LE19: Will Aontú make a breakthrough in 2019?

One of the most interesting aspects of the local government elections next month will be to see if Aontú, the pro-Life Republican party set up by former Sinn Féin TD, Peadar Tóibín, can establish a foothold at local government level across Ireland.

The Meath-based TD was for long one of the most accomplished Sinn Féin media performers, regularly appearing on current affairs programmes in the South. However, his relationship with the party soured over his refusal to accept and adhere to party policy on the issue of abortion, ultimately leading to him leaving the party and setting up Aontú.

Tóibín has spent the last few months touring Ireland, holding public meetings across the 32 counties in an attempt to mobilise support for his new Republican political party. Along the way, he succeeded in convincing a number of current local government councillors to defect to his party across the country, including former SDLP councillor for Mid-Tyrone, Rosemary Shields, and Fergal Lennon, previously the Sinn Féin group leader on Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon council.

Aontú will be seeking to maximise support from the pro-Life constituency across the 26 Counties that was decisively defeated in the Repeal of the 8th Amendment referendum last May.

Whilst the scale of the defeat was rightly considered remarkable at the time, nevertheless one-third of voters did oppose Repeal. Given that the party stands alone as an all-Ireland republican party in unequivocally adopting an anti-abortion stance, it will be interesting to see if this gains any traction across the many rural constituencies, including those in Donegal, the only county to vote against the proposal.

The party has already multiple candidates in Dublin, Wicklow, Cork, Donegal, Mayo, Meath, Limerick and elsewhere, with the promise and ambition of securing many more in the weeks ahead.

But it is in the north that the party will face its first crucial electoral test, and here they have already announced 17 candidates for the 80 DEAs.

Without doubt the most significant endorsement for the party has come from the one-time prominent Sinn Féin husband and wife pairing of Anne and Francie Brolly, who are both set to face off against their one-time party colleagues in Sinn Féin in the Causeway Coast and Glens Council.

Francie Brolly has been selected to contest the Limavady DEA which has two solid nationalist quotas. His high profile and popularity makes him a strong contender, though it is most likely that an Aontú breakthrough here will come at the expense of the SDLP as opposed to Sinn Féin.

It is a similar story in Benbradagh, where Anne Brolly is set to challenge for Aontu. Again, it is quite likely that the SDLP seat will be under threat from the Aontu challenge as Sinn Féin are better positioned to consolidate their three seats and leave the battle for the final seat between Brolly, the SDLP and a second unionist candidate.

Anne McCloskey, the recently retired Shantallow-based GP, one-time Sinn Féin member and former Independent candidate for the Assembly, is also running on the party ticket in the strongly nationalist Ballyarnett DEA in Derry city, and must be considered as a contender for one of the six seats in a constituency which elected 3 Sinn Féin, 2 SDLP and 1 Independent candidate in 2014.

Gerry McHugh (Erne East) is the second former Sinn Féin MLA (alongside Francie Brolly) to announce his candidacy for Aontu. In a constituency in which Sinn Féin claimed 51% of the vote and narrowly missed claiming a fourth seat at the expense of the solitary SDLP candidate (who secured just 12.9% of the vote), it is likely that a breakthrough for McHugh would come at the expense of the SDLP as opposed to Sinn Féin who will in all likelihood still mount a strong challenge for a fourth seat.

The party has selected candidates in three of the DEAs for the Newry, Mourne and Down District Council, including Tracy Harkin in Slieve Croob.

Harkin is a prominent anti-abortion campaigner in the north, serving as the northern spokesperson for the Iona Institute. Her candidacy in the rural 5-seater constituency is an unknown factor in an area which elected 2 Sinn Féin, 1 SDLP, 1 Alliance and 1 DUP councillor in 2014.

In Downpatrick, Aontú are running Maccartan Digney, a local community worker with an SDLP background. This will be a fascinating contest as Downpatrick has for long been one of the strongest SDLP local government areas across the north of Ireland.

In 2014, the SDLP polled 50.9% of the vote in Downpatrick DEA, their highest share of the first preference vote for a single constituency, taking three of the five seats, with Sinn Féin and an Independent taking the other two seats.

Downpatrick is a key target for Sinn Féin too, confident on the back of the party’s strong Assembly showing in 2017 and subsequent Westminster triumph. Again, it is most likely that the SDLP will face an uphill struggle to fend off the challenges from a second Sinn Féin candidate and Digney, not least given that the Aontú candidate comes from an SDLP background.

A realistic target for Aontú would be to return between 5 and 8 seats, securing a foothold on three to five local government councils, providing a breadth of platforms from which to articulate the party’s position ahead of any subsequent Stormont elections (in the event of a return to devolution at some point).

Whilst party leader, Peadar Toibin, is keen to emphasise that Aontú has a range of policies and is not merely defined by the single issue of abortion, in reality it is that very issue which has succeeded in unifying party candidates who clearly have their roots in the different northern nationalist political parties.

As an aside, the formation of an all-Ireland Republican party avowedly anti-abortion should put an end to the albeit unfounded speculation that Catholics in some constituencies were voting DUP due to that party’s abortion stance.

Aontú’s greatest challenge will be to convince nationalists to shift from supporting Sinn Féin in the numbers that they did in the two elections of 2017. The electoral ground within nationalism was more fertile for challengers even just three years ago, when such a party might have been able to channel a rural protest vote akin to the People Before Profit performance in west Belfast.

The emergence of a second all-Ireland Republican party, at the same time as the SDLP-Fianna Fáil flirtation continues and a former SDLP leader raps doors across Dublin seeking votes under a Fine Gael banner, underlines the shift within Nationalist Ireland towards thinking 32. A successful electoral outing for Aontu could have the unintended effect of accelerating moves to greater unity between the SDLP and Fianna Fáil or, alternatively, could signal the partnership’s demise. Far from posing a direct challenge to Sinn Féin today, it is more likely that Aontú gains will come at the expense of the SDLP at a time when the latter party is fighting for its very survival as a distinct entity.