The Man Who Wasn’t There




From top: Catherine Murphy, Stephen Donnelly and Roisin Shorthall; Anne Marie McNally

Before he quit The Social Democrats and at a time of enormous growth and change for the party Stephen Donnelly seemed to be stepping back.

Anne Marie McNally writes:

“I didn’t get up the pole for Stephen Donnelly”

This was the message I got from a (male) member of my volunteer group in Dublin Mid-West and brings me on to a subject I feel it would be unfair of me not to address, namely this week’s news regarding the departure of my friend and former colleague Stephen Donnelly from the party I both work for currently and stood for at the last General Election.

While my volunteer was clearly joking, the underlying message is in fact the most important point to remember in what can very often descend into a media bubble about leaders and personalities and individuals.

The bigger picture can sometimes be lost in the midst of all that so it’s important to put it back to the fore. The bigger picture here is that no party, no matter its size can ever be dependent on one individual.

Social Democracy is a movement; it is a project which we’ve said from the get-go will be a long-term project and a constant inching towards a social democratic vision for Irish society.

The same is true of other political projects no matter where along their timeline they may be. If Michéal Martin left Fianna Fáil right now they would surely take a hit but it wouldn’t be the end of Fianna Fáil. Likewise for Fine Gael, Labour, Sinn Féin and every other party across Ireland and the world.

That text message was my volunteer telling me that despite the fact that Stephen was a colleague, a friend, an impressive performer, an accomplished parliamentarian and an astute mind, he was not the be all and end all of what we’re trying to achieve here and when my volunteer spent winter evenings dangling precariously from poles he didn’t do it because he was impressed by Stephen Donnelly. 

And nor did he do it because he liked me personally, he did it because he fundamentally believed in the vision that the party; the movement, was putting forward in terms of honest politics, a fair society and a strong economy.

The values underpinning the party are Equality, Democracy, sustainability and progress. These are the things that got people involved in the first place; the things which encouraged people to leave their sofas and brave rainy evenings up poles, knocking on doors and leaflet dropping across Ireland.

Monday was a disappointing day for us. There’ll be many of those in politics and I entered into this, as did my colleagues with our eyes wide open.

The true test is how you weather those storms and move forward. We’ll do that and Stephen will do that, in different ways and in different directions and that’s fine, certainly we wish Stephen well on his journey wherever it may take him.

They say hindsight’s a great thing and that’s certainly true in this case. We’ve used the word ‘disengaged’ quite a bit and that’s because it’s the truth.

At a time of enormous growth and change for the party, Stephen seemed to step back. We’ve used the analogy before of the project being akin to building an aircraft while in flight and that really is indicative of the task at hand.

While we were caught up in the frenetic day to day work required for that task, Stephen’s disengagement was noticeable but I never truly believed his heart wasn’t in it to the extent he’d actually quit.

Stephen said in yesterday’s Irish independent that his ‘departure had been coming for some time’ so I guess his disengagement was, in hindsight, something more than just someone needing to take a breather at an inopportune time.

I can genuinely tell you I’ve no idea why Stephen’s heart left the project so soon after its commencement or why he chose to disengage in the way he did over the last few months.

But whatever his reasons, I can categorically say that there were no rows, no clashes and no drama. We only found out last Sunday that Stephen was leaving for definite. I guess you could channel Gwyneth and say it was, on Stephen’s part at least, a ‘conscious uncoupling’!

For our part the enormous workload hasn’t gotten any smaller by virtue of recent events and so we resume normal service post haste; the daily slog that is the backroom of the shiny face of politics you see in front of a camera; the late night meetings and conference calls and the weekend meetings that just can’t be avoided no matter the personal demands.

Now, we will renew our strength in putting our shoulder to the wheel and as we enter the new Dáil term we do so with a new staff team, an exciting list of political priorities and our inaugural National Conference to be held in Mid-November.

Our efforts will not be employed discussing travails that are par for the course in political life, they will be focused on delivering on the vision of Social Democracy we put forward and which encouraged people across the country to stick a cable tie between their teeth and get up the pole.

Anne Marie McNally is a founding member of the Social Democrats. Follow Anne Marie on Twitter: @amomcnally


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81 thoughts on “The Man Who Wasn’t There

  1. Harry Molloy

    He was an amazing performer during the elections but seemed to become disengaged, as you say, soon afterwards.

    Can it be because he wished to enter talks for government but the other party leaders didn’t?

