats party on Wednesday. Elected to the Dáil in the last general election, she is a relative newcomer to politics. When she takes the reins, she will become the youngest leader of a political party in the Dáil.

How did she get here? BreakingNews.ie takes a closer look.

Political beginnings

Holly Cairns is a 33-year-old farmer and horticulturist from West Cork, living in Turk’s Head.

Cairns’ decision to become involved in party politics can be traced back to the pro-choice and abortion rights movement in Ireland.

She was actively involved in the Together for Yes campaign in West Cork, canvassing for an end to Ireland’s restrictive abortion laws.

Following the successful campaign, Cairns, along with two other women from the West Cork region — Clare O’Reilly and Pamela Weaver — set up a constituency branch for the Social Democrats in Cork South West in August 2018.

Less than a year after the establishment of the constituency branch, Cairns was elected to Cork County Council in the 2019 local elections. She won her seat by a single vote.

While on the council, she highlighted local environmental issues, including the impacts of a proposed plastic-manufacturing plant in Skibbereen. Plans for the factory were eventually quashed.

Election to the Dáil

Cairns then contested the 2020 general election as a candidate in the Cork South West constituency.

Cairns’ then-boyfriend, Fianna Fáil’s Christopher O’Sullivan, also contested the election in the same constituency. The story garnered some attention — she likened the scenario to a bad romcom in an interview with The Guardian.

She was ultimately elected on the ninth count, having received 4,696 first preference votes, 10.59 per cent.

Cairns was the only female TD to be elected in any of the Cork constituencies.

Young and a political newcomer, Cairns’ election to the Dáíl was seen as a surprise. Since her arrival on the national political stage, however, Cairns has built a significant profile.

Growing profile

Cairns is perhaps best know for her contributions to debate on the proposed redress scheme for survivors of mother and baby homes redress scheme.

Cairns has been very critical of the Mother and Baby Institutions Payment Scheme Bill, which was recently endorsed by the Dáil, and is now before the Seanad for approval.

Under the bill, people who spent six months or less in an institution will not be able to apply for compensation.

Cairns told the Dáil in October: “The Government continues to facilitate the cover-up of crimes and human rights abuses and, most cynically and callously, it does so in full knowledge.”

She described the bill as “deeply insulting and harmful”.

Cairns has also spoken out about the abuse spaced by women working in the public eye.

She revealed in January that she had to change the locks to her house and install CCTV cameras when a man repeatedly began showing up to her home.

Speaking to Virgin Media News, she admitted that if she had known about the level of vitriol aimed at women in public office, she may not have run in the general election.

During her time in the Dáil, Cairns has acted as her party’s spokesperson for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Further and Higher Education, and Disability.


When Social Democrats co-leaders Catherine Murphy and Róisín Shortall announced that they would relinquish their positions last week, Cairns immediately emerged as a front-runner for the job.

Hours after the announcement, the Irish Examiner quoted party sources tipping Cairns to be the next leader.

Some other prospective candidates were mentioned in the following days — TD Jennifer Whitmore refused to rule out a leadership bid when asked on RTÉ Radio 1’s Morning Ireland.

Cairns’ eventually confirmed that she would run for the position, by way of a social media post, on Sunday lunchtime.

Soon, other names mentioned in the leadership debate began to row in behind Cairns.

By 7pm, the inevitable was confirmed. “I can’t quite believe I’m typing this but on Wednesday, I will be taking on the role of leader of the Social Democrats,” Cairns wrote.

She said she would “set out” her vision for the party on Wednesday, the first day of her leadership.

Given her age and profile, many will view Cairns’ ascension to the Social Democrats leadership role as a progressive step for the party. Whether that will translate to the polls is another question.

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