AS a Cork County Council hopeful in 2019, the Social Democrat candidate Holly Cairns made headlines when a one-vote deficit turned into a one-vote lead as part of an historic four-day recount.
Holly’s decision to stand as a Social Democrats TD in the general election the following year, proved to be a case of lightning striking twice, because traditional voting patterns were shattered when she became one of the three TDs selected to represent Cork South West in Dáil Eireann.
Prior to the local election, the fresh-faced campaigner learned the significance of representation through her involvement in David Norris’ presidential campaign, and the successful Repeal the Eighth amendment campaign.
The success of Repeal the Eighth was ground-breaking in many respects. It was an early indication of the electoral shift away from the traditional two-party system of governance in Ireland and it also signalled the need for greater female representation in public life.
In her first outing, Holly was left fighting it out for the fourth and final seat in the Bantry electoral area at both the Clonakilty count centre on a Saturday and Sunday, as well as the historic recount in County Hall, the following Monday and Tuesday.
Initially, the Independent candidate Finbarr Harrington from Beara was deemed elected by a single vote that put him in front at 1,865, but in the end, he acknowledged he had been ‘a councillor for a day’ as Holly moved out in front with 1,866 votes.
At the time, the candidate, who was just shy of her 30th birthday, said the four-day count underlined the fact that ‘every vote counts.’
That local election was characterised by the success of young candidates and Holly, together with the former Fine Gael Cllr Katie Murphy, gave the four-seater Bantry electoral area its first ever 50:50 gender representation.
The local election was a cliff-hanger unlike any other, but the 2020 general election brought another ‘upset’ and the traditional Fine Gael stronghold was decimated, leaving the three seats to be occupied by the returning Independent TD Michael Collins, Fianna Fáil’s Christopher O’Sullivan’s election in the footsteps of his father, and Holly Cairns’ success in beating her closest rival, fine Gael’s Tim Lombard, to take the third seat.
At the time, Holly’s father, Clem Cairns, admitted that he had doubts that his daughter could change the status quo in Cork South West and take a seat for the Social Democrats.
Yet Clem summed up her ability to succeed at everything she attempts. ‘We are learning about Holly that every time she tries to do something, she generally succeeds – even beyond what seems to be possible at the time.’
As an approachable TD, a good performer in the Dáil, and as someone who is good in front of the TV cameras, and unashamedly direct in her pronouncements – including going public on the vile abuse she has had to contend with as a TD – Holly Cairns has become ‘one to watch’.
She has certainly upheld her commitment to be ‘a strong voice’ for the people of West Cork.
Holly signalled her intention to contest the party leadership at the weekend, and West Cork Social Democrats Cllr Ross O’Connell was one of the first to publicly support her latest election bid. But within hours of her declaration it was clear the field was clear, and she had no competition, being officially declared the new leader of the party on Wednesday afternoon.
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