Stephen Donnelly out in the cold but weighing options for return

Leaving the Social Democrats cost Stephen Donnelly dearly

It has been a roller coaster year for Wicklow TD Stephen Donnelly, writes Juno McEnroe.

After the successful launch of the Social Democrats last year, the party co-founder went on to give a star performance in a live TV debate during the general election. It was a golden period for the former managing consultant, whose new party won 3% of the vote.

But it has all changed since.

Since his departure from the Social Democrats, where there is certainly no love lost between him and co-founders Róisín Shortall and Catherine Murphy, the Wicklow TD’s profile has diminished.

Furthermore, Mr Donnelly has less speaking time as an Independent TD in the Dáil and lost out on substantial funding, which remains with the Social Democrats, the party he ran with in the last general election.

The approach by the Independent Alliance about him joining is a genuine offer and is no doubt one that he will take seriously. But it is a difficult decision, as Mr Donnelly admitted himself to the Irish Examiner.

“It’s not just about joining the alliance, you’re also entering into government,” he said. “It would be a big call.”

Members of the Independent Alliance
Members of the Independent Alliance

A key problem for Mr Donnelly would be having to adhere to a government voting regime. While the Independent Alliance claim publicly that they are allowed open or free votes on Dáil matters, this is not set in stone. This alliance stance has also led to tense confrontation with Taoiseach Enda Kenny at Cabinet level.

Giving up a free vote on issues would surely have to come with some quid pro quo for Mr Donnelly, who has previously campaigned to loosen the whip in the Dáil in general.

So what would the Wicklow TD get in return for joining Shane Ross and the Independent Alliance?

It would rebuild the TD’s profile. While he has picked up attention for expressing concerns about firms abusing charity status to avoid tax and has been a thorn in the side for US vulture funds, he will need more than that if he is to bounce back from parting ways with the Social Democrats, the party that boosted his profile during the election.

It is unclear if he might get offered some ministerial post or whether he could take on the mantle of alliance chairman, formerly held by Feargal Quinn.

Nonetheless, there is strong enthusiasm on the alliance side for him to join them. A source said: “He will probably come on board. He wants to know about government. [John] Halligan would be the man to formally ask him.”

Minister of state for training John Halligan and Mr Donnelly also both have a mutual friend: Tom Curran, the right-to-die campaigner who Mr Donnelly supported when he ran during the 2014 elections in Wicklow.

For the moment, Mr Donnelly is playing down conversations about joining another political group.

Shane Ross once tried to woo Mr Donnelly into joining the alliance. He’ll want to be sure of the outcome this time before popping the question again.


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