When citizens of the Irish Republic go to the polls today, they will have the privilege of being able to vote for a pro-life party. Aontú, which means “unity” and is pronounced “ain two”, was formed by Peadar Tóibín, a former Sinn Féin TD (Member of Parliament) from County Meath who quit the party after he was suspended for opposing its whip on the Health (Regulation of Termination of Pregnancy) Act 2018.
Addressing an audience at the launch of Aontú’s local election manifesto last week, he noted that Sinn Féin had become so pro-abortion its leadership had travelled to Westminster to beg the British Government to introduce abortion on demand in Ulster, an unprecedented moment in the history of the Republican movement.
“For 200 years, Irish Republicans have been going to London and telling London to stop legislating for Ireland,” he said.
Tóibín is positioning the party as the only authentically pro-life, left-leaning Republican alternative to Sinn Féin and, in the North, to the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP). But given that the party was founded in mid-November, and is therefore barely six months old, there has been much speculation about whether it will survive.
Initial signs were promising and involved, for instance, a rash of defections from mainstream parties of politicians complaining of disenchantment over a lack of choice in the policies of the big parties of the South, all of which appear bent on turning Ireland into an EU country as “progressive” as, say, Belgium. Aontú offers something different by promising to “break the groupthink” of liberal political and media elites dominating Irish life.
As a Republican party, it is intent on creating a united Ireland but is opposed to foreign rule generally and is surprisingly Eurosceptic, asserting that “when decisions are made in London, Brussels and Berlin they are not made in Ireland’s interest”.
Most significant, however, is the party’s claim to be 100 per cent pro-life. It will campaign against the extension of legal abortion to Northern Ireland, where Catholics previously had to vote for unionist parties like the DUP if they wanted to use the ballot box to protect unborn children.
In the Republic, Aontú will seek to curb the worst excesses of newly introduced legislation on abortion. For example, it will guarantee the full right of conscientious objection denied by the laws to medical professionals. It would prohibit abortions on grounds of gender and disability, and make abortion practice fully transparent through meticulous record-keeping. It would seek legal protection of babies who survived botched abortions, and ensure that women contemplating abortions are shown ultrasound scans of their babies before they take a final decision.
The first real test for the new party at the polls came in early May when the Northern Ireland electorate took part in UK-wide local elections. Aontú went into the elections fielding two councillors who had defected from Sinn Féin and who each lost their seats, while 14 other Aontú candidates failed to be elected.
Dr Anne McCloskey was the first and only councillor to be elected for Aontú when she took the Ballyarnett ward of Derry City and Strabane District Council. “All my life I have been Republican, of the left, a feminist and an advocate for the rights of the marginalised,” she said. “I’m proud to be pro-life, and regard it as a logical extension of all of these other beliefs.”
Unlike in the rest of the UK, the Northern Irish electorate showed little appetite for punishing the established parties over Brexit, and Aontú made scant headway in attempting to take large numbers of votes from Sinn Féin and the SDLP.
Yet Tóibín insists that although his party is still “operating on fresh air” it is nevertheless starting to make an impression. Moreover, instead of being disheartened by the results of the local elections in the North, he points out that his fledgling party took about seven per cent of the vote in the constituencies it fought.
Things might work out differently in the Republic where Aontú is the only pro-life party and where about a third of the electorate voted against abortion in the referendum. Discontent might be fuelled by a threefold increase in the numbers of Irish women seeking abortions within the last year.
Tóibín is also sanguine because he says that Aontú is witnessing “phenomenal growth” as the pro-life supporters of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael jump ship.
Aontú has five councillors in the Republic following defections from mainstream parties and overall it will field 53 candidates, even though overall more than 900 seats will be contested.
Yet it remains difficult to predict just what will happen. Aontú may well grow and make an impact on Irish politics. On the other hand, shattering tribal loyalties might be too much of a challenge and the party could be destined for the fringes of political life – or be obliterated entirely.
One thing is certain: there will be many Catholics in Ireland grateful to Aontú for giving them the chance to vote for a party that fully represents their pro-life views. Others across the world will be looking on with envy.
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