Spotlight On: Holly Cairns, Leader Of The Social Democrats

We caught up with Holly Cairns to chat about her journey to party leader, and to hear what she's hoping to achieve.

Gareth Chaney/ Collins Photos

Holly Cairns never expected to be the leader of a political party – she was never even on a student council. Now, here she is at the head of the Social Democrats; not only a party leader but the youngest one in Ireland. And she’s reaching the youth of the country in a way that most haven’t succeeded with before.

The Cork native has had a different route than most – which may be why she’s so keen on paving the way for a new political scene. “I’m so interested in reaching people who aren’t normally engaged in politics. One of the things we don’t often hear about is the percentage of undecided voters – that’s huge. I can really understand that person. I remember thinking, ‘I don’t feel represented by any of these people, what are they talking about?’

There’s space for a new kind of politics in Ireland that actually listens to people; engages with them; explains things in plain English. A lot of the language is used to kind of continue that perception that politics is for ‘other people’ – actually, it’s for all of us. And we all have a vote.”

In the last decade, Ireland has had two major referendums unfold; one for the right to same-sex marriage in 2015, and one for the right to an abortion in 2018. It was these that really piqued Holly’s interest in politics, though she never would have gotten involved if it wasn’t for the right group of people.

“I think Catherine Murphy and Róisín Shorthall [former Soc Dem leaders] built a party that is so different. [There’s] this kind of absence of ego that’s interesting and unique, the absence of a kind of hierarchical structure. They gave me a platform and an opportunity that I really and truly never would have had. They’re two incredible women who I am in awe of!”

With that platform comes pressure, and Holly is aware that there’s an expectation for her to do and say the right thing. “One of the things that I was really adamant about is that I would say what I felt needed to be said, all the time. They say when you get elected that you need to be careful what you say… but it’s important to stay true to who you are, and what you stand for. I think the pressure of balancing that is something I’m getting used to.”

Despite her passion and determination, as an opposition party leader, things won’t always go in the direction you’re hoping for. This is something familiar to the Social Democrats, who are often left disappointed by decisions made by the current government. However, Holly refuses to be disillusioned by any lack of progress.

“It can be tiring. Like, over the last few years, a lot of legislation I’ve been working on is in relation to the mother and baby homes. This is legislation about people in Irish society who could not have been treated worse, it’s actually criminal – massive human rights violations, incarcerating women, taking their children away from them. [We went through] three pieces of legislation, and to see at every stage that the government were further abusing those people basically, by disregarding them again, treating them badly again, all of those things…it’s just so disheartening, and to be in opposition means I can’t change this. But the whole purpose of this is that eventually we will go into government and change it. That is the thing that keeps you going… there is a purpose.”

Of course, legislation isn’t the only obstacle Holly has to face; as a woman, her gender means facing an undercurrent of misogyny in Irish politics that provides its own challenges. How does she manage to rise above it?

“There’s not many options! You just keep going. Obviously, the political sphere as a whole is very male-dominated, but at least within the party, that’s definitely not the case. We’re really proud to be the only party that has more female TDs elected and more female county councillors. I can’t imagine being in another party, I think that would be very challenging.”

Right now, Holly’s main objective is connecting with Irish people and showing them that the Social Democrats are committed to positive change and progress. “In politics, I think the most important commodity is trust, so we want to earn that, and then hope that [people] feel really glad that they’ve put their trust in us”.

This article first appeared in the September 2023 issue of STELLAR magazine. 


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