A new political force is emerging in Northern Ireland. Seeking to fill a space left by the shifting political currents of the post-Good Friday Agreement settlement, the new Aontú party is hoping to give voice to a conservative subsection of nationalists largely forgotten by mainstream nationalism.
Aontú was founded by Peadar Tóibín TD in January 2019 after he was suspended from Sinn Féin for defying the party whip to vote against the abortion referendum. The party is unique in that it adheres to traditional republican ideals, but also has a decidedly conservative social outlook. Its distinguishing mark is its staunch opposition to abortion, but it has also struck out against Ireland’s immigration policies.
A quick glance might suggest a reactionary party unable to cope with losing a democratic vote, but a closer examination reveals that Aontú is tapping into a sense of abandonment that was invigorated by abortion, but is actually the byproduct of a political mainstream that has shaped a new society in which many voters feel they do not belong. Aontú is deliberately focusing its political energies on courting those voters.
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It wasn’t always this way. When modern Sinn Féin emerged in the early 1970s, its outlook was socially conservative and its composition almost totally male, but its resolute commitment to the question of national sovereignty transcended ideological bounds and was the glue that allowed it to incorporate a broad range of political interests inside a single entity.
Beginning in the early 1980s, Sinn Féin moved further to the left and adopted progressive policy stances separate from national sovereignty. Its purpose was to build a broader national movement that included middle-class Catholics and could challenge the supremacy of the SDLP. It also badly needed to diversify its republican message so as to ensure its own survival in the event of Irish unification. The 1990s peace process accelerated these changes.
Naturally, Sinn Féin’s shift to the left has disillusioned conservative nationalists who have gradually abandoned the party over the past two decades.
The natural flow of party politics in a properly functioning pluralistic democracy would see those voters simply shift their support to a party that better represented their interests. That was the case among white working-class voters in the United States in the 1980s who, after decades of supporting the New Deal Democrats, shifted their allegiances en masse to the Reaganite Republicans as the former became more closely associated with identity politics.
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But the rigidity of Northern Ireland’s political system prevents that from happening. At the fundamental level, national identity remains the ideological default. Conservative nationalists might feel cold towards Sinn Féin, but they are still nationalists and that fact alone prevents them from ever supporting the right-wing Democratic Unionist Party. 28 percent of Catholics now say they don’t support any party, an increase of 17 points since 1998. Most of those voters simply choose to stay home on election day, leaving an entire subsection of the population unrepresented and voiceless.
In the two decades since the Good Friday Agreement, this problem has gradually worsened as the political gulf widened. It mostly went unnoticed until last year, when the highly-charged abortion referendum forced a reckoning, making it plain to conservatives across the island that the country was moving in a direction they did not support and could not influence. This was the breaking point that spurred the formation of Aontú and energized the grassroots behind it.
A solid quarter of northern Catholics consistently oppose abortion in all cases, and this is the base on which Aontú is building its movement. The national media is keeping its distance, but local media outlets report that the party has hosted 49 public meetings for over 5,000 attendees, and has established 65 cumainn (local party branches) nationwide. “By any standards, this is a phenomenal grassroots development,” Tóibín beams.
Although Aontú is organizing on an all-island basis, it is primarily directing its energies to the North. Out of 65 candidates slated to stand for local elections in May, 20 of those will contest seats north of the border. Those figures are dwarfed by those of Sinn Féin, but their presence is nonetheless significant because it will be the first time since the 1980s that voters will have the option to choose conservative nationalists as their representatives on a wide scale.
It is difficult to predict the outcome of a future election, but it is clear that there is a genuine appetite for a conservative brand of Irish nationalism in Northern Ireland, and in an era in which progressive nationalism has become the dominant form of political expression among Catholics, a strong performance by Aontú next month might cause a sufficient enough cleavage to redefine the political landscape.
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