On 24 nights in the dead of winter, a politician has criss-crossed the highways and byways of Ireland with a new plan, a new vision and a new party – Aontú. It’s the loneliness of the long-distance runner, putting in all those miles, with a vague notion that there is a finishing line ahead, and perhaps a podium beyond that.
Peadar Tóibín is not the first to do it. Bringing your message to the people is a tradition in Irish political life that has not yet been displaced by technology. So here we are on a dark February night in Carrick-on-Shannon. Inside the brightly lit ballroom of the Landmark Hotel, the former Sinn Féin TD addresses a crowd of about 60 people. It’s Tóibín 24th night on the road both North and South. He reckons that more than 4,000 people have attended his rallies, despite the shoestring budget and lack of organisational back-up.
What has changed in the past month is that what started as a movement for disenchanted anti-abortion campaigners has now become an all-island political party with a central anti-abortion message. Already nine councillors have come on board, North and South, including defectors from Sinn Féin, Fianna Fáil and the SDLP. The party hopes to run candidates in May’s local elections in both jurisdictions.
So is there a space for such a party? It’s hard to know. On the face of it, there is a fair-sized crowd on this night. A few factors have to be taken into account. Local organiser Ciarán Tracey, an anti-abortion activist who introduces Tóibín, says they distributed nearly 3,000 leaflets in the run-up to the meeting, which is a lot of pre-publicity. I text a political friend of mine from Leitrim who thinks the attendance “mediocre considering there’s a significant pro-life, republican, Eurosceptic vote in Leitrim and Roscommon”. And five of the 60 or so turn out to be pro-choice activists who stay for a while and then quietly leave.
That said, all-in-all it’s still a respectable turnout. Many in the audience are middle-aged and when you speak to them, the vast majority are avowedly first and foremost anti-abortion.
Tóibín is upfront about the party’s unique selling point but acknowledges that in itself won’t bring Aontú anywhere. “We have a very strong pro-life policy. We are 100 per cent for the right of life. But will have a raft of other policies. I made it clear that no seats will be won anywhere on the right to life alone.”
Over the course of an hour, Tóibín outlines the other policy directions. On those fronts, it’s not too far from Sinn Féin: republican, all-island, left-of-centre on economics, supporting small businesses, promoting the Irish language, Eurocritical but also anti-Brexit.
Judged by the metric of the clapometer, however, there are a number of key messages that resonate with the audience.
One is his attack on what he describes as the “groupthink” of the political and media establishment.
He referred to the appearance of Father Ted co-writer Graham Linehan on Prime Time who outlined, among other things, his view that it was dangerous to offer surgery and drugs therapy to teenagers who were gender non-conforming. Linehan has been attacked for his views and accused of being transphobic, both charges which he rejects. There were placards placed outside RTÉ and a campaign against his inclusion in the programme. Tóibín says he met a Fine Gael TD who told him he agreed with Linehan's views but was afraid to say it because "I'd get the head bitten off me".
“I think Ireland is one of the most uniform political spaces in the western world,” says Tóibín. In the 1950s, we were ruthless and orthodox with no tolerance for other views. In 2019, we are ruthless and orthodox with no tolerance for other views but it has flipped completely to the other side. “To censor other people’s views is a dangerous thing and is a good example of groupthink.”
The second message that resonates with the audience is an attack on the elites who govern by focus group, who do their business via social media and have abandoned the grassroots. Those who will follow Tóibín are the disenfranchised, the one-third who voted No in the referendum, who are geographically and philosophically at a remove from the establishment. Aontú – which Tóibín says means unity and consent – will be a grassroots party with its members directing policy. And it won’t be involved in the “air war” which is national media because Aontú will never get a fair hearing.
“We are involved in the ground war. That is activism and being immersed in your community and knowing what is happening and fixing your community.”
Unsurprisingly, the biggest responses are on the issue of abortion.
“Abortion is now available on the basis of socioeconomic reasons. Simon Harris says he is pro-choice yet the policies he implements make so many women feel they have no choice. Eighteen women gave birth homeless last year, he is not giving them a choice of a house.
“Simon Harris is pro-abortion but he is not pro-choice as regards what is happening in this country,” says Tóibín.
There is a definite anti-political party vibe, a cohort who feel excluded and betrayed, but for different reasons than Donald Trump or Brexit populist anti-immigrant supporters. It could be described as rural conservatism and traditionalism, feeling ill at ease in modern Ireland.
Interestingly, the issue of immigration comes up in one question, with one man in the audience arguing trenchantly that the current rate is not sustainable and berating Tóibín for being too soft. Tóibín says the issue comes up regularly with voters, often in a negative anti-immigrant way, but most politicians are afraid to engage at all on the issue. He tells the audience there is a need for an honest debate, otherwise extremists will fill the vacuum. His own views though are very pro-refugee, broadly pro-immigrant, but with limits.
“There is no doubt that if you bring 90,000 people into a state and build 20,000 houses you will create extreme difficulties both for Irish people and for migrants. Logic will dictate that you manage migration in such a way that it’s sustainable.”
After the meeting, all those we talk to are anti-abortion. Many are Fianna Fáil members with no intention of leaving the party. There are a few, however, who sign the forms and put money into the contribution box. Siobhán Finnegan McElgunn, a teacher and former Fianna Fáil member, says she agrees with his “right-to-life” stance, the Irish language, as well as his republican views but was unsure about the economic policies. “I am not joining it tonight but am interested in following it,” she says.
Micheál, who is “local enough”, says he agrees with Tóibín’s anti-abortion views.
“How good will they do, it’s hard to know,” he muses.
“Some 750,000 voted on that side in the referendum but they are over the whole country. When you launch there’s a bit of euphoria. You are crystal-ball gazing, you are probably a better man at doing it than me,” he says.
Séamus McWeeney says he is “disgusted with all the political parties. They don’t represent my views whatsoever”.
He adds: “The only two people who stood up in the Dáíl are the Healy-Raes. They stood up for the drinking man who could have a pint. Nobody said boo.
“Peadar Tóibín stood up and said his piece and they sacked him. They did the same to Lucinda Creighton . . . It’s very important to me that the unborn child has someone to represent them.”
Ciarán Tracey says he and a local group of activists continued promoting the anti-abortion message after the referendum despite the “traumatic” result. They spoke with a group setting up a Christian democratic party but decided to follow Aontú after seeing Tóibín speak in Mullingar. “One does not know. It’s early days. There are pro-life people who have local government ambitions. They may go as Independents, they may go with Renua, they may go with Peadar,” he surmises.
For his part, Tóibín is unflappable in his optimism. The new party will hold selection conventions and will continue to form cumainn, he says. However, the other former Sinn Féin TD in the Dáíl, Carol Nolan, will not join, but he is confident there are other councillors who will sign up.
You sense a bit of a paradox at the heart of the project. Tóibín says no seats will be won on the abortion issue alone but, in many senses, it is the abortion issue alone that is the raison d’etre of the party.