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Peadar Tóibín: 'Some in Sinn Féin are hurt and angry and are not talking to me at all'

Tóibín talks about his new party, his hopes for the local and general elections and why some old colleagues are not on speaking terms with him.

Peadar Tóibín with Mary Lou McDonald.
Peadar Tóibín with Mary Lou McDonald.
Image: Laura Hutton/Photocall Ireland

IT’S ALMOST TWO months since Peadar Tóibín quit Sinn Féin and set out to establish his own political party. 

He’s managed to convince nine elected councillors to join him, with some leaving established parties such as Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin to do so.

Tóibin has held 11 public meetings, with 20 more to go, and says he has a 1,400-strong membership signed up.

In an interview with TheJournal.ie he says he is in talks with six Oireachtas members about joining, although he won’t name names. 

He hasn’t settled on a name yet, but the Meath TD said the party’s registration is currently being processed both north and south of the border. 

The wheels for the significant move were set in motion last year when Tóibín was suspended from Sinn Féin for six months because he voted against the abortion legislation in the Dáil. He later decided to leave the party. 

After being with the party for 21 years, he said he did so “with a heavy heart” but no sooner had he sent his resignation letter to Mary Lou McDonald, he was outside Leinster House telling reporters of his plans to travel around the country to find people with similar views to his own.

It’s no secret that McDonald and Tóibín had a fractured relationship in the run up the referendum. He was constantly airing his pro-life opinion, while the party was on an entirely different track, with the Ard Fheis voting in favour of repealing the Eighth Amendment from the Constitution. 

It didn’t help matters when Tóibín went head-to-head with Health Minister Simon Harris on RTE’s Prime Time debate. Not quite the image that Sinn Féin HQ wanted to put forward.  

Last year, the party voted to change its stance on the issue of abortion. 

Sinn Féin’s policy before the 2018 Ard Fheis had been in favour of abortion in cases of risk or in grave danger to the mother and in cases of rape or incest as well as in cases of fatal foetal abnormalities.

The party voted to expand its position allowing for abortion on request through a GP-led service for a limited gestational period.

Today, many of Tóibín’s old colleagues are still not talking to him, he said. 

I have a lot of regard for many elected reps north and south. There is a number of them in there that feel the same way I do around these topics, some may come with us, some may not. I wish them luck in their work.

Some individuals have been warm and friendly, and that is wonderful, there are some individuals who are hurt, in a big way, who are angry and who are not talking to me at all, and that is understandable too. This is the way these things happen. I felt I had no option but to leave the party.

“I dearly wanted to see if we could make the changes on this issue [abortion] and also other issues within the organisation. Nobody can say I didn’t try my damnedest but unfortunately I felt I was left with no option but to leave,” said Tóibín. 

Sinn Féin average industrial wage salary 

Before Christmas, Sinn Féin’s policy on its politicians taking the average industrial wage hit the headlines when the party leader told Newstalk that she takes home less than the average industrial wage, at just €24,000 after tax.

Her comments came after a number of Sinn Féin’s elected representatives had been found to be taking home significantly more than the average industrial wage they promised to take.

When asked about the issue, Tóibín said Sinn Féin is “getting tripped up left, right and centre” over the salary policy. 

“To be fair to Sinn Féin, I think their objectives in terms of salaries were done with the best reasons, but I think they are getting tripped up left, right and centre as a result of that,” he said.

File Photo Peadar Toibin intends to set uo a new political party. End Source: RollingNews.ie

Tóibin finds it interesting that TDs who decided to take the salary of the average industrial wage in order for them to understand the perspective of their constituents are being “hammered” by other TDs who are on the full wage “just because there might be a lack of uniformity in how that was applied”. 

Fine Gael TDs hate it 

“It is a big threat to TDs from the other parties – they hate to see TDs from other parties take the average industrial wage, because they get stopped in the street and asked why aren’t you doing it. I have been told by Fine Gael TDs that they hated the fact that we used to take the average industrial wage, it really used to annoy them.

“I think that is part of the reason that policy has been undermined in the public eye. But the public also want to make sure their TDs are telling them the truth and if they are saying they on the average industrial wage that they are on the average industrial wage,” he said.

What about his salary in his new party?

My own decision on this in the future is still to be decided. I am still paying people out of my own wage and I won’t be taking the full wage in the future, but I have to work out all the elements of what staff I will need in the future as well.

‘Two fingers’ to the grassroots

The day he resigned, while being reserved about criticising his former party, he hit out against Micheáł Martin and those at the helm of Fianna Fáil for giving the “two fingers” to their grassroot supporters.

He said he had received a lot of phone calls from members of Fianna Fáil who are “unhappy” with the party’s direction in terms of the abortion issue. So, it is no surprise that Tóibín states many Fianna Fáilers are turning up at his meetings. 

