Thursday 21 February 2019

Patricia Casey: 'Tóibín's conservative appeal gives new life to our politics'

Let the party begin: Peadar Tóibín enjoyed winning elections with former Sinn Féin colleagues but has launched his own party. Photo: Tom Burke
Let the party begin: Peadar Tóibín enjoyed winning elections with former Sinn Féin colleagues but has launched his own party. Photo: Tom Burke

Patricia Casey

AONTU (meaning unity or agreement) is the name of Ireland's newest political party. It has a tough road ahead, if history is anything judge by.

Clann na Poblachta was founded in 1946 by Nobel and Lenin Peace Prize winner Seán MacBride. It was a radical republican party that attracted disaffected urban voters who wished to move on from Civil War politics in step with others who wanted a more militant republican party than Fianna Fáil.

It won two seats in by-elections in 1947 and 10 seats in 1948. By 1951 it was reduced to two seats and in 1965 there was a single TD. In July 1965 the party dissolved itself.

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Then there was the Progressive Democrats founded in 1985 by Des O'Malley after some of its members had split from Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael because the traditional parties were not liberal enough on some issues. At one point it had 14 seats in the Dáil, eclipsing Labour as the third largest party in Ireland.

It was fiscally conservative but quickly became liberal on social issues, endearing itself to the media. This wind helped it punch above its weight while it was three times a partner in government. It helped shape the low-tax pro-business terrain of Ireland's economy, driving the Celtic Tiger and ultimately the recession that followed. It dissolved itself in 2009.

Our most recent model was/is Renua Ireland, or Reboot Ireland as it was fashionably called, and before that the Reform Alliance. It grew out of dissent on abortion in 2013 when several Fine Gael members were expelled from the party for their opposition to the legislation in 2013.

It developed from the top down, ie from a group of disaffected TDs and senators but the delay in establishing it as a ground-based party, some 18 months later, probably contributed to the loss of goodwill of disaffected pro-life voters who were desperately seeking representation.

Then Renua quickly declared it would have no position on abortion and brought on board several pro-choice members to write position papers.

Nobody was elected from the party in the subsequent election and while the current leader, John Leahy, has openly reversed the position on abortion to a pro-life one, this may have come too late.

History, it seems, is against Aontu's success. Peadar Tóibín, a former Sinn Féin TD who recently left the party because of its support for abortion, is its driving force. The integrity of Tóibín has won plaudits from commentators such as Ruth Dudley Edwards, who would not support his republican ideals.

Unlike Renua, Tóibín has not prevaricated in founding a new party and has struck while the iron is hot. The 33pc who voted against the removal of Article 4.3.3 from the Constitution felt bereft in the aftermath, devoid of any hope their voice would be represented in the corridors of Leinster House on this subject. That hope has now been restored.

Aontu is showing signs of a grassroots organisation, germinating from the bottom up, always the best approach. Numerous meetings north and south of the Border have taken place and more than 1,400 have signed up.

The reality there are vast numbers of hardened pro-life campaigners and canvassers in every town and village ready to swing into action must be influencing Tóibín. However, there is a danger their support may be contingent on him adhering to a predictable set of socially conservative policies.

On the other hand, no political party fully reflects the totality of the values of all its members; compromises are made and this is the reality of politics.

For Aontu, because it is new, the party leader must tread warily in this regard and not get sucked into untenable positions on political or culture war issues.

He may be too 'green' for some, too 'left' for others. So far he is performing very well articulating core values, one of which is the human right to be born. The over-arching theme "End the Group-think" will resonate with marginalised voters of all hues.

Group-think seems to be an Irish addiction rooted deeply in our national consciousness of subservience. There was the numbing conformity demanded by the Catholic Church in the 50s and 60s. Now there is the secular, over-bearing rigidity and conformity that pervades society, so pernicious that even Graham Linehan, a pro-choice activist, is regarded as too conservative and has been attacked over his views on childhood transgenderism.

When free-speech is stifled it will seek outlets elsewhere, usually in the outer margins of dissent or alternatively through new intellectual platforms. The latter is the reason for the enormous popularity of Jordan Peterson, who provides philosophical and psychological room for this debate.

Yet in our politically stultified country, there is now no possibility within the Oireachtas for the expression of views that until a few years ago were considered mainstream. All the parties spout the same verbiage whether it is on Brexit, transgenderism, the EU, the gender pay gap, "toxic" masculinity, etc. The newspapers (for the most part) and other media are silent or fully in lock step. Politically incorrect views are articulated at one's peril, as Linehan knows, or shut down.

The arrival of a moderate party willing to address the democratic deficit in free speech is likely to make waves. Aontu's position on abortion and the North will particularly resonate with hitherto Fianna Fáil voters, angry with the leadership's open disregard for their opinions.

Aontu will not have the blessing of our liberal media and other parties may attempt to undermine Tóibín come election time. But by responding to the "group think" that pervades our institutions he is on to something. And this "something" is big, potentially very big indeed.

Patricia Casey is Consultant Psychiatrist, Mater Hospital Dublin and Emeritus Professor of Psychiatry at UCD

Irish Independent

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