From Trinity News (online):

Martin O’Donnell casts a critical eye on Stephen Donnelly’s political career – from a vocal opponent to the “old boys club” mentality of Irish politics to a now fully-fledged career politician.

Independent beginnings

Stephen Donnelly entered the Irish political scene to the surprise of many in 2011. The Dundrum-native had decided to run as an independent in Wicklow for the Dáil. On paper he had impressive credentials – he was educated at UCD and later Harvard and had a successful job in management consultancy; in the media he appeared to be a genuine individual who cared; but he had no political background or party to support him. To the media and politicos alike, his lack of political credentials seemed like a distinct and fatal disadvantage, but Donnelly maintained otherwise – “[people] are tired of the political parties and do not believe that the political parties are going to get us the change that we need, what I want to do is offer the people of Wicklow a different choice to say that I am outside the political system”. He managed to prove them wrong (by the slimmest of margins – 57 votes).

Following on from his election, Donnelly continued his upward trajectory, carving an image as a straight-talking analyst who wasn’t afraid to ruffle feathers. Even if you didn’t like Donnelly’s politics, it was hard to argue that he wasn’t impressive. He seemed to be a different breed of politician – not interested in the spoils of ministry or power, but in the interests of the country. It was refreshing. You may not have agreed with his politics, but it appeared as though he wanted to be an independent voice in the mould of Shane Ross; an individual who would challenge the government and other parties when they erred; and above all else, an individual of the highest integrity.

The party animal

He had argued in late 2014 that there was a need for new political parties, as the “traditional parties” had led Ireland “to the abyss” and that as an independent he could not form part of a government. These intentions were noble without doubt. As such, Donnelly’s move to set up the Social Democrats in 2015 was not much of a surprise.

Many of his supporters could accept the move because as a co-leader with Roisín Shorthall and Catherine Murphy, rather than being subsumed in a larger party, he was going to be a leader in the party, formulating policy rather than lingering on the backbenches. He also appeared to retain much of his independence – he spoke as candidly and as freely as before. In essence, he didn’t have to tow the party line because he was the party.

Donnelly put in a strong performance in the Leaders’ Debate in 2016 and while the party did not win any extra seats, they came close in a number of constituencies and seemed to have a stable footing for the future. Stephen Donnelly’s exit from the Social Democrats was a shock to the system – why would he exit from a party he had founded less than a year ago, despite the fact they had made a solid, albeit not perfect start?

The official reason from Donnelly was that “some partnerships simply don’t work”. Several media outlets speculated that he wished to enter government negotiations and his colleagues did not and that their working relationship deteriorated thereafter. There appears to be some truth to this – Donnelly in a recent interview with Hotpress said “I believe we should have gone into government, but what bothered me far more was a refusal to even enter talks about government.”

The curse of Irish politics

In many ways Donnelly’s position after the 2016 general election was easy to empathise with – after a point, it must become frustrating watching others make mistakes and not being able to make a difference. Much of what he said before setting up the Social Democrats is true – in an Irish context, real power (and real change) can only be achieved through political parties. It is understandable therefore for Donnelly to wish to join a party and enter government and perhaps his colleagues in the Social Democrats were happy screaming from the sidelines in opposition.

What is surprising, if not objectionable, is his choice of party – for a self-described “socially left, socially liberal, and unashamedly pro-enterprise” individual like Donnelly, Fianna Fáil would not seem likely bedfellows. Their social views at best can be described as conflicting – with abortion-related issues they have a free-vote and Avril Power unceremoniously left the party after the Marriage Equality referendum.

Their economic views brought Ireland to the brink during the late noughties recession – policies he described as showing “serious incompetence”. In fact, Donnelly in an article for the Sunday Independent, quoted an unnamed individual as describing the party as being based on “jobs for the boys, bonuses for the boys, lack of accountability and two fingers to the Dáil” – he followed this up by stating: “I hate it when the cynics are right.”

His move to Fianna Fáil, a party he clearly found repugnant in the not-too-distant past, goes against his previous persona as a principled voice. Fianna Fáil have not significantly changed as a party since he made those statements – they are in fact led by a former cabinet member from the worst of Fianna Fáil’s reckless days.

The one thing that has changed in the meantime is the fortunes of Fianna Fáil – they now appear to have a real chance of entering government after the next election. It appears as though political expediency has trumped principles and convictions in Donnelly’s case. Irish politics has truly transformed him into what he probably despised most day one – a career politician.