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Do Peadar Tóibín and Aontú have their finger on the public pulse?

The conservative one-TD party is riding high after being the only party to call for no-no votes in the family and care referendums so disastrously lost by the Government parties in March

Despite Peadar Tóibín’s determined effort at party-building, there is a sense of personality cult in the room.

Five years after he launched Aontú – and heading into his second campaign for local elections, falling on June 7th – Tóibín, the Meath West TD, stands to address a captive gathering of members and curious voters at a sports club in west Dublin.

The best way to reach the backroom policymakers and disrupt establishment groupthink, he tells the crowd of about 50 at the Castleknock Lawn Tennis Club, is to get votes.

“And that means bigger cumainn, more activists, more canvassing, more leafleting,” he says, beating the drum of grassroots machine-building.


There are murmurs of agreement, clear deference to the party leader’s views on virtually anything. All eyes are firmly on him, less so the three local and European candidates surrounding the small function-room table.

Tóibín is riding a wave in the aftermath of the disastrous Government referendums and the no-no votes he had endorsed. His was the only party to campaign for a no-no vote in the family and care referendums that were resoundingly beaten in a humiliating defeat for the Government Coalition of Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and the Greens.

In the weeks since, his party claims to have attracted about 400 new members, almost a quarter of its total.

‘I think people will soon find out in actual reality that we have built a significant depth of competency and capacity within the organisation to go further, to win seats’

—  Peadar Tóibín

“They are looking for an alternative and somebody who is decent and honest. Who doesn’t get into politics just to get attention,” says Anne O’Connell, party member and a one-time Fine Gael voter.

“The referendum[s] really proved that to us... he was the only one who stood against it. And good always wins out in the end.”

Tóibín, a former Sinn Féin TD, is confident his brand of politics, the bedrock of Aontú, will have had enough time since the party’s formation to define and familiarise local candidates, attracting more votes and winning seats.

“It may seem to [those] outside that this is a slim organisation hanging on the shoulders of Peadar Tóibín,” he told The Irish Times ahead of his party’s ardfheis in Maynooth on Saturday.

“[But] I think people will soon find out in actual reality that we have built a significant depth of competency and capacity within the organisation to go further, to win seats.”

Aontú was born of the 2018 abortion referendum that cleaved Tóibín from Sinn Féin. He had been a high-profile TD within the party, displaying the same conviction and oratory skills that seems to capture his audience in Castleknock on Tuesday night.

Aontú frames itself as presenting a ‘common sense’ approach to issues, a way of bursting the establishment ‘bubble’ that has come to dominate Government and civil society (NGO) policy-thinking, as well as the media

In early 2019 the party unveiled some 65 candidates, about the same number it is running the upcoming elections. Now, though, it hopes it has firmer roots in a community weary of Government approaches to various issues such as the management of the Covid-19 pandemic, the abortion referendum, housing, immigration, EU relations and the debate – or lack thereof, as Aontú would argue – around gender identity.

Aontú frames itself as presenting a “common sense” approach to issues, a way of bursting the establishment “bubble” that has come to dominate Government and civil society (NGO) policy-thinking, as well as the media.

“It’s taken me a while to decide for myself what the appeal is. But, for sure, it is because he listens, and it is because there is dialogue and it is because we can talk [about issues],” says Kathleen Henderson, a former Fianna Fáil supporter, at Tuesday’s meeting, one of three Tóibín is attending every week around the country.

Like others at the meeting, Henderson responds to questions on her party with answers about her party leader.

“Peadar was with Sinn Féin... The polls will say Sinn Féin is popular. But [for] the people on the ground and people having discussions at the supermarket [and] the Chinese takeaway, they’re not popular,” said one attendee at Tuesday’s meeting who asked not to be named.

“People are just not interested in empty promises any more; they actually want a problem solved.”

Tóibín’s candidates present themselves as average community members, activists in tune with things.

At the tennis club, Gerard Sheehan, the candidate for the Ongar area in the elections to Fingal County Council, draws playful boos and enthusiastic applause with a pre-crafted soundbite swipe at the Green Party.

“I have planted more trees than any of them,” he said.

“But the Green Party are worried about the end of the world; I am worried about the end of the month.”

When it comes to his turn, Tóibín talks for 38 minutes, firing salvos at Government policy and establishment-thinking. A flurry of statistics – Aontú promotes a research-led policy approach – helps drive home his critiques of the M50 toll system, ambulances “snarled up” at emergency departments and boarded-up council homes among a long list of gripes.

Irish Times polling last February found housing and immigration to be the chief issues attracting public attention. Aontú's party support was unchanged at 1 per cent, demonstrating just how far it must travel to grow in electoral terms.

The party has just four elected representatives, including Tóibín; the other three are councillors in Wexford, Cavan and Meath. Tóibín avoids predicting how many seats the party will win in the June local and European elections, but he said the party should compete strongly in about two dozen council areas and one European constituency – Midlands North West – where he is running for one of four seats.

Can Tóibín’s appeal – or the appeal of Ireland’s self-professed “fastest growing political movement” – push the number of the party’s elected representatives out of low single digits at the ballots in June?

“Well, we don’t know is the answer,” says Kathleen Henderson of Tóibín’s ability to increase the party’s popularity. “But you know what my opinion is about backing the right horse? There is no other horse in the race. What other horse have I got?”