“We have nine elected reps declared for us, which puts us at about the same as the SocDems were on the go three years ago… we’ll probably be passing out the Green Party fairly shortly,” he said, adding that he is in talks with a further 30 elected reps. 

“I would say four are very close to making a decision,” he said, adding:  

People are coming to us from Sinn Féin, Fianna Fáil and SDLP backgrounds… though there are people coming from other political parties too, which is interesting. 

Sinn Fein call for job stimulus packages Sinn Fein's Pearse Doherty and Mary Lou McDonald with Peadar Tóibín. Source: Laura Hutton/Photocall Ireland

At a recent meeting, he claims a Fianna Fáil member said that while he wouldn’t join his party, he believed many of its members will find a happy home with Tóibín.

He criticises political parties, such as his former party and Fianna Fáil (which once approached Tóibín to join) for shifting power from the grassroots to centralised headquarters.

There is a massive shift towards the HQ. The fact that the Fianna Fáil leadership would completely disregard the membership – the membership voted… to maintain the Eighth [Amendment] and straight after that Billy Kelleher said, ‘Thanks for that but the parliamentary party will decide policy.’ For that to happen is just incredible.

His new party’s core objective will be to remove that centralised power from the upper echelons, which he believes does damage and isolates voters.

No matter what side of these kind of debates you are on, the fact that a third of the population is without political party representation currently is a negative for the democratic process in the country.

If you don’t allow those voices to be heard, then those voices will become frustrated, marginalised and will vote for people on the margins. It is important that people are able to have their voices heard.

Abortion

Tóibín claims his party will not be a one-issue one, just pinning its mandate on a pro-life agenda. However, he does state that his party will seek to reverse the abortion legislation which was enacted at the end of last year. 

Like any other, the Meath TD said his party will have a “raft” of other policies.

“Every other party will have a policy on abortion and so will we… Obviously we will have a radically different view than others, but anyone that tries to pigeonhole us as a one issue party would be disingenuous because we are a literally a mirror image of the other parties except we are on the other side of that debate.”

“In the future we would seek to have those amendments made to the legislation,” he said, adding that the Oireachtas Committee on abortion heard that socioeconomic reasons were the majority causes of abortions.

“Our view is let us as a country address those socioeconomic reasons so that no one is forced into making that decision. I do think the decisions made by this government under Harris and Varadkar leave so many women feeling that they don’t have a choice in terms of the economic situation they are in.

“We should be trying to find common ground between pro-life and pro-choice people. Let us tackle the socioeconomic reasons together,” he said. 

Who will join him?

So, does he see pro-lifers left in the cold by their respective political parties joining him?

The majority of those that want to join us will have a right to life view. There are people who are coming to our meetings that voted yes, but who feel the Bill that Harris and Varadkar passed was an extreme Bill and while they would have sought abortion to be available for issues of rape, incest and life limiting conditions. I think those people should have a place within our organisation and there will be freedom of conscience on the issue.

He added that he is “not seeking to dilute our objectives – we believe every human being should be protected by the State”.

However, Tóibín states that he doesn’t believe his party will run into the same problems as Sinn Féin where he explains “there were a lot of people with a pro-life view and then there was the flip of policies in completely the other direction in a short period of time… I think most people come on board will be looking to reverse the legislation as it stands”. 

Though the abortion issue is not something Tóibín wants heralded as his new party’s main attraction point, he acknowledges that many politicians are not feeling comfortable in the parties they are in due to the stance their parties took during the abortion referendum. 

Politicians in the wrong party 

“There are a lot of people in the wrong political party at the moment. There is a realignment happening in politics. A lot of people through bonds and friendship and through tradition and history, which are important of course, feel they are tied into their own political organisations currently. 

DdUDM5oX4AAu44d Source: @MaryButlerTD

“My instinct would be if you are gathering votes and working for a political organisation that is doing disharm or going in a different direction from you, you really need to be making the decision as to whether you are in the wrong political organisation for you and if so, I would suggest people make that decision in the new year to come with us.”

The local elections in May are the key focus. Tóibín hopes to have 20 elected councillors running, helping to build momentum for challenging for seats in the Dáil and Stormont. 

Despite Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil agreeing not to call an election until 2020, there is always a possibility. 

How many seats would Tóibín hope to take in the next general election? He’s keeping his cards close to his chest on that one. 

I am always very cautious about making predictions because they can bite you. I would like to see that we have a functional team in Leinster House after the next general election which allows us to convey our objectives with regards Irish unity, economic and social justice, and that means a number of TDs and senators and I think that is achievable.

“I am not going to put a number on it, that is tempting fate, but I have no doubt in my mind, this is not a normal time in Irish politics… There is a massive anger that has bubbled up for example with the evictions in Roscommon. I don’t think the establishment in Leinster House realise just how angry people are.”

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