Sinn Fein has circled the wagons around a Markethill farmer appointed to the Irish Seanad, challenging those who asked if he was a “real unionist”.
The party’s Senator Rose Conway-Walsh gave a powerful endorsement for former UFU president Ian Marshall yesterday just before he delivered his maiden speech.
An atypical unionist, the fervent Brexit ‘remainer’ was invited to join the Seanad by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, and voted in with strong support from all parties in the Irish upper chamber.
Mr Marshall has faced some questions about his ‘unionist’ credentials, not having had any specific party political experience.
But Senator Conway-Walsh defended him – and her vision for a united Ireland which welcomes British citizens.
“Much has been made of the election of Ian Marshall and the fact that we in Sinn Fein made the decision to support him in this election,” she said.
“Some even questioned if he was a real unionist, which really made me think ‘what is a real unionist?’.
“Indeed what is a real Irish republican and perhaps those that are posing such questions should reflect on what they need to do in order to create an environment of mutual respect and equality.”
Praising the Good Friday Agreement (GFA), she said there have been some frustrations on the path to its “full implementation”.
“But we must not let these setbacks stop us on the journey to lasting peace and reconciliation ... Our vision for an inclusive Ireland, a new and united Ireland in which it is ok to be British, Irish, both or neither.”
Mr Marshall told other senators it was “an honour and a privilege” to be elected. He thanked the taoiseach for his invitation, crucial supporters in Brussels and the Irish Thoroughbred Breeders Association for his nomination.
“I have been overwhelmed by the support and the trust and faith you have placed in me and I won’t let you down,” he said.
“I am humbled to be considered worthy enough to sit in this seat ... to represent the opinions and views of the people of Northern Ireland.”
The “most touching sentiment” in the recent 20th anniversary celebrations for the GFA, he said, was from former SDLP deputy leader Seamus Mallon.
A fellow Markethill man, he visited him to ask his permission to share his comment with the senators. “I don’t care what they call the land, as long as they all call it home,” he said, quoting the former deputy first minister.