Subscriber Only

Newton Emerson: A unionist-free Seanad? Nobody minds really

Government’s omission is merely an understandable outworking of politics

Former senator Ian Marshall says "the entire unionist community feels let down and left behind" by the new government's failure to nominate a unionist to the Seanad.

As someone with exactly the same mandate as Marshall to speak for the entire unionist community, I feel this may be overstated.

The view within my own circles has mirrored reaction online, which is that nobody cares. That in turn is a little overstated: it would be more accurate to say nobody minds.

The indifference of his compatriots has been Marshall’s most significant achievement, a compliment in no way meant to be as barbed as it sounds.

There was a time when running for the Seanad – or the Irish Senate, to give it its unionist title – might have raised orange eyebrows. Being invited to do so by the Taoiseach, then winning a by-election with the support of Sinn Féin, could have had those eyebrows twitching. Yet Marshall pulled it off in 2018, perhaps due to being a Presbyterian farmer from Markethill, a background so staunch no southern smarm could conceivably break it.

Once satisfied that Marshall was not going to be an embarrassment, unionists happily ignored him. They did not mind when the agriculture panel failed to re-elect him in March, with just 11 votes out of 1,169. Nor did they mind when the new Taoiseach failed to include him in his 11 nominees. As we say in Northern Ireland, the whole thing has passed off peacefully.

Key to this serenity has been the vague unionist perception of the Seanad as an Irish House of Lords, and hence a cross between a talking shop and a retirement home. The analogy is not precise but it is the closest we can be bothered to have and it does provide some meaningful comparisons.

Nicest person ever

In September last year, former SDLP leader Margaret Ritchie, probably the nicest person ever to serve in front-line politics in Northern Ireland, accepted a peerage from departing UK prime minister Theresa May.

Ritchie’s robe-clad swearing-in ceremony was ridiculed by Sinn Féin representatives, who seemed genuinely surprised when they were asked if this made them hypocrites for endorsing Marshall.

Sinn Féin never put a foot wrong in its direct dealings with the senator, and vice versa, but it was not alone in making this basic mistake: for unionists, engaging with an Irish institution is the corollary of nationalists engaging with a British institution. It is not a process of being wooed into a united Ireland.

Let us hope he is better at adding up votes than at adding up Northern Ireland's £10 billion UK subvention

Those unionists paying attention to southern politics know the Seanad is outdated enough to have almost been abolished in 2013, and that the incoming three-party government has too many members to placate to spare a seat for an independent unionist.

None of this counts against Marshall. His election remains a friendly gesture and the loss of his seat is an understandable outworking of politics.

It is unfortunate that a role was never found for him at the Joint Oireachtas Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement, which has a structure and remit remarkably similar to the "shared island" section in the new programme for government.

Closely associated

Two the five senators on the committee while Marshall was in office were independents, one of them closely associated with Sinn Féin.

A third was from Sinn Féin.

Westminster MPs from Northern Ireland constituencies, a majority of whom are unionists, are able to attend the committee and take part in its proceedings. Anyone else, from ministers to “interested individuals”, can be invited to contribute to debates. Yet the only unionist in the building never darkened its door.

On the plus side, the committee's lone Fianna Fáil senator, Mark Daly, who went on and on about a united Ireland, has now been made Cathaoirleach and so will have to keep his thoughts to himself.

Let us hope he is better at adding up votes than at adding up Northern Ireland’s £10 billion UK subvention, which he regularly claimed to be zero.

Marshall says not nominating any unionist senators makes the shared island pledge in the programme for government “a farce”.

Some have said the same about the government’s failure to nominate any senators from Northern Ireland, be they unionist, nationalist or other.

Marshall’s tenure suggests this would have made little difference, or only the most gentle and barely perceptible of differences.

In terms of building a shared island, the Seanad has already supplied a degree of farce.

The question is whether the new unit in the Department of the Taoiseach can do any better.

It will put the agenda of the Oireachtas committee at the heart of executive government.

Unionists are invited to engage with it via the north-south institutions of the Belfast Agreement, covering unionism’s preference of sharing the island as it is, plus the All-Island Civic Dialogue for Brexit-related issues, covering an upset unionism helped to cause and badly needs to address.

All of this is well above any senator’s pay grade.