Defensive response to Hoey reveals unwelcome truths about Northern Ireland’s new establishment

Jaime Hyland is critically supportive of Irish unity from his adopted home in Berlin. But he wonders whether the reaction to Kate Hoey’s remarks show an odd confidence deficit in spite of the many successes of a new generation of nationalists.

The hostile nationalist response to Baroness Hoey’s recent remarks on disparities in Northern Irish professions is not surprising. Hoey’s high profile in pro-Brexit and anti-protocol circles won’t have helped, especially combined with the fact that she made her point in the foreword to a report by Jamie Bryson (a figure of regular nationalist scorn) in which he described his latest attempt to chop the protocol out of existence.

But once you actually read the offending piece, it’s hard not to see the vehemence of that reaction as revealing some unwelcome truths about some of her critics. After all, Hoey’s foreword to Bryson’s piece contained only a single, fairly modest sentence that could firmly be labelled sectarian (in sharp contrast, it should be said, to Bryson’s words in the main body of the paper, which seethes with his routine angry disregard for the other tribe).

After some fairly predictable praise for Bryson’s most recent tag-team manoeuvre in collaboration with Edwