It was hard to miss the reaction to comments made by former Labor MP Kate Hoye last week. Such was the reaction that the reaction moved from the social media echo chamber and into mainstream discourse, with radio shows and newspaper articles covering the statement of Baroness Hoe, who now sits as an unaffiliated peer at Lord’s. .
In case you missed the comments, which first appeared in the newsletter, here is a brief description.
Ms Hoe said: “There are very reasonable concerns that many professional professions have become dominated by people of nationalist persuasion, and that this position of activists is used to exert influence over those in power.”
Special mention was made of law, journalism and public service.
It is rightly said that such comments belong to the bygone era.
To be clear the comments were not aimed at Catholics but at working class nationalists and republicans – the professional classes always have members of the Catholic faith in their ranks.
Sir Denis Henry, the first Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland, was a Catholic, but he came from a wealthy family of the ‘right kind’. During the 1895 election, Henry spoke out in support of two Unionist candidates.
Like Sir Dennis, Catholics welcomed into the ranks of the establishment’s upper echelons were prosperous, they were descended and, by old money, their ancestry was easily traced.
Their wealth and privilege saved them from discriminatory practices that arose in the new federalist majority state.
Instead, Kate Hoey was referring to people like me, the children and grandchildren of the Civil Rights generation, who felt that education was the only way to escape poverty.
Northern Ireland was once a thriving industrial centre, but many of those jobs were closed to working-class nationalists.
My siblings used to joke that my mother used to ride you on a burning bus to make sure you go to school. She realized that education would open already 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 emphasis on education in the courts. Some of the most influential and successful legal advocates, first generation lawyers and barristers, young men and women of housing estates who knew no one to lend their hands to the law.
They represent both sides and everyone in between without fear or favor – it is disrespectful to suggest that because they are not federalists, they should not be trusted in prestigious professions.
It dates back to the time of Basil Brooke, who in 1933 told Newtownbutler, speaking at the Twelfth Festival in Fermanagh, that he “wouldn’t have Roman Catholicism about his place”.
Brooke was Stormont’s longest-serving prime minister, holding the position for nearly 20 years until the resignation of My Parents’ Generation in 1963. To suggest that they grew up in a place of equal opportunity is historically incorrect.
But Northern Ireland has changed.
The barriers that exist to education, going to university, and pursuing a career in law, journalism or the civil service are no longer religious, but that doesn’t mean that barriers don’t exist.
Baroness Hoy said as part of the now much debated and rebuked article: “I also fully support the ongoing work to encourage those, especially from working class loyalist communities, into education. To engage and gain entry into professional professions such as journalism, law, and public service.”
On that we can agree, but we also need to be honest and realistic about the reasons why this is not the case.
The old argument that working class Protestants were able to drop 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 legislator Jim Wells claimed this was because the young federalists chose to go to university elsewhere and that the Queen’s law degree is nationalist dominated.
A better question is, why are so many young federalists leaving and never returning? Maybe partly they don’t want to live in a place where Jim’s own party tries to stifle any progress or social change?
The DUP has been the dominant federalist party for decades. Why are loyal communities so neglected? Why are those youth not able to reach their full potential?
The concept of the transfer test, a test that discriminates against working class men more than any other group, is one reason.
The barriers that were faced by the youth in my parents’ time are no longer religious, they are social and economic.
Can parents afford expensive uniforms for grammar schools? Are those youths being motivated to achieve their true potential at every level?
Shankil’s loyalist stronghold has a mural on one wall that quotes the words of former PUP councilor Hugh Smith.
“Historically, federalist politicians fed their voters the myth that they were first-class citizens … and people without question believed in them. Historically, republican/nationalist politicians gave their voters this illusion given that they are second-class citizens… and without question the people believed them. In fact, the truth of the matter was that all of us, Protestants and Catholics, were third-class citizens, and none of us Didn’t realize it.”
Federalist politicians must tackle this myth that has fed young loyalists for decades, but then an educated population will grow, they will demand better, they will demand change.