    This column doesn’t tell us much excerpt the same allegation that he wasn’t pulling his weight.

        1. Rob_G

          Not crazy, but they seemed to consist mainly of ideas for increasing expenditure, without corresponding increases in revenue.

  2. b

    I guess ultimately the lack of a single leader was its undoing, every decision was a democratic one and Donnelly was probably tired of being outvoted 2-1 on issues he felt strongly about

  3. Mayor Quimby

    Rather disingenuous to compare the Social Democrats to larger parties;

    Stephen Donnelly was clearly the star of the SocDems. An accomplished performer, smart and someone who gave up a stellar corporate career to get involved in politics.

    Compare and contrast with the plodders, the hack councillors, the tweet merchants and pedestrian bloggers

    1. Coppélia

      +100000000000000 Social Democrats is a “movement”…a project . Does that mean it is just hashtag collectivism at best? SDs are neither philosophers nor religious leaders and if they wish at some stage to govern, they should realise that politics is a gritty affair where compromise is the foundation of all action.

      1. Medium Sized C

        It is a movement though. It has been for around 100 years. The problem I have is the suggestion that they alone own social Democracy and by leaving the purple party he has abandoned social democratic values. The article was kind of a smiling hatchet job in my eyes which is good Old-fashioned party politics.

        1. Coppélia

          It is the postmodern definition of a “movement” that bothers me. Mediocre speakers, twitter storms , platitudes . I prefer my politicians to have more than just a talent for posturing.
          Bring back Stephen # redactedbySD

          1. Saturday Night Newsround

            Many of the SDs are new to politics and finding their feet. The fact that they do not behave in the accepted way of the existing political orthodoxy may generate criticism at first but in my opinion is actually their strongest card. The fact that they have done so well so far is indicative of public dissatisfaction with the existing system and the nature and extent of compromise reached behind closed doors, often as a result of brokerage by unelected and generally unknown party kingmakers. I like Anne Marie’s refreshing openness and idealism. It makes a welcome change. Compromise requires to be preceded by open public discussion for it to have true democratic value.

          2. Owen C

            how have they “done well”? Serious question. They had 3 TD’s going into the election. They now have 2.

          3. Saturday Night Newsround

            I think 2 TDs, a high media profile, a number of respectably performing unelected candidates, the respect earned by one of their TDs for her work on Siteserv and no scandal is very good even disregarding the low standards of Irish politics generally, Owen.

          4. Rob_G

            ‘I think 2 TDs, a high media profile, a number of respectably performing unelected candidates, the respect earned by one of their TDs for her work on Siteserv and no scandal is very good even disregarding the low standards of Irish politics generally, Owen.’

            None of the above butters any parsnips (apart from the two TDs).

          5. MoyestWithExcitement

            Just because that doesn’t do anything for a right winger with vested interests like yourself doesn’t mean, well, anything other than it doesn’t do anything for *you*.

          6. Rob_G

            Ok… I’m not sure what you are trying to argue with me about.

            I’m suggesting that going from three TDs to two TDs doesn’t really count as a success.

  4. Medium Sized C

    Two of the co-leaders completely contradicting each other in the media on the biggest economic story of the year constitutes a spat.

  5. Owen C

    The Soccies are trying to exist in a part of the political spectrum that you could call “the centre left”. Donnelly, given his background and political views, probably felt more comfortable bang on in the centre, but agreed to go centre left as this was the moral and political sweet spot in Ireland for a new party given the problems that still remain post-crisis. My guess would be that the Soccies are being dragged further and further towards the hard left and Donnelly (a) was less comfortable here and (b) was really not interested in being an opposition ‘further left’ leader given the disinterest shown by Murphy and Shorthall in becoming part of any coalition government with FG or FF. The ‘success’ of the Ind Alliance only further added to his ‘disinterest’ in continuing with a project he really didn’t believe in or one he saw as being able to enact positive change any time soon.

    Additionally: many were derided on here for suggesting that not adding to their stable of TDs at the GE was a major disappointment for the Soccies. “They’re a brand new party, its a brilliant result” etc. Donnelly this week admitted the lack of additional TDs was a major disappointment and blow to the party. Just saying.

  6. Steve

    I’ll continue giving a high preference to SDs but the buzzwords that Anne Marie say they stand for equality democracy etc could be a copy and paste from any of Irish parties. Who doesn’t stand for this fine stuff??

