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Foster and O'Neill can do business if hardliners let them, says unionist elected to Dublin senate


Ian Marshall with Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald in Dublin

Ian Marshall with Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald in Dublin

Ian Marshall

Ian Marshall

Ian Marshall with Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald in Dublin

The first unionist elected to the Irish Senate has revealed he was never tempted to join the Orange Order, and has voiced his support for same-sex marriage and a woman's right to choose on abortion.

In a wide-ranging interview with the Belfast Telegraph, Ian Marshall challenged both the DUP and Sinn Fein to stretch themselves politically in order to restore power-sharing.

He hit out at the DUP's criticism of Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and urged Sinn Fein to think again about taking its seats in the House of Commons.

The former Ulster Farmers' Union president said he had no personal objection to an Irish Language Act.

Despite criticising some in her party, Mr Marshall named DUP leader Arlene Foster - along with Sinn Fein vice-president Michelle O'Neill - as the two local politicians who impressed him most. He said he found both women "straight-talking" and believed they could do business if hardline elements in their parties let them.

Mr Marshall said the media portrayal of Mrs Foster did not reflect the woman he knew. He also said he understood why Sinn Fein politicians attended IRA commemorations but warned there was a difference between "honouring the dead and glorifying terrorism".

The new senator was elected a fortnight ago after being nominated by Mr Varadkar. Sinn Fein was among the parties supporting him.

Mr Marshall said he had met no hostility from within the unionist community over his decision to sit in the Oireachtas.

The 49-year-old farmer from Markethill said he had grown up in a "traditional, rural Ulster Unionist family". His father was a farmer and his mother was a school-teacher.

He said: "When I was 17, I was approached about joining the Orange Order. I told my mum I was coming under a bit of pressure and asked her for advice. "She said neither my dad nor my granddad had been members and she didn't see the logic of me joining. After that, I was never tempted to join.

"Even at the height of the Troubles our house in south Armagh didn't have a Union Jack flying outside when many others did.

"The feeling at home was that we didn't have to put out a flag to prove we were good unionists. We were strong enough in our unionism not to do that."

Mr Marshall recalled as a schoolboy watching from the playground as an IRA car bomb devastated Markethill.

"We had family and friends serving in the security forces, although thankfully, none were killed," he added.

The unionist senator said he wouldn't criticise Sinn Fein politicians like Ms O'Neill or new West Tyrone MP Orfhlaith Begley for attending IRA commemorations.

"They are perfectly entitled to do so. Both communities must be given the space to remember their dead," he said.

"As a unionist, I attend Remembrance Sunday events to commemorate those killed in both World Wars and security force members who died in the Troubles.

"Republicans have the right to do exactly the same but I'd stress that it should be about commemorating the dead and not about glorifying terrorism. Republicans must be mindful of other people's opinions on this."

Although deeply interested in politics, Mr Marshall said he never wanted to join any particular political party as he was better placed to promote the agri-food industry as an independent voice.

He refused to rule out entering Northern Ireland politics when his term in the Senate expires, although he regretted that politics here was "too divided along orange and green lines".

But voicing his admiration for Mrs Foster, he said: "I worked with Arlene when she was Enterprise Minister and found her to be a warm, sincere person who wants to do the right thing.

"The media caricature of her does not resemble the woman I know. She got a rough deal from sensational press headlines. The coverage has been brutal and personalised.

"Arlene hasn't always got it right as I think she'd admit, but hindsight is a wonderful thing and who among us couldn't do better in future?

"I believe she can work with Michelle O'Neill and that she would be a fine First Minister for both unionists and nationalists in Northern Ireland."

Mr Marshall said he had worked with Ms O'Neill when she was Agriculture Minister.

"I found her trustworthy and pragmatic," he said. "Despite being diametrically opposed to each other politically, we had a frank, open and honest working relationship."

The senator, a staunch Remainer, was critical of DUP MP Sammy Wilson for branding the Taoiseach "a nutcase" and accusing Tanaiste Simon Coveney of "belligerent Brit-bashing" over Brexit.

"Such language is very disappointing and unhelpful," Mr Marshall said. "The Irish government has no hidden republican agenda. It doesn't want the UK to leave the EU and believes if it goes solutions which work in London, Dublin and Belfast must be found. It's an entirely reasonable position."

Mr Marshall backed same-sex marriage which he said would come "sooner rather than later" to Northern Ireland.

He also voiced support for repealing the eighth amendment in the Republic's constitution and changing abortion laws here.

"I have always been pro-choice," he said. "And as a husband and a father of two daughter, women's health and welfare is very important to me."

Mr Marshall said he was "blown away" by the warm welcome he had received in the Senate. "No-one is interested in religion. It's all politics with a capital 'P'," he said.

"I also find Dublin a vibrant, progressive, happening, cosmopolitan city and I want the same for Belfast."

Belfast Telegraph