Ian Marshall: Anti-Brexit unionist a perfect fit for Fine Gael
Armagh dairy farmer and now Senator is what you might call a progressive unionist
Sinn Féin TD Louise O’Reilly, Sinn Féin president Mary Lou McDonald and Ian Marshall, a unionist farmer who has been elected to the Seanad. Photograph: @MaryLouMcDonald/PA Wire
Even though Ian Marshall was approached by people on behalf of the Taoiseach to stand in the recent Seanad byelection, he had never met Leo Varadkar until after his candidacy was announced.
Despite not knowing each other, it’s easy to see why the Co Armagh dairy farmer was a perfect fit for Mr Varadkar and Fine Gael. The new Senator is what you might call a progressive unionist.
He is a former president of the Ulster Farmers Union (UFU), has a dairy farm close to the Border and, perhaps most importantly, he is opposed to Brexit.
During his UFU term, Marshall met Tánaiste Simon Coveney on several occasions, when he was Minister for Agriculture. This might have provided the connection.
“At the outset when the idea was first floated it was obviously because of my experience in the agrifood industry, what I can bring to the discussion is the Northern Irish perspective,” says the Senator.
I do not think technology can deliver at the moment and I have seen no evidence that a solution, technological or otherwise, exists
His position on Brexit is unequivocal. “It is critical that we ensure trade is as seamless and frictionless as it has been for the past 20 years,” he says. “I can remember the pre-1998 phase when we had border checks with stops at the Border. I am very concerned we will be back to an element of that.”
He struggles to see how Brexit can work in terms of maintaining open borders north and south, and also east and west.
“We have not been given a solution to the problem,” he says. “I do not think technology can deliver at the moment and I have seen no evidence that a solution, technological or otherwise, exists.”
It is a stark assessment. But he repeatedly points to its impact on agriculture. “The one thing we keep coming back to is the one sector with no apparent solution – the agrifood industry. It represents a unique set of challenges.”
At the same time, he can understand and recognise the perspective of unionists. “You have to understand the sensitivities for the unionist community in Northern Ireland. They think their identity will be compromised.”
When I look at the Brexit discussion, I know the EU has flaws and is a big unwieldy monster
Asked about his opinion on the stance of the DUP and its leader Arlene Foster, he responds, “I’m not going to start to criticise Brexiteers for their position. Let us objectively look at it and see what is best. The decisions we make today will be impacting in 10 and 20 years’ time. What we have had is relative wealth and prosperity, better human rights and animal rights.
“The EU has contributed to stop depopulation of the land and making farms viable.
“When I look at the Brexit discussion, I know the EU has flaws and is a big unwieldy monster. But the two objectives of the European Economic Community was to stop another European war and to feed the people. On those two scores it is successful,” he says.
He disagrees that the UK should leave the union. “I think it is better to remain and to be seriously engaged. The EU is changing. In the Irish context we have the land border and huge amount of daily trade. For that reason the risks of leaving outweigh the benefits.
“What I would like to see is for us to look at it objectively and work it out together. It has to work out for the Republic, for Northern Ireland and for Great Britain.”