    Differentiation is the key problem and evidence of differentiation can’t be gleaned (by say comparison with labour) by sitting on the sidelines. SDs had ample opportunity (and still do) to go into government and prove that they are different to labour / SF etc. That will get them more seats. All the left are still sitting , what makes SDs stick out from this pack?? A go at government and increasing the SD profile would have been worth the risk of being just another minor party getting walked over by the major party.

    An SD infused cabinet would have probably meant a proper debate on the Apple case as opposed to just the Irish jersey being thrown on and the railroading through the dail today.

    Maybe that’s what Stephen thought.

  7. Ivor

    It would be easier to figure out why he left if we actually knew what the difference between Labour and the SocDems was?

    Labour were just as “centre left” in their rhetoric while in opposition.

    1. Medium Sized C

      There should be no difference. They are a replacement for a Labour Party seen to have compromised on its social democratic values. But without the union links. 20 years ago all the young folks joining SD would have joined labour.

      1. Ivor

        Which begs the question, will the SDs be any different. The stars of the Labour Party of the 80s and 90s were the same buggers who swapped ideals/leftish rhetoric for power.

        Now that they’re back in opposition, Labour will continue the process of readopting the same rhetoric as the SocDems.

  8. fluffybiscuits

    Anne Marie is being too polite about Gonnelly. Stephen came in and used the party as a career pad for himself. A general election came up and he knew that he could throw himself into the fold and gain a foothold for himself to be elected. Even before this debacle Stephen showed his true colours with his support of the Land Conveyancing bill, a bill which favoured landlords and has seen families unfairly thrown out on their ear. This marked him down as being a secret FF’er. Its akin to coming out “Mam, Dad I have something to tell you, Im joining FF” except this time the shame he should feel is pretty legit….

    1. Owen C

      “Stephen came in and used the party as a career pad for himself. A general election came up and he knew that he could throw himself into the fold and gain a foothold for himself to be elected”

      Interesting analysis for a sitting TD and the undisputed ‘star’ name on the Soccies team sheet.

        1. Medium Sized C

          One bill. Write off his entire contribution to one bill in isolation ignoring his family home protection bill. That is a pile of crap, fluffy

          1. fluffybiscuits

            @Owen C
            No Im not saying that at all, that would be defamation and woud be a complete lie. What I am saying is that as a single Ind TD he might not have gotten anywhere but as part of Soc Dems he had a higher profile.

            @Medium Sized C
            But it was a massive blunder and then he went on to try defend it. The bill allows financial institutions which offer mortgages scope to straight away possess a home. It is a major blow for those in distress so yes I think its a legit criticism

    2. Harry Molloy

      He wrote a piece on why he voted for that bill that you can read on his website.

      I guess he’s more interested in seeing a functioning housing sector than ensuring that people who can’t or won’t pay their mortgages aren’t evicted

    3. Mayor Quimby

      ah get out of it.

      Donnelly “is part of the you should keep your home even if you don’t pay your mortgage” crowd

      1. fluffybiscuits

        And ask yourself – what does it say about him if he is joining the party that managed to contribute to wrecking the economy by allowing unchecked spending and wreckless lending…

        1. Owen C

          i think everyone is fairly in agreement his status will be diminished if he joins FF. But he hasn’t joined FF, has he? You don’t like him because he MIGHT do something in the future?

          1. fluffybiscuits

            “The Irish Independent understands that the Wicklow/East Carlow TD was keen to engage with Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil about the prospect of being in coalition.
            However, Mr Donnelly’s co-leaders – Róisín Shortall and Catherine Murphy – opposed the move.”

            How hard up and desperate does a person have to be to want a whiff of a ministerial post or some sort of say in government from non opposition benches?

          2. Owen C

            “some sort of say in government”

            He’s a meglomaniac alright. Politics needs more people who don’t want a say in government.

          3. fluffybiscuits

            Is this how I sound when Im being sarcastic eek!

            Seriously though if he wanted to make a difference why not stick with the Soc Dems? Why would as reported someone want to desperately join the axis of austerity?

            Nice bloke but speaking solely of his politics I would not be comfortable with them one bit. The Soc Dems know that Labour went and made a power play and ended up with not just egg on their faces but the burning hot oil that the egg was fried in.

            Good political acumen would dictate that they should not repeat the mistakes of Labour…

          4. Kieran NYC

            Hehe. Fluffy you remind me of the Russians removing Trotsky, etc after various purges.

