Publication: Belfast Telegraph
Date: 27 July 2021
Author: Suzanne Breen
New recruit: Ulster Unionist leader Doug Beattie (left) with Ian Marshall in Co Armagh yesterday. Credit: Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye
A former Irish senator has joined the UUP and pledged to help it win support among voters “turned off by the big egos and loud voices” often prominent in unionism.
Ian Marshall, who was the first unionist elected to the Irish Parliament’s upper house, where he sat as an independent, said he’d been convinced to enter party politics by Doug Beattie’s vision and leadership.
Mr Marshall, a former president of the Ulster Farmers’ Union, is expected to run as a UUP candidate in next May’s Assembly election.
“I never wanted to join a political party until now,” he said. “Doug offers a new, revitalised, positive and progressive unionism. He approached me several months ago, and everything he said chimed with my own beliefs.
“The UUP is becoming much more inclusive and diverse than perhaps it was a few years ago. I’m delighted to be joining a party which boasts such quality recent recruits as Julie-Anne Corr Johnston in North Belfast and Ryan McCready in Foyle.”
Mr Beattie said: “Ian Marshall is an impressive individual and I am delighted he has decided to join the UUP. He brings a wealth of experience from running a farm, heading up the Ulster Farmers’ Union and from his time in the Irish Seanad.
"As a senator, he ensured the voice of Northern Irish unionism was heard, and he tempered those who did not understand unionism. It took real moral courage to be a lone unionist voice, but he did so because he believed it was the right thing to do.
"Ian will now bring his vast experience to the party and, in coming weeks and months, I will look to see where he can be deployed best to advance our vision of a union of people throughout Northern Ireland.”
Mr Marshall was nominated by the then Taoiseach Leo Varadkar to run in a Senate by-election in 2018. He secured cross-party support and sat in the chamber for two years.
He was then overlooked by Micheal Martin, who didn’t put him forward as one of his 11 nominees when he became Taoiseach in 2020.
Mr Marshall unsuccessfully ran in a Senate by-election in April. He was not supported by any of the three government parties, but was backed by Sinn Fein, who said it was important to have a unionist voice in the Oireachtas.
The former senator said he relished the challenge of becoming involved in Northern Ireland politics: “I believe that under Doug’s leadership, the UUP can deliver change.
“I hope that I can help in reaching out to people who have been turned off by the big egos and loud voices which have for too long tended to dominate unionism. A moderate, considerate position is needed now more than ever as Brexit and Covid impact on people’s lives.
“It’s essential we move from identity politics to focus on things that are a priority for most people — the economy, jobs, healthcare, housing and building good relationships across this island and between our two islands.”
Mr Marshall is tipped to stand in the next Assembly election, but he would not be drawn on the speculation. “If I was asked to run, I would give it serious consideration,” he said.
The UUP’s latest recruit said he was not interested in “green or orange politics, but politics for the greater good”. He had “no problem whatsoever” with an Irish Language Act.
“I had to vote in Irish for two years in the Oireachtas and that presented no difficulties for me. I am strong in my unionism, and the Irish language is no threat to it,” he said.
“There are seven Gaeltacht regions in the Republic. The names of our townlands across the island come from the Irish language. Irish words are embedded in our everyday language.”
Mr Marshall said he wanted to see a positive and forward-looking unionism, rather than one which was negative and focused on the past.
“Northern Ireland is a super place to live, work, and bring up your family. Of course, we have our issues but we also have a good quality of life. I want to see unionism reflecting that reality,” he said.
The 53-year-old, who currently works for the Institute for Global Food Security at Queen’s University, lives and farms in Markethill, Co Armagh, where he grew up. He is not an Orangeman.
“I was approached about joining the Orange Order when I was 17. I asked my mother for advice as I was coming under a bit of pressure,” he recalled.
"She told me that neither my dad nor my grandfather had been members. She didn’t see the logic of me becoming one. After that, I wasn’t tempted to join.”
Around the same time, he had asked his father why they never displayed a Union flag. "Even at the height of the Troubles, our house in south Armagh didn’t have a Union Jack flying outside when many other unionist homes did,” he said.
"I thought we should do so for the Twelfth. But my dad told me we didn’t have to hang out our colours to prove our politics. He said we were strong enough in our unionism not to do that. He stressed we should be respectful of our neighbours’ traditions.
"My politics have always been based on collaboration, not confrontation — on reaching out across the divide and bridge-building.”
He has long been pro-choice on abortion and in favour of same-sex marriage. He was supported by Sinn Fein in his Seanad bids in 2018 and 2021. “I have a good working relationship with Mary Lou McDonald and Sinn Fein, as I do with loyalists in Belfast and across Northern Ireland,” he said.
“At times, you have to go out of your comfort zone if you are to make a difference. I have told Mary Lou McDonald that I don’t agree with her politics, but I respect them.
“She has a difficult job running a party in two jurisdictions. Sinn Fein supported my Seanad bids as an independent unionist. They never tried to turn me into a republican.
"Remaining strong in my own beliefs didn’t prevent me sitting down and talking to people who have different opinions, even opinions diametrically opposed to my own.”
Mr Marshall voted against Brexit and believes many were misled by Leave campaigners. He expressed regret that the issue of leaving the EU increasingly became polarised along sectarian lines in Northern Ireland.
He said the Republic had not handled things as well as it could have.
“I believe that some of the criticism of Leo Varadkar is unfair. However, I think Dublin could have done some things more sensitively and shown more understanding at times,” he said.
"Leo lined himself up as fully supporting Brussels in everything, and was seen as taking an anti-British position. The rise of Sinn Fein in the South has led to party politicking overruling diplomacy, and individuals perhaps doing unhelpful things.”
Although Irish Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney is often heavily criticised by unionist politicians, Mr Marshall strongly defends him.
“Simon Conveney has been very wrongly vilified by many in Northern Ireland. He is a good guy who is most definitely not short of integrity.”
The former senator said that the protocol was causing huge problems and had to be changed. “It has brought disruption, frustration and extra costs to trade. This wouldn’t be acceptable with a land border, and it’s not acceptable with a sea border,” he said.
"Dublin needs to take unionist concerns seriously and not be dismissive. I believe the protocol presents opportunities, but we need to work our way through the difficulties before we we will be in a position to take advantage of them.”
He said unionists also needed to face reality. “The protocol won’t be scrapped. Even in 2024, the Assembly will be voting only on the trade arrangements in articles five to 10. It is time that the gamesmanship ended between Brussels and London. It’s in everybody’s interests to deal with this and get it off the table.”