New parties have not fared well in Ireland historically. All of the leading parties were established by 1933, and the impact of newcomers has tended to be slight and short-lasting.
Contrast this with France, where the En Marche movement captured the presidency and won an outright majority in parliament within 18 months of its foundation.
Such a dramatic re-shaping of Irish politics is hard to imagine, but not impossible.
After being frozen out of Sinn Féin for opposing legislation permitting the killing of unborn children, the Meath West TD Deputy Peadar Tóibín is seeking to build a new movement.
No name has been chosen, but the key points are clear. Tóibín’s party will be:
- Republican in nature, and all-Ireland in its spread.
- Opposed to a federal Europe or greater militarism.
- Centre-left on economic policy.
- Opposed to the ‘city-state’ development model which has seen Dublin grow inexorably while the countryside lags behind.
He has embarked on a nationwide series of meetings to spread the word.
Is there a base of voters there to be won over?
Reasons for optimism
A new movement with no existing support base or funding needs a charismatic and compelling leader to unite around, and there is no doubt that Tóibín has these qualities in spades.
Always impressive in debates, Tóibín is intelligent has full command of the facts underpinning his arguments. But it is his earnestness that sets him apart.
Irish politics is filled with empty vessels: men and women who entered office with no solid political beliefs and who have no intention of acquiring any principles while they are there.
This is not who Peadar Tóibín is or how he behaves.
He could easily have chosen to compromise his beliefs in order to achieve advancement, but he did not. Unlike so many others, there are lines which this politician will not cross.
“It is not the end of the world if I lose my job, but if abortion comes in for the child, it is the end of the world. One child’s life is more important than my job, and every TD’s job,” he says.
He could easily have left the party at any stage over the last five years as he grew steadily aware of his position in a dwindling minority within the party, but he did not. Instead, he remained within Sinn Féin, patiently making the case that those who shared his values should be allowed to be part of a broad movement working towards Irish unity.
Now, after 18 months of being systematically marginalised and censored by his party’s leadership, Tóibín has finally been forced out along with the Offaly TD Carol Nolan.
The mere fact that he endured such treatment for so long attests to the decency of a man who resolves to see the good in others, no matter what. He is that rarity of rarities among Irish politicians: a good man.
Some days ago, Carol Nolan rose to speak in the Dáil in support of the right-to-life, having just endured a tirade of abuse from Sinn Féin’s leading abortion advocate, Louise O’Reilly.
“I have conscientious objection,” she said, speaking with great difficulty, before becoming upset. At the moment of her greatest vulnerability, Tóibín reached over to comfort her, at which point his colleague recovered her voice, and spoke once more in defense of her honour and reputation.
Many traditionally-minded voters throughout the country wonder what made such a manifestly decent human being join Sinn Féin in the first instance.
The answer is simple: Peadar Tóibín is an Irish Republican.
To most people in politics today, the word ‘republican’ means little. To him, it means everything.
Born in 1974, he grew up during the Troubles.
For a young man in Meath, this was not a distant conflict. Within an hour’s drive of his home, the young Peadar would have been able to see first-hand the watchtowers and helicopters of a colonial power, one which was occupying part of his homeland.
This cannot but have had an effect on him. Crucially however, Tóibín joined Sinn Féin in 1997, after the IRA’s ceasefire and at a time when the republican movement was committing itself to pursuing a United Ireland through peaceful means alone.
Coupled with his desire to see his country made whole again is his obvious attachment to our ancestral language.
Mary Lou McDonald and Michelle O’Neill profess to care about Irish, and are happy to keep Stormont in abeyance over a dispute about its legal status, but neither can string more than a few words together.
Tóibín, unsurprisingly, speaks the language proudly and fluently.
Like all patriots, he appears motivated not by hatred but by love. Love for his country, its culture, its history and its people.
This will surely be an asset in the coming months.
The wedge issue of abortion also presents Tóibín with a natural base of over 700,000 voters scattered all across the country. True, they are greatly outnumbered by those who support abortion rights, but this voting bloc contains within it a large and highly-dedicated activist base who can and will campaign for a real alternative.
The strategy of Micheál Martin and his henchmen to move Fianna Fáil to the left of Fine Gael has alienated broad swathes of traditional FF voters, who could now be tempted to switch their support to Tóibín’s party.
Importantly, Tóibín is said to come from a Fianna Fáil background originally. Many of their voters would feel very comfortable voting for a moderate republican who is closer to their overall worldview than their current party leader is.
That brings us to the ideological issue here, which is crucial and deserving of attention.
Some political observers might question whether a party could ever succeed while being both pro-life and left-wing.
Yes, it can.
Ireland is not America. Whereas in the States, social conservatives long ago united with tax-cutters and small-government types to build a successful political coalition, there is no prospect of a similar alignment occurring here.
A majority of those who voted No to abortion would not necessarily identify themselves as right-wing on economic issues.
Pro-life voters tend to be older and based in the countryside. Their main concerns are bread-and-butter issues such as healthcare and pensions, and there is every reason to believe that they could be tempted to vote for a new alternative provided that party put forwarded credible policies to improve service delivery.
On this point, the case of Renua Ireland’s failure to make any inroads before the 2016 General Election is illustrative.
Renua came into being due to the pro-life stance of Lucinda Creighton and its other leading figures, but a decision was taken to downplay the appeal to social conservatives while emphasising the flat tax and other free-market policies. It did not work because the target voters simply were not attracted by this offering.
In fact, a political pitch incorporating pro-life values and strong public services is likely to attract far more voters, particularly disgruntled Fianna Fáil voters.
It also helps greatly that Tóibín is far from an ideologue on economic matters. Unusually for someone on the Left, his academic background includes an undergraduate degree in economics from UCD and a postgraduate degree in enterprise from the Smurfit School of Business. After college, he worked as a management consultant.
Another advantage which Tóibín enjoys and which Renua did not relates to geography. He has firmer roots in his Meath West constituency than Creighton could ever have established in the transient Dublin Bay South constituency which she represented up until 2016.
Potential recruits for a new party include Laois-Offaly’s Carol Nolan, not to mention like-minded rural conservatives such as Mattie McGrath or Michael Collins, who are in similar situations.
Like Renua pre-2016, a new pro-life party is unlikely to gain real ground in Dublin. Unlike Renua, they won’t have to in order to succeed.
Reasons for pessimism, and the road to growth
While there are many reasons to be optimistic, it remains the case that a steep, uphill mountain will have to be climbed if Peadar Tóibín’s new movement is to succeed where so many others have failed.
The Irish people, while often disillusioned with the existing political choices before them, are notoriously intransigent when it comes time to vote. While many Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil will decry what has been done in their name, on election day, they are likely going to vote for the same local candidates they supported in the past.
Just as importantly, this new party will have to fight elections with very little funding, while competing with cash-rich rivals.
In the area of funding, our political system is a closed-shop: an utterly rigged system designed to perpetuate the stranglehold of the status quo.
Last year, €7.63 million of taxpayer money was divvied up between the Dáil parties based on their performance in the previous election..
Peadar Tóibín’s new party, in contrast, will receive no funding at all.
But it can still succeed if its leader can transcend traditional party divisions and tap into the growing well of discontent which exists in this state.
Irish politics has rarely if ever been in a worse condition, but Peadar Tóibín still bears witness to the fact that good people still continue to fight for what is right.
Those who wish to see Irish politics changed for the better cannot but wish him good luck, and godspeed.