            “I never liked him in all and anyways! I never even met him!” ;)

    4. LW

      Fluffy I don’t think this is fair or accurate, he didn’t use a well established party to make a name for himself, he lent his better established name to a fledgling party. The social democrats aren’t what got him over the line, although his performance in the leader’s debate may have been the reason he topped the poll.

      As regarding FF, I don’t see why he’d leave one party in opposition to join another in opposition, surely the independent alliance is a more likely home? I could be wrong. But there’s no point vilifying him for joining FF before he does

        1. fluffybiscuits

          Look the basic premise of what I am saying he

          He get in as an Ind in 2011 > Land Bill > Soc Dems TD> Toys out of the pram as they wont consider joining the axis of austerity

          That is it in a few lines.

    1. Owen C

      U missed an ‘e’ in blueshirt Dav. I’d have assumed your phone autocorrect would have hardcoded ‘blueshirt’ into the dictionary by now.

  9. Clampers Outside!

    Aye, good luck to Catherine and Roisin, I’ll stick with Soc Dems for now, Catherine is worth it for her efforts on [REDACTED]

    But this blog piece… it should not be about Stephen, and the whole piece is about Stephen and bangs of snide when it should be looking forward with the current team. Stephen should have been mentioned in a short three four line para and the rest should have been about how the party is moving on….. very disappointing.

          1. bisted

            …poor Anne Marie…the wheels start to come of the bandwagon before it even gets her close to the gravy train…there…three metaphors mixed..

      1. Saturday Night Newsround

        Anne Marie has gone up in my estimation with the refreshing honesty of her response and her willingness to engage on this issue.

        1. Coppélia

          ” I didn’t get up the pole for Stephen Donnelly”. Refreshing honesty or vulgarity masquearding as authenticity ? Hardly surprising that Stephen bolted.

          1. Saturday Night Newsround

            The term ‘vulgarity’ has been used by so many different people in different ways in different eras as to be devoid of any force as a pejorative. It’s worth noting, however, that very often it has been used by people with high-status under a current regime to refer to outsiders whom they consider a threat to their established position.

            I see no masquerading in Anne Marie’s response. One of the advantages of a politician commenting regularly on twitter is that it gives the public a very good idea of what they are like. The more often someone tweets (or comments), the more a true personality comes through. Anne Marie’s response strikes me as authentic.

            However you define vulgarity, I would prefer honest vulgarity to politically astute disingenuousness any day.

  10. Coppélia

    “One of the advantages of a politician commenting regularly on twitter is that it gives the public a very good idea of what they are like. The more often someone tweets (or comments), the more a true personality comes through.”
    Some would argue that offering every cough and sniff up to the public is just tedious , whilst others would argue that a greater focus on policy and the means to enact that policy would be more effective.

    1. Saturday Night Newsround

      Honesty and sincerity is the foundation on which good policy is built and without it even the most impressive policy edifice will eventually crumble and fall apart.

      An honest and sincere would-be politician with the determination to improve things, no matter how vulgar, is worth a dozen who can talk the talk but are primarily only interested in their own interests and that of a small group of the electorate, or, who, worse, dislike, fear and despise the greater part of that electorate, whom they see as people to be ‘managed’ for their own good.

      1. Clampers Outside!

        I hear ya, it reads above as if Anne-Marie wants to vote, and it would appear, wants people to vote for people with likeable personalities…. #facepalm.

        In the past, there have been theories on personality and how it informs attitude, including political attitude. But, to my recollection, a lot of the claimed causality has been kicked to touch….. as far as I can recall…

    2. Rob_G

      Counter-productive, even; I was more well-disposed towards the SDs before Anne-Marie began her weekly articles. After the first few, I began to suspect that she (and the party as a whole) was a little light on substance.

  11. PJ

    It appears that the party couldn’t organise the proverbial in a brewery and that Donnelly’s patience ran out. It is LONG PAST time for the party to have had a leader elected.

    It’s high time that we had an alternative to old duopoly. One thing is now clear: the SocDems aren’t it.

  12. Kieran NYC

    Cheers, Anne-Marie. Best of luck with moving forward in the new Dail term. Hopefully you can get past this and continue to have a disproportionate (positive) impact on the conversation.

    One suggestion – I think you should use this column as more of an opportunity to roll out more hard policy. If the SocDems fade, I fear it will be because most people don’t know anything about you rather than disagreeing with you.

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