‘IN NO WAY WILL WE BE A ONE-IS­SUE PARTY’

For Peadar Tóibín’s new po­lit­i­cal party to have a chance, it must look be­yond just the abor­tion is­sue

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - NEWS REVIEW - Pat Leahy

Po­lit­i­cal Ed­i­tor

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 tra- di­tion, 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

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.

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”.

Re­jec­tion of amend­ments

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.

Con­cerns

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 poli- cies 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.

Re­stric­tive law

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.

Flopped

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 t wo. 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.

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

The suc­cess of Peadar Tóibín’s new party will de­pend on es­tab­lish­ing a dis­tinc­tive of­fer­ing that does not rely only on the anti-abor­tion tag. PHO­TO­GRAPH: TOM HONAN

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