Democrat Holly determined to hit ground running

Gráinne McGuinness talks to Cork's first Social Democrat councillor about west Cork, community and her party's vision for the future. 
Democrat Holly determined to hit ground running
New county councillors Holly McKeever Cairns. Pic; Andy Gibson.

SHE had to wait longer than everyone else in the local elections for confirmation of her seat but west Cork woman Holly McKeever Cairns is determined to hit the ground running as a representative of the people in her area.

The 29-year-old Social Democrat candidate was placed third of ten candidates after first preference votes were counted in the Bantry-West Cork Local Electoral Area and ended up locked in a close battle with Independent Finbarr Harrington for the fourth and final seat.

After eight counts on Sunday, May 26, a single vote separated them, with Finbarr just ahead.

Holly called for a recount and the drama moved to County Hall where it took two more days to finally decide the seat was hers.

She starts her interview paying tribute to her rival and the staff at the count, returning officer Maurice Manning and his team.

“Finbarr was a gent and his wife and team were just amazing, we got to know them all over the days of the count and recount,” Holly says. “I really feel for him, to lose by one vote, that’s how I felt after the first count. I understand how he feels and my heart goes out to him.

After two days of checks and rechecks, she learned the seat was definitely hers when Finbarr shook her hand and conceded.

Finbarr Harrington, Non-Party and Holly McKeever Cairns, Social Democrats pictured together at the count centre in the Community Hall in Clonakilty, Co Cork. Picture Dan Linehan
Finbarr Harrington, Non-Party and Holly McKeever Cairns, Social Democrats pictured together at the count centre in the Community Hall in Clonakilty, Co Cork. Picture Dan Linehan

“[Finbarr] came over and congratulated me and that was the nicest way to find out. I really wish it was a five-seater and it should be, other areas have way less people per representative. He deserved that seat.”

Holly’s victory makes her the first Social Democrat councillor in Cork and one of 19 nationwide. When she first announced her candidacy, few fancied her chances. She and the small Social Democrat team in the area, particularly Pamela Weaver and Clare O’Reilly, were determined not to listen.

“The Examiner said it would be a ‘near miracle’, Fianna Fáil thought we would get 400 votes tops,” she says, laughing. “Then the first box we opened was Ballydehob and we topped the poll.

“We came third in first preferences. We beat every Fine Gael candidate in first preferences, which we were delighted with.

Because it was our first election, at every moment we thought ‘if we left now, we’ll be celebrating’. We were so thrilled. But now to actually get the seat is just the cherry on top. Because all the changes we want to make, that we spoke about in the campaign, now we can start to effect that change.”

Holly’s father Clem Cairns founded the West Cork Literary Festival and her mother Madeline McKeever started the Skibbereen Farmer’s Market, so community participation comes naturally to her. But previous to this, most of her political experience was limited to canvassing in the marriage equality and repeal the eighth referendums. So what drove her to run?

“I moved home four years ago, having left after my Leaving Cert, and worked abroad for years in disability services,” she says. “For so many people in west Cork, you have to go abroad for work. I found it really difficult to move home, with all my friends and my siblings gone. I just got so sick of complaining about it, we can do so much better in west Cork.

“I live in the most beautiful electoral area in Ireland, it doesn’t get more beautiful and I felt all of our industries were being affected by bad decisions made on our behalf by representatives. We have fishing, farming and tourism and all of those industries depend on the environment and the landscape. And I felt decisions like the plastics factory, the harvesting of the kelp - we need to start making future proof decisions for our environment.

“We need to make west Cork a place young people can stay and come home too, we have so many prospects and I feel like they are being squandered. I would love to try and do something about it. Even things like the festivals in west Cork and the food markets, they are amazing platforms to build on and I think we should be doing more of that. Look at Kerry and their tourism industry. I don’t think that is west Cork, I don’t think we should do the same thing but it goes to show what can be done and I think a west Cork style of tourism would be different.”

Her personal background is part of what drives her love of and commitment to the environment. She grew up on a small dairy farm on Turk Head and now runs a seed business there with her mother Madeline, a botanist.

“Me and my sister were reared on the income of between 12 and 16 dairy cows, a jersey herd, you couldn’t make a living from it now with the way dairy farming has gone,” Holly says. “So we had to diversify.”

Holly McKeever Cairns pictured in west Cork. Pic; Andy Gibson.
Holly McKeever Cairns pictured in west Cork. Pic; Andy Gibson.

The result was Brown Envelope Seeds. Madeline founded the company and Holly now runs it with her, having gone back to do a masters in horticulture in UCC.

“In Ireland we know better than anybody the importance of seed adaptation, because we experienced a potato famine,” Holly says. “If you have one variety and no genetic diversity you are at risk of crop failures. And we are even more at risk now with climate change. We saw last summer with the drought how much farmers suffered. It was very interesting from our perspective because we saw how all of our different varieties, to see what fared well in those conditions was fascinating and really important.

“Brown Envelope Seeds is the only seed company in Ireland. There is a charity in Clare doing stellar work protecting Irish varieties but 95% of our seed varieties are gone, forever, we can’t get them back. Se we preserve the 5% that are left as do the seed charity.”

