Peadar Tóibín’s new party must go beyond abortion issue if it is to have a chance
Former Sinn Féin TD is adamant that his new party will not be a pro-life, single-issue party
Peadar Tóibín TD leaving the Dáil earlier this year. Tóibín hopes there is a place for a nationalist, left-wing, anti-abortion party, and on Monday night 300 people in Navan seemed to agree. Photograph: Tom Honan
It was bitterly cold outside, but inside the ballroom of the Newgrange Hotel in Navan on Monday night, the heat was almost tropical. The crowd squeezed up and more chairs were hauled in, but it was still standing room only when local TD Peadar Tóibín rose to address the gathering of 300-plus who had come to hear him talk about the need for, and his plans to start, a new political party.
“After the couple of weeks I’ve had, this is a sight for sore eyes,” Tóibín began. The crowd rose for a thunderous standing ovation.
Even though this is his heartland, even though rallying around the embattled local boy is something of an Irish political tradition, it was an impressive turnout and an enthusiastic crowd.
“A phenomenal turnout,” the Meath Chronicle reported the following day, with “former Independent councillors, former election candidates across the political divide, members of the clergy, lay people active in the church and medical practitioners” among those in the audience.
Tóibín spoke for about an hour about the need for a new party. It would be a 32-county organisation, he said, dedicated to the twin objectives of Irish unity and economic justice.
He didn’t linger on the unity issue, but spoke at length about economic justice – an umbrella term which included such issues as support for small business, hospital waiting lists, high rents, the cost of mortgages, low incomes and the need for more investment outside Dublin.
Local issues featured prominently, as they do in every political meeting – the need for a Dublin-Navan rail line, Navan hospital, local Garda numbers and the prospect of a chain of pylons being built across the county.
TDs have one eye on winning brownie points from their leader and one eye on minding their seat, with the result they have no eyes left for you
He criticised the political system, condemning the “groupthink” in Leinster House on the abortion legislation, which drew some of the loudest applause of the night. “Respectful opposition is not the enemy,” he said.
The way political parties function, he said, “is one of the threats to democracy”.
Years ago ardfheiseanna were about the grassroots deciding policy, he said. Now they are just “slick political stunts”.
“Parties have become centralised in their control. We are seeing government and politics by focus group, by Twitter and by opinion polls,” he said.
In the Dáil, Tóibín said, “many TDs don’t know what they’re voting on” during the weekly divisions.
TDs, he said, are “unwilling to step outside of the flow and ask the hard questions”.
“TDs have one eye on winning brownie points from their leader and one eye on minding their seat, with the result they have no eyes left for you,” Tóibín said.
He was critical of the system of selecting ministers, who he said were “bought and sold” by civil servants.
“We need to take back some of the powers we’ve lost to the EU,” he said. “London, Berlin or Brussels should not determine our future – we should.”
Again and again, Tóibín stressed the ground-up nature of the new party. It would be, he said, “activist-led, where the membership can tell the leadership what to do”.
Tóibín dwelled only briefly on the reason why he left Sinn Féin – his opposition to abortion – but described the rejection of his amendments to the abortion legislation, which would have required pain relief for foetuses, outlawing abortion on grounds of sex or disability, stronger protection for conscientious objection by medics, among others, as “an injustice that I’ve never seen before in my life”. It drew rapturous applause from the audience.
The questions covered a variety of local and national issues. One man was determined to relate his accounts of Garda mistreatment. The audience would not believe what the gardaí had done, he said. It was worse than the Maurice McCabe case – much, much worse. And he had been complaining long before Maurice McCabe, he added. “The gardaí are here in droves to see who is here,” he warned.
“That’s bullshit,” came a voice from the back of the hall.
The speaker was of a highly determined mien, however, and he later made another contribution before leaving, apparently huffily. A proportion of the audience gave the impression they had heard his story before.
Another man complained about the facilities he claimed were being afforded to “foreigners”. He said he met a foreigner who had “a house provided for him and a car provided for him and money to get dog food for the dog because the dog was foreign.”
Several members of the audience indicated scepticism; Tóibín took it on directly and said that people who came to Ireland seeking protection from persecution and refuge from war deserved and were entitled to help and assistance. The audience approved overwhelmingly.
