Alongside co-leaders of the Social Democrats Róisín Shortall and Catherine Murphy, two Cork women are also leading the charge. Síle Ní Dhubhghaill was recently elected chair of the National Executive of the party, with Dr Angela Flynn having been appointed vice chair.
“I think it’s brilliant that we have two co-leaders and a chair and vice-chair who are women,” said Síle, founder of the Lee Valley Academy of Music in Macroom.
“It’s really an obvious sign that we’re growing around the country — that we have a chair and vice-chair in Cork — and I think it shows how much of an impact we’re having outside Dublin, as well as in Dublin.
“I think it’s good to show that women can have these roles when they have children, no matter what age their children are. It’s a positive thing to show that I’m doing this with a small baby and it is possible for any woman to put themselves forward for leadership roles,” she added.
Ms Ní Dhubhghaill admits the world of politics isn’t designed for women — especially women with young children. Her daughter Ada has just turned one.
“It’s very obvious that politics is a system designed for men, by men. It’s nothing to do with maternity leave. The hours that TDs have to keep... your kids are already gone to bed when you get home. If you’re a TD from a rural constituency, you have to spend two or three nights a week up in Dublin for the Dáil.
“That’s something that needs to change, and one could argue that the more women who run [for election], the more women are elected, the more chance they have of making positive change in that way,” Ms Ní Dhubhghaill said.
She highlighted Cork South West TD Holly Cairns’ work highlighting the plight of women who are attending maternity scans alone, and in some cases spend labour alone.
“If you have a Dáil full of men, nobody is going to address these issues,” she added.
Síle ran in the local elections for the party in 2019, but says she’s not sure if she would run again.
“I think your life really changes when you have a child,” she said.
“[Ada] is my first, and I think maybe things that were massive priorities before you have a kid can change a little bit.”
Síle joined the Social Democrats in 2016, because in the election of that year she felt there was nothing on her ballot paper that represented her. The co-leaders Catherine Murphy and Róisín Shortall were two major draws for her also.
“It’s quite a rare thing to see in politics — strong women leading their own party and standing up for what they believe in. That’s quite inspiring as a woman,” she said.
Simple, yet obvious, solutions such as childcare being available at Social Democrats conferences is something that sets the party apart, Síle feels.
The work done on the Repeal campaign, having a strong network of women, and active campaigning are other draws for those joining in recent months and years, she believes.
The party has set itself apart from others, with one scroll through Twitter showing the huge welcome the new members receive.
“We’re a party with a really dynamic membership that are really strong on activism,” said Dr Angela Flynn, vice chair of the Social Democrats.
She said the welcome new members received online shows “a lot of love, and people like that”.
Both Síle and Angela see engagement with the membership of the party as key to its progression, and that’s where their focus lies for the term ahead.
“If you have a strong membership behind you, that’s really going to help at election time.”
Angela echoed her sentiments, adding that tapping “into the resources of the membership” would be key to the party’s success in the coming years.
Síle added: “We have a chance to really up our number of elected reps. Even though during my term as chair there probably won’t be an election, you’re still building towards that.”
The Social Democrats are an ambitious party when it comes to their hopes for seat gains in the next general election, whenever that may be.
“We trebled the last time, and we want to do the same again,” Angela said.
Like Síle, however, Angela said that she wouldn’t run for election: “I’m enjoying being in a role where I’m helping shaping and driving the party policies.”
Dr Angela Flynn is originally from Clones in Monaghan, but her parents are from Cork. She did a nursing degree in London, worked there for a time, and subsequently came home to Ireland. She then began working in the school of nursing in CUH, and now works in UCC’s school of nursing and midwifery, where she has been for almost 20 years. She is also current President of the Irish Federation of University Teachers.
Inequalities surrounding health are one of the areas Dr Flynn has significant interest in, and having moved back to Ireland after living and working in the UK, she “couldn’t believe the difference in access to healthcare”.
She was struck by the difference between public and private patients here. In the UK everyone was treated the same and the “care is free at the point of delivery”, something she feels should be in place here, which is being proposed in the Sláintecare plans the Social Democrats advocate for.
Covid-19, Dr Flynn said, has made hard situations for those on the margins of society even harder — migrant workers and asylum-seekers are just some of those she highlighted, with living in cramped spaces and the digital divide being some of the problems.
“The fact that we have such a strong private health system in Ireland is a real problem,” she said, adding that the deal to use private hospital capacity during the Covid-19 pandemic shows “what can be done” in this country.
Healthcare and its delivery is one of the reasons Dr Flynn became involved in the Social Democrats, as is the fact she says they are “an evidence-based party”.
She also is an advocate for a zero Covid strategy — something the current Government has ruled out.
However, Dr Flynn said: “I think the term itself is a bit misunderstood. What’s meant is that ambition to really put in place things that should have been done a long time ago. It’s not rocket science.
“It’s putting in place things like the really long-awaited legislation on hotel quarantine that was delayed and to really work hard to get the levels down. It’s about more than one approach and not relying entirely on the vaccination programme.”
Both women have seen Covid-19 impact on their work — Dr Flynn through her work in UCC, and Ms Ní Dhubhghaill through her work in the Lee Valley Academy of Music — and both can’t wait to be able to see their students again in person.
The pandemic has impacted on their work with asylum- seekers and those in Direct Provision too.
Síle said that when the centre for asylum-seekers opened in Macroom, locals found it “really important to welcome our new arrivals” adding: “The residents are involved in Tidy Towns — they have made a lot of friends locally.”
Angela, who is involved with the Sanctuary Runners, “running alongside people living in Direct Provision”, said that Covid is hampering that work at the moment.
Both are, however, looking forward to their terms at the helm of the Social Democrats, with Dr Angela Flynn quipping: “If you want something done, ask a busy person.”