This week, Holly Cairns was officially announced as Leader of the Social Democrats in front of a room packed with family, friends and members of the Party in The Tara Building, in Dublin city centre.

In her opening address to members as Leader, she said:

How on earth did I get here?

That’s a question that’s been on my mind over the past few days. I’m sure it’s been on some of your minds too.

In fact, I know it has. I’ve scrolled Twitter.

And it’s a fair question. How can someone who first joined a political party less than five years ago now stand before you as its leader?

I never saw myself getting involved in party politics. But at a certain point that changed, and I can trace that back to a night in Skibbereen.

I was canvassing for a Yes vote during the Repeal referendum and I was about to knock on my very first door.

I didn’t know how the conversation was going to go. I didn’t know what to expect. I felt unprepared and nervous.

A woman in her 70s answered. During the conversation that followed, she moved from a “I don’t know enough about this so I’m not going to vote” to a very firm “yes”.

And I moved from feeling unsure and apprehensive to feeling optimistic and motivated.
I learned two important lessons that night.

I learned that the most effective way to change hearts and minds is to have open and honest conversations.

And I learned that when Irish people are presented with a progressive alternative, there’s a very good chance they’ll take it.

At a time when the most extreme voices dominate online, and disinformation spreads like wildfire, open and honest conversations are even more important.

Because people are disillusioned, and why wouldn’t they be?

They are tired of governments stumbling from one crisis to the next. Tired of broken promises and empty gestures. Tired of being patronised and ignored.

Politics in Ireland is on the cusp of change.

I can feel it. I think we all can.

But, to get the kind of change we want to happen, we need to vote for it.

What does that change look like?

A fairer Ireland – where it’s easier for people to get by.

Where keeping a roof over your head, or putting meals on the table, isn’t such a struggle for so many people.

An Ireland where parents don’t have to choose between heating their homes or feeding their children.

An Ireland where young families can buy homes in their community, where healthcare and disability services do not depend on the depth of your pockets, where parents and grandparents don’t have to watch another generation emigrate.

Progress is a collective effort. We cannot do it alone. We know that.

That is the strength of the Social Democrats. In 2015, Catherine Murphy and Róisín Shortall recognised the need for a new progressive party in Ireland.

A party that was committed to social democratic principles.

Less than eight years later, we have an amazing parliamentary team, 21 Councillors, and 35 branches across the country.

The Social Democrats are a party for a new era – not defined by old loyalties, old politics, old policies, cosy business connections or jobs for the boys.

Our guiding principles are a fair society and a strong economy, underpinned by honest politics.

Trust is a key part of that.

Building it – and retaining it, by rigidly sticking to our commitments.

As a party, we have come a long way already.

My challenge is to build on the foundation that has been laid by Róisín and Catherine. My goal is to lead our party to its maximum potential.

And I am unashamedly ambitious about that potential.

Anything I have done in politics, I have always done to the best of my ability.

And leading the party will be no different.

I am excited and eager for the next phase of the Social Democrats. I am up for the challenge. I am determined to give it everything.

Some will say I am too inexperienced for this job.

To them I say, I have plenty of experience.

I grew up on a small dairy farm in West Cork; I worked as a waitress through school and college; I had to emigrate after the crash; I worked in disability services and saw the transformative difference that proper services can make to disabled people’s lives; I have a masters in science; and I have run a small business with my amazing mum.

I may not fit the stereotype of a politician, but that is not a bad thing.

Let’s not forget that some of the most experienced politicians in the Dáil bankrupted the country a little over a decade ago.

Some of them, by the way, are still in power today.

For that reason, I embrace difference.

I am not afraid to do things differently. I am not afraid to ask the awkward questions, to challenge the way things are done – and have always been done.

We cannot accept the status quo.

We can’t afford to.

I am a member of the first generation who will be worse off than our parents.

An entire generation whose hopes and dreams have been narrowed and squeezed by the political choices of governments who came before them.

We all know the problems we face are immense.

A grim milestone, in record levels of homelessness, now being set every month.

Nearly 3,500 children losing childhoods as they grow up in emergency accommodation.

Ever increasing numbers of people being locked out of homeownership.

The highest healthcare waiting lists in the history of the State.

Repeated failures to meet our climate targets.

Struggling small and medium business owners wondering how they’ll keep the lights on.

So, yes, the problems are enormous.

I am under no illusions about that.

But my message today is one of hope.

Because I know there are solutions.

If there is political will – and real commitment.

Social Democracy means the State living up to its obligations in its social contract with its people, by refusing to outsource its responsibilities to the private market.

It is about investing in public services – in housing, education, healthcare, public transport, and communities.

It is about ensuring the right conditions exist for small and medium enterprises, and industry, to thrive.

We know a social democratic approach works. The most prosperous, inclusive and progressive countries in the world are social democracies.

There is no reason Ireland can’t be counted among them.

As Social Democrats, we want to live in an Ireland where homes and childcare are affordable; where children with disabilities get the services they need; where pensioners can heat their homes; where farmers can sustainably and ethically produce food, where our climate targets are met; and where SMEs are supported.

To the parliamentary party and our Councillors, I want to say thank you for your incredible work and unwavering support.

I am excited to lead our work together.

To our members, I take my hat off to you. I know how hard it is to start a branch. How much time and effort you put in. I see how hard you are working and I appreciate it. We need your continued hard work and your commitment to reach our full potential.

To my small team of very committed staff, I wouldn’t be here without you. Your tireless work is deeply appreciated by me every single day.

I started this speech with a question ‘How did I end up here?’ and I’d like to end it with another one.

To all those watching and listening who may not have seen themselves getting involved in a political party, I want to ask you to reconsider that. I want to ask you to join us.

We need votes, but more importantly we need people like you.

We need more activists, more candidates, more people who want to work for a better Ireland.

There’s a lot of work to do. A lot of conversations to be had. A lot of doors to knock on.

It’s going to be challenging, exhausting and exhilarating.

And I can’t wait to get started.

March 1, 2023

Watch Holly’s address in full below.

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