We do need more Unionist voices, but please no more proxies for the privileged big guns of NI politics, please

Well, I hope we’ll have a couple of cold takes (from different angles) on the Kate Hoey story next week, but I wanted to share some of her platform piece for the Irish News today (please remember the civility rules that apply here on Slugger).

I confess to being puzzled by the outrage from people of my own cultural background, since the average Brian Feeney column is routinely far more dismissive and insulting (with the dry wit of a well practised satirist) than anything Ms Hoey has said,

I think we have a very bad case of thin skin syndrome. AnyHOO she takes the opportunity to refine her arguments:

Let me, for the avoidance of doubt, set my position out clearly. I want to see everyone take the opportunity to be educated to as high a level as possible from whatever their background and having the choice to enter professional vocations. I am especially keen to see young people from working class communities succeed through education.

I should further point out, none of this has anything to do with religion. The contested nature of Northern Ireland is not about religious theology, it is about national identity. Some of the strongest unionists I know are from the Catholic faith.

It is interesting that in 2018 nationalists within the professional class had no issue being identified by their political agenda. Indeed, many signed a nationalist letter to the Irish prime minister – published in this very newspaper – which identified persons by their profession.

I’ve only met Kate once and it was at an alumni event at Queens. Her statement above is entirely consistent with what she told the audience that evening, which is that she was proud to work with Michael Farrell to campaign for civil rights in 1969.

She campaigned for “British Rights for British Citizens”. In doing so she was challenging the unionist establishment, and was not alone in that regard. That reform consensus that was soon supplanted by the constitutional focus of the IRA campaign.

As Nick Ross, a contemporary of Kate’s at the time, pointed out in his 1999 documentary on BBC 2, the circumstances where complex. In a piece for the Guardian at the time he marks out some tough truths for both sides in the conflict that ensued:

As for the IRA, the first time I saw them mentioned in graffiti the bitter message splashed by Catholics on a burned-out Catholic’s home read ‘IRA = I Ran Away’.

It was Protestants who planted the first bombs, who first went on the rampage, who slaughtered the first civilians, who murdered the first police officer and who killed the first soldier. It was Unionists who, in a self-fulfilling prophecy, re-invented the IRA. It was Whitehall and the Army that turned Catholics from welcoming British involvement to despising it.

True, eventually Catholics slipped into a misty-eyed romanticised war against their neighbours dressed up as a fight against the imperial tyranny of Britain. (It is an odd sort of colonial oppressor that pours subsidies into the colony rather than exploiting it.) But the Provisional IRA did not start the violence – they were its product.

Now, after 30 years of killings, do not be taken in by ceasefires. For all the undoubted good intentions and tenacity of those behind the peace process, there is a flinty-heartedness in Northern Ireland, and I struggle to be optimistic.

At the beginning it was liberals like me caught in the middle who failed to make our warning heard or heeded. The cacophony of self-righteousness that drowned us out is still driving events on every side. [Emphasis added]

That self righteousness is a mark of today’s conversations. I have some sympathy with Ms Hoey’s complaint that…

…when loyalist or unionists appear in media they are labelled by their political affiliation (eg. loyalist activist), however nationalists are bestowed with a neutral descriptor such as ‘political commentator’. There has yet to be a satisfactory explanation for this obvious disparity, most notably in BBC NI.

This is a subtle way of promoting certain views and conversely de-platforming or delegitimising others as purely partisan.

It is certainly the case that voices with a background of being from the CNR (how I loath these terms) community dominate in the media. I’ve often remarked on how people like myself and Malachi and Eamon find relatively easy access to media.

However I’m pretty sure that none of the three of us are exactly what Kate is complaining about. There is a whole class of commentator who routinely act as thinly veiled proxies for fairly narrow political interests, who are never named as such.

And this is where I have a problem with the main concept she’s pushing here. A nationalist friend who was approached by that network of  national civil society refused on the grounds that civil society can only be just that, civil and therefore not political.

US politics is being destroyed by media insistence on the use of proxies for political factions. The best of them figure that the odds can be balanced out if they spread the weight across the party lines. But that leaves no room for independent analysis.

The flaw in Ms Hoey’s plan is that both unionism and nationalism need to resonate far beyond their natural core vote (which if recent election results are anything to go by, are shrinking. The creation of more echo chambers won’t help in that regard.

That cacophony of self righteousness (made more contagious by the insistent context stripping of context from almost everything that everyone says. Unionists could learn an important lesson from Blair McDougall in his substack blog yesterday:

Part of the problem of social media is that it gamifies political division. People become addicted to antagonism and forget that the point isn’t to have the argument with committed nationalists, but to win the argument in the minds of undecided voters.

People from a nationalist background have a shared experience within their own families of thwarted ambition, that the last two generations have enjoyed even been exhilarated in throwing off and indulging their own ambitions.

Whatever the deficits (and biases) within the institutions and in particular the local media, after 20 years of power sharing economic inequality still weighs far more against Catholic working class areas than Protestant ones.

What NI is long overdue is a focus on tackling inequality and the causes of inequality no matter where its found, not another lobby group as a counterweight to the supposed machinations of, as Flann O’Brien might put it, de udder side.

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