Sinn Fein has helped a unionist farmer who opposes the party’s main Brexit policy get elected to the Dublin parliament’s upper chamber, the Seanad.
On Wednesday, in a further attempt to “reach out” to unionists in the north of Ireland, party leader Mary Lou McDonald announced her party was backing prominent unionist Ian Marshall in this week’s byelection to the Seanad.
He was approached to run for one of two vacant seats on the Seanad’s agriculture panel by Fine Gael leader Leo Varadkar and will sit as an independent. Marshall subsequently won the byelection, in which only members of the Dublin parliament could vote.
Another Fine Gael candidate also took a seat with the support of Sinn Fein, for reasons the party did not explain. They were understood to be aimed at preventing the return to Donegal politics of Fianna Fail candidate Niall Blaney.
Mr Marshall, a former president of the Ulster Farmers’ Union, has adopted controversial stances in recent years. He has defended Stormont’s notorious renewable energy (RHI) scheme, which benefited many unionist farmers, including Mr Marshall himself. He also vowed to use his seat in the Dublin parliament to oppose special status for the North of Ireland after Brexit, which is a key policy goal for Sinn Fein. He is pro-choice on the abortion issue.
In a statement, Ms McDonald explained her party’s support for Marshall’s candidacy was on the basis of his general opposition to Brexit and that he could provide a “unionist perspective”.
“I have met with Ian on a number of occasions in recent weeks and I have been impressed by his views on Brexit and the potential impact Brexit will have on the island, north and south,” she said.
“I believe Ian will be a strong independent voice in the Seanad; providing an anti-Brexit unionist perspective, which is a welcome addition to the political discourse surrounding the issue in the Oireachtas. Brexit affects people from all backgrounds and ways of life; nationalist, unionists and everyone in between.
“From his time as a farmer, as president of the Ulster Farmers’ Union, and his current position at Queen’s University, Ian is particularly qualified and experienced to advocate on behalf of farmers and the agri-sector; which faces massive challenges in the time ahead.
“Ian is a unionist. I am an Irish republican. As I have stated repeatedly, the Ireland I want to see is one where one can comfortably be Irish or British, both or neither. I believe Ian can bring a new and interesting voice to the discussion surrounding a new Ireland.”
From Markethill in County Armagh, Mr Marshall describes himself as a “pragmatic” unionist.
He says he is willing to listen to economic arguments in favour of a united Ireland, but does not believe the case for reunification is a compelling one.
He said the idea of taking a seat in the Seanad was something he had never envisaged.
“It actually came about by virtue of a conversation and call from [Leo Varadkar],” he said. “It was something I had never anticipated so to the Taoiseach I am hugely grateful for the opportunity.”
Mr Marshall said he had serious fears for the economy over Brexit but he said he was not convinced that it would happen. He also insisted the underlying principle of special status - that the North of Ireland would be treated differently from Britain - is “not palatable”.
“As a unionist, you couldn’t be comfortable with that,” he said, adding that he would vote against it if it came before the Seanad.