The only way the Sinn Féin leadership would shift its position on abortion was through a threat to its vote, Meath TD Peadar Tóibín told a meeting in Maghera, Co Derry on Thursday night.
Mr Tóibín said that the new party that he is leading will stand candidates in next May’s local government elections in Northern Ireland and would campaign on many issues other than abortion.
He told more than 100 people who attended the event in Walsh’s Hotel that Sinn Féin tended to respond when there was a “political threat to their flank”. He said, however, that any shift in current attitude in the South would be “incrementalist”.
He urged supporters of the new and as-yet-unnamed republican party – “that is work in progress” – to get involved, and stressed the importance of organisation at grassroots level in order to grow and develop. He said the local elections in May “will be the foundation of our growth in the future”.
He described the party as “left economically, republican and pro-life”. He said it would be involved in bread-and-butter issues and was in the process of developing a “leadership, structure, and policy that was rock solid”.
“There is an avalanche of support coming in our direction. This is a movement that is starting to happen. There is real momentum starting to happen in this organisation,” he added.
Among those at the meeting was former Sinn Féin Assembly member Francie Brolly and his wife Anne, a former mayor of Limavady in Co Derry, and former Sinn Féin councillor in Ballymena, Co Antrim, Monica Digney.
Also in attendance was former Sinn Féin supporter Dr Anne McCloskey from Derry and Declan McGuinness, also from Derry, who is a brother of the late Sinn Féin deputy first minister Martin McGuinness.
“I am here because I am pro-life. The first human right is the right to life and it trumps all other rights,” said Mr McGuinness.
Mr Tóibín spoke for an hour, after which he took questions from the audience. Former IRA prisoner Gerry McGeough said he thanked God there was partition because the North “was the only part of the country that kept the faith” in opposing abortion.
While abortion legislation has been liberalised in the Republic, it is only permitted in the North when there is a threat to the life of the woman or a risk of a serious and adverse effect on her physical or mental health.
One young woman spoke emotionally of how she was Catholic and republican and felt the only party she could support was the DUP. She said she felt “ashamed” when the Republic voted yes in the abortion referendum.
Mr Tóibín said it broke his heart to have to leave Sinn Féin but his opposition to abortion was a “defining view” and was part of his “DNA” and “part of who you are as a person”.
He said every “unborn child is an individual human being” and quoted James Connolly to say a “measure of society was how it treats those who are weakest in society”.
He spoke of an internal “dissonance” of trying to pursue Sinn Féin goals but being opposed to a fundamental policy that he could not live with.
Mr Tóibín said he wanted the new party to be of “the 1798 type, fully open to Catholic, Protestant and dissenter”, and he also wanted to create a “pluralist republic”.
“The North was described as a cold house for Catholics and in truth the South is becoming a cold house for Catholics at the moment. They are fearful of expressing their cultural and religious adherence and that is not the type of secular state I want,” he said.
He complained of a general “groupthink” in politics and the media and a “herd mentality” where party managers were “herding members around telling them what to do”, and where some members were keeping an “eye on the leader so they can climb the greasy pole”.
Mr Tóibín said Sinn Féin was “far too rigid” in how the party was run. “In my view you need to create a grassroots activist base around the country where the leadership is a little bit afraid if they don’t do as they are told by grassroots,” he said. There must be “freedom of conscience”, he added.