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Newton Emerson: Former Sinn Féin TD Peadar Tóibín seems to be finding a niche

An implausible bolt from the blue, former Sinn Féin TD seems to be finding own niche

Peadar Tóibín's as-yet unnamed political party is suddenly filling a gap that should belong to the SDLP-Fianna Fáil merger.

It is fair to say this development is unexpected.

Fianna Fáil and the SDLP have been discussing a link-up for over 15 years. As far back as 2014, they announced this year's May 2nd council elections in Northern Ireland as the launch target.

Both parties were formidable machines at the start of their courtship and Fianna Fáil certainly remains so.


Yet all they have produced so far is waffle, splits and an accelerating perception of farce.

Tóibín left Sinn Féin over abortion but so have a number of northern representatives in recent years and this has only proved a path to obscurity

To have their space taken by Tóibín, a Meath West TD who only quit Sinn Féin two months ago, is an implausible bolt from the blue.

Striking out on your own to set up a rival party is a unionist tradition in Northern Ireland, with scores of examples that have all ended in tears.

This path from pride to fall is so well worn that people struggle to see a one-man band in any other light.

Nationalist and republican parties tend to form around ideas rather than individuals, even where monstrous egos are involved.

Avoiding pitfalls

Tóibín left Sinn Féin over abortion but so have a number of northern representatives in recent years and this has only proved a path to obscurity.

No single issue, however emotive, can override the constitutional question in Northern Ireland to an extent that might split a community bloc and sustain a serious new party.

Tóibín appears to be avoiding these pitfalls, sending surprisingly broad signals of tone and direction. Last weekend, he announced the SDLP Omagh councillor, Rosemarie Shields as his first elected northern defector.

Worse than stealing the SDLP and Fianna Fáil's clothes, this held an unmistakable mirror up to last November's fiasco, when Fianna Fáil TD Éamon Ó Cuív and Senator Mark Daly tried to bounce the merger in a more republican direction, by announcing a former Sinn Féin Omagh independent councillor as their party's first northern candidate.

Both men were subsequently disciplined and the councillor has not been mentioned since.

Tóibín has the republican angle covered already, of course, and not just as an ex-Sinn Féin TD. Martin McGuinness’s brother Declan announced he was supporting Tóibín’s movement at the outset and will consider standing as a candidate, which should help to neutralise any antagonism from Sinn Féin voters, especially in the North. If converts cannot be made there are still transfers to be had in council and assembly elections.

An all-island affair

Tóibín has previously announced he will run dozens of candidates in the May 24th council elections in the Republic, presenting his first electoral campaign as an all-Ireland affair and so stealing another march on the SDLP-Fianna Fáil merger.

His first southern elected defector was a Fianna Fáil councillor in Cavan.

Last weekend, Tóibín claimed he would run 10 to 15 candidates in the North, including six or seven defecting councillors from Sinn Féin and the SDLP.

Last weekend also saw the new party hold its first executive meeting and begin accepting membership applications, with 1,400 apparently received within days.

Tóibín explained a name has yet to be unveiled to ensure no problems with electoral registration and internet domains – tasks that have tripped up more experienced organisations.

In an intriguing interview with this Tuesday's News Letter, the Meath West TD said that at a public meeting he held in Maghera, Co Derry, last month, "there was just astonishment that both Sinn Féin and the DUP have been allowed to put the Good Friday Agreement into cold storage for two years . . . while people are suffering food, housing and heating poverty".

He implied the agreement should be recast to take account of Brexit and prevent the two-party carve-up that emerged after its last reworking at St Andrews in 2006.

Then Tóibín dropped his own bombshell, saying that while his party will be “100 per cent pro-life” it is discussing free votes on a range of abortion issues.

Taken together this positions it in a new space in northern nationalist politics, roughly between the SDLP and Sinn Féin on devolution and to the left of both parties on economics.

Tóibín says his supporters have lost faith in Sinn Féin and the SDLP because they have drifted to the right.

This position looks odd at first because it is socially conservative and fiscally liberal – the opposite of what is generally assumed to be mainstream public opinion.

Considering how many people seem alienated from mainstream politics that could be a space worth developing. Tóibín’s Stormont stance indicates he will do so responsibly and his free vote comment on abortion shows he does not intend to head off down a religious cul-de-sac.

Perhaps it will still all be over as quickly as one of unionism’s tiny start-ups, several of which showed comparable early promise.

But for now it is the comparison with Fianna Fáil and the SDLP that is striking. Tóibín looks streets ahead.