There were concerns over rezoning, a shortage of school places for children with special needs, criticism of the banks, demands to stop evictions, calls for the nationalisation of Tara mine and a call to follow the British “out the door” of the European Union, from a man who believed that Italy, Poland and the Czech Republic were also about to leave. There appeared to be little support for the idea.
But there was little doubt about what everyone in the room agreed on. When Dr Ruairi Hanley in the audience identified himself as one of the GPs who had “walked out of that meeting in Dublin” – when pro-life GPs left a meeting of the National College of General Practitioners – the room rose in a standing ovation.
Tóibín is adamant that the new party will not be a pro-life, single-issue party. But it is clear that his target market will be among people who voted against the referendum in May.
“Every political party has a raft of policies and a position on abortion,” he told The Irish Times later this week. “We’ll be the same. In no way will we be a one-issue party. But we will be unique in that we will have a counter-establishment position on abortion.”
If Tóibín’s new party is to have any chance of getting off the ground in a meaningful way, it will have to have an appeal beyond its policy on abortion.
It is true of course that more than 700,000 people voted against the legalisation of abortion and true also that a proportion of the 1.4 million who voted Yes favour a more restrictive law than the one currently chuntering through the Oireachtas. That’s a million people, Tóibín told the crowd in Navan.
But that is not the same thing as having a million voters who believe that abortion is the most important issue when they cast their vote in a general election.
This is the key insight that often eludes pro-life campaigners. They say pro-life voters have nobody to vote for. But that is only true if the pro-life voters believe the abortion issue is the most important one. And there is a good deal of evidence to say that only a minority of them do.
Look at it another way: since the X case re-exploded the abortion issue into the political system in 1992, pro-life campaigners have been trying to get pro-life candidates elected to the Dáil. They have stood in multiple constituencies, in multiple guises. They have never managed to get a single TD elected.
And if they couldn’t get one elected in 1992, they’re unlikely to get one elected in 2019.
So the success of Tóibín’s new party will depend on establishing a distinctive offering that does not rely only on the anti-abortion tag. Then he must build a local network – where pro-life organisations will offer a valuable infrastructure – and attract candidates who can win seats. All from a standing start, with no money. It’s a tall order.
He is, he says, talking to 23 elected politicians about joining the new party. Some in the Dáil, some councillors. Some are Independents, some Sinn Féin, some Fianna Fáil. He is coy about names – understandably – but expects announcements soon.
Yesterday the first of these arrived when Cavan councillor Sarah O’Reilly announced she was leaving Fianna Fáil to join the new party.
Writing in his memoir about the early days of the Progressive Democrats (PDs), Des O’Malley recalled being “amazed” at the turnout at public meetings, where thousands of people turned up to public meetings to hear his message of cutting taxes and reducing government spending, and implementing a liberal agenda on social issues.
The PDs flourished, at least for a time, and by changing Fianna Fáil in government, changed Irish politics and Irish society.
The experience of other new parties has been less successful. Renua flopped at the last general election and effectively disappeared from national politics. The Social Democrats went into the election with three seats and came out with three. They now have two. The next election is sink-or-swim time.
In 2011, a mooted new party led by several well-known journalists never got off the ground.
Money is a huge issue for a new party trying to construct a local and national infrastructure. Former PD general secretary Stephen O’Byrnes remembers “constant struggles” over finance in the early days. But even then, the PDs had early momentum – thousands at the public meetings, media interest, high-profile recruits, an impact in the opinion polls.
Tóibín doesn’t have that. Not yet, anyway. “I doubt if what we achieved in 1986 could be done today,” O’Malley has written.
Tóibín’s message is very different from that of the PDs. In some respects, it is almost the opposite. But in another sense, it is just as contrary to the conventional political wisdom as the PDs were in 1986. He has a base that is willing to listen to him. But listening is one thing; voting is another. Winning their votes will require hard work, money, candidates, time, space and luck.
Tóibín hopes that there is a place for a nationalist, left-wing, anti-abortion party. On Monday night, 300 people in Navan seemed to agree. But he knows they have a long, long way to go.