Although she is fired with a vision of west Cork that includes vastly increased attention to festivals, local markets and promotion of the islands and the area’s outstanding beauty, Holly understands that she has been elected to first tackle more prosaic issues.

“I’m going to go in and try and figure out what is the story with the roads,” she says when talking about priorities.”I don’t know how to go about this but I am going to do everything I can to figure out how to do it. That is your job, to speak for the people and that was the main concern at the door, it was the roads. Same as how you have to protect the environment, you have to protect the roads. It impacts the quality of life.

“You only have to look at Kerry. Blindfold me going over the Conor Pass and I’ll tell when we get to Kerry because of the road, there is such a difference. We have to do something about it.”

She cites rural isolation as another major issue and believes strengthening community bonds is vital.

“I was raised an atheist, I didn’t have any religion and that really made me acknowledge how important community things are in the area because I felt so left out of the church community,” she explains. “I didn’t want to be part of the religion necessarily but I wanted to be part of the community. There is so much to be said for it, and we need to build other ways to do it because [the church is] not for everybody. They are an amazing model to see how special it is to feel part of a community and if you don’t feel part of it you can really feel the importance of it.

“I think that is part of why I have gone for this, because I always really want to feel part of a community, it is so important for everybody, we are tribal animals and I would love to find other ways of building that.”

Admiration for founders attracted Holly to party 

ADMIRATION for founders Catherine Murphy and Roisin Shortall was a large part of the attraction to the Social Democrats for Holly but she believes their approach to policies is the party’s key feature.

“The Social Democrat approach to politics is completely what we need as a country,” she said. “They have evidence-based policies which accepts science and comes up with intelligent solutions. Not saying what the electorate supposedly want to hear for votes, that doesn’t do us any favours in the long run, that’s really clear now.”

She believes being a young party, with noticeable strong female participation, has an effect on how its policies are drawn.

“I don’t believe you can govern a society that promotes equality if that culture does not exist within your party,” she says. “We are the only party with a gender balance in Ireland. So of course I think the policies we make have more of a balance.

She believes the party’s objectives will make for a fairer Ireland.

“Everyone thinks a Social Democrat society is going to be radical but its not,” she says. “What we stand for is a belief that everyone is entitled to housing, healthcare, education, childcare and care for the elderly. Everybody should be able to lead a dignified existence. I think at the moment 75% of the wealth in Ireland is owned by 22% of the people, and I think most Irish people fundamentally disagree with that and that we have so many children homeless.”

She is adamant that progressive parties like hers can offer solutions and chime with voters in the most rural of areas. She points out her LEA elected two men and two women, and the two women are both under 30. 

“There is a presumption that in rural Ireland we are conservative by default, and it’s not true and kind of insulting,” she said. “We are able to engage in meaningful debate. Everyone said that to me, ‘you’re not going to get a look-in as a progressive candidate’ but that’s not true.

“You can’t compare Ireland to other countries on a political landscape because of our unique history. We have a dominance of civil war politics and parties since the foundation of the state and it has resulted in us voting for our grandparents future rather than our own.

“That is not doing us any favour and I think we are really realising that now. Historically Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael would have had 90% majority and now they are barely holding onto a majority with a confidence and supply partnership agreement. It has really exposed them to be almost identical and we need a real alternative.”

Long way to go for equality in politics and life in general

ALTHOUGH Holly is delighted by the fact that her local electoral area returned two men and two women, she says there is a long way to go when it comes to equality in politics and life in general.

“[The numbers] are really disappointing,” she says. “There have been more men called John in the Dáil than there have been women, it just has to change.

“It’s a really difficult subject to talk about and it shouldn’t be. We need to change and reframe that whole debate. Gender quotas are seen as this whole terrifying ‘women trying to take over’ thing and it is not. The presumption that women want gender quotas is really untrue, no woman likes the idea of gender quotas. They are a blunt instrument that we have to use because we are sick of waiting.”

There have been calls for gender quotas to be introduced to support women running for seats on local authorities.

“It is about accepting the science, accept the fact — gender quotas work. Lets just get past this barrier where we can’t get the balance of women naturally, we’ve tried that. I love the idea of living in a post-feminist society where we don’t need gender quotas as much as the next next man or woman but it is not the case and we have waited long enough.”

She highlights the insidious nature of much of the inequality in society and believes more female participation at decision-making level is the only long-term solution.

“When people hear that they feel it’s unfair because it puts men out but to think that we don’t live in a man’s world is understandable.

“But as an example, driving here today I was 45% more likely to be seriously injured in a road traffic accident than a man because all of the car safety tests in Europe are done with a crash test dummy made up of the 50% percentile male, with their muscle distribution, everything. In recent times, they have acknowledged that women also use vehicles and avail of transport so they made a ‘female’ crash test dummy but they just used a scaled-down version of the male one.

“It is not like there is some conspiracy against women, I don’t think that at all,” she clarifies. “I know it’s not a conspiracy but it is that it has always been men at the table making decisions. So we don’t realise how important it is to have women at the table making decisions.”


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