Working class Protestants have been neglected for too long
It was hard to miss the reaction to comments made by former Labour MP Kate Hoey last week. Such was the backlash that the reaction migrated from the social media echo chamber and into the mainstream discourse, with radio shows and newspaper articles covering the statement by Baroness Hoey, who now sits as a non-affiliated peer in the Lords.
But in case you missed the comments, first carried in the News Letter, here is a recap.
Ms Hoey said: “There are very justified concerns that many professional vocations have become dominated by those of a nationalist persuasion, and this positioning of activists is then used to exert influence on those in power.”
Specific mention was made to law, journalism and public service.
It has been rightly said that those type of comments belong in a bygone age.
To be clear the comments were not aimed at Catholics but at working class nationalists and republicans — the professional classes have always had members of the Catholic faith in their ranks.
The first Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland Sir Denis Henry was a Catholic, but he was the ‘right sort’, from a wealthy family. During the 1895 election Henry spoke in support of two unionist candidates.
Like Sir Denis, Catholics welcomed into the ranks of the upper echelons of the establishment were affluent, they were landed and of old money, their linage easily traced.
Their wealth and privilege buffered them from the discriminatory practices that arose in the new unionist majority state.
Instead, Kate Hoey was referring to people like me, the children and grandchildren of the civil rights generation who realised education was the only way to escape poverty.
Northern Ireland was once a thriving industrial hub, but many of those jobs were closed off to working class nationalists.
My siblings joke that my mother would have walked you around a burning bus to make sure you attended school. She realised education would open previously closed doors for her children and grandchildren. And it did for my family and thousands of others.
As a crime reporter I see the result of this push on education in the courts. Some of the most impressive and successful legal advocates, first generation solicitors and barristers, young men and women from housing estates who knew no one in the law to give them a hand up.
They represent both sides and everyone in between without fear or favour — it is insulting to suggest that because they are not unionists they are not to be trusted in prestigious professions.
It harks back to the time of Basil Brooke, who, speaking at the 1933 Twelfth celebrations in Newtownbutler, Co Fermanagh, said he “wouldn’t have a Roman Catholic about his own place”.
Brooke was Stormont’s longest-serving premier, holding office for almost 20 years up to his resignation in 1963, the generation of my parents. To suggest they grew up in a place of equal opportunity is historically inaccurate.
But Northern Ireland has changed.
The barriers that exist to education, to attending university and pursuing a career in law, journalism or the civil service are no longer religious, but that’s not to say barriers do not exist.
As part of the now much debated and berated article, Baroness Hoey added: “I also entirely support the ongoing work to encourage those, especially from working class loyalist communities, to engage in education and to seek entry to professional vocations such as journalism, law, and public service.”
On that we can agree, but we must also be honest and realistic about the reasons why it is not the case.
The old argument that working class Protestants were able to walk out of school and into well paid apprenticeships can no longer be used as an excuse.
Those industries no longer exist in any real numbers.
DUP MLA Jim Wells claimed that it was because young unionists chose to go to university elsewhere and that Queen’s law degree is nationalist dominated.
A better question is why are so many young unionists leaving and never returning? Maybe it is partly they don’t want to live in a place where Jim’s own party try to block any progression or social change?
The DUP has been the predominant unionist party for decades. Why are loyalist communities so neglected? Why are those young people not achieving their full potential?
The retention of the transfer test, an exam that discriminates against working class men more than any other group, is one reason.
The barriers to young people are no longer the religious ones that existed in my parents’ time, they are social and economic.
Can parents afford the expensive uniform for grammar schools? Are those young people being motivated at every level to obtain their true potential?
On a wall in the loyalist heartland of the Shankill there is a mural that quotes the words of former PUP councillor Hugh Smyth.
“Historically, unionist politicians fed their electorate the myth that they were first class citizens…and without question people believed them. Historically, republican/nationalist politicians fed their electorate the myth that they were second class citizens… and without question the people believed them. In reality, the truth of the matter was that we all, Protestant and Catholic, were third class citizen, and none of us realised it.”
That myth fed to young loyalists for decades is what unionist politicians should be tackling, but then an educated population will rise, they will demand better, they will demand change.