Quite simply, no. This is the short answer to a question that requires unpacking and analysis. On paper, it makes sense for these two centre-left parties to merge into one party. They share similar policies and two former Labour Party TDs were involved in the foundation of the Social Democrats in 2015. One would think it would be pragmatic for the two parties to merge.
However, there are several reasons as to why these two parties will not come together and form one grand Social Democratic party. These reasons range from the current status of the parties to outright objection from members in both parties.
The idea of a merger between these two parties seems to be a concept that Labour representatives seem to be more open to. In recent days, Labour’s Aodhán Ó’Ríordáin TD spoke on an RTÉ podcast in which he stated that he wouldn’t be against a merger with the SocDems, and believes there is merit in doing so. Additionally, former Labour Minister Jan O’Sullivan stated last February that she believes the two should come together.
However, the calls for a potential merger grew stronger from Labour with Alan Kelly, leader of the Labour Party, saying he wishes to see the two eventually merge, a wish he has reiterated many times. The discourse around this topic is a constant in Irish politics, usually from a Labour representative not opposing the idea of a merger in an interview, which typically prompts a response from the SocDems.
The idea of merging two so-called social democratic parties would be to heal the fractures that exist among the left in Ireland and to bring leftists together. This concept does have merit and is an opinion that some Labour representatives share when discussing merging with the SocDems.
However, the same optimism around merging is not shared by many in the SocDems, with most (if not all) SocDem public representatives opposing a merger with the Labour Party. Gary Gannon has continuously opposed the idea of merging with Labour, saying that Alan Kelly ‘should stop trying to make himself and Labour relevant through association with the SocDems.’
More recently, Róisín Shorthall, Social Democrats Co-Leader, has also dismissed the idea of merging with Labour on the ‘Your Politics’ podcast by RTÉ. The idea was also earlier shut down in 2017 by the former chairperson of the SocDems. It should be of no surprise to anyone clued into the political scene in Ireland as to why the SocDems are so vehemently against merging with Labour, despite having similar views and policies.
Labour have suffered two poor election results in a row following their controversial coalition with Fine Gael from 2011-2016, and are polling at extremely low levels. Labour has been on a downward spiral for the last half-decade and there is no sign of this coming to a stop as they struggle to poll above 5%. Labour are struggling to reshape their public image after their lacklustre performance in government.
This was confirmed when the party lost long-time TDs Joan Burton and Jan O’Sullivan in the last election which provided a further blow to a party already on its knees. Conversely, the SocDems are a party on an upward trend in Irish politics: they trebled their number of TDs at the last election and are polling at record levels with their support hitting double digits among 18-34 year olds in recent polls. The SocDems have seen surges in membership over the last twelve months, with the party undoubtedly in its strongest position to date.
Based on these reasons, it would appear that a merger would be of more benefit to Labour than it would be for the SocDems at this moment in time. The SocDems have been an unexpected force in Irish politics lately and is now on its way to becoming the predominant centre-left party in Ireland as Labour and the Greens continue to falter. Adding to this, it is unclear if Labour would rule out another coalition with Fine Gael, whom they have been in coalition with on several occasions.
The SocDems were swift to rule out a coalition with Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil and have promised its voters that the party wishes to see a left-leaning government in Ireland. While many in Labour, particularly Labour Youth, would rule out propping up Fine Gael again after the horrid consequences of their last alliance and ideological differences, it is unclear if Labour will move away from pandering to the centre and centre-right with Alan Kelly at the helm. Labour’s modern image is something the SocDems should distance themselves from and this appears to be the approach the party is taking.
The Labour party has a history of merging with other parties, as it did with Democratic Left in 1999. This merger had the potential to present a strong and unified left-wing voice for voters, but the merger failed to appeal to the public in the long term. If the SocDems want to establish itself as the main centre-left Social Democratic party in Ireland, it should stave off any talks of merging with Labour, or some elements of the Greens.
However, if Labour are to survive in the long-term it will need to reform itself to become more palatable to the electorate. It seems the Social Democrats have largely taken a lot of Labour’s vote and Labour seem to be struggling to find its identity. A Labour Party who can rid itself of its negative image and move on from the days of supporting Fine Gael governments may stand a chance of merging with the SocDems. However, strong opposition to a merger with Labour will likely always exist amongst SocDem circles.
Since the foundation of the Social Democrats, the Irish media have been perpetuating an idea that a merger with Labour is inevitable. However, we shouldn’t hold our breaths waiting for this to happen. While it appears there is some support for it within Labour, it is doubtful that the vast majority of grassroot membership in both parties want to see a merger and wider media circles need to understand that it is not a prospect party memberships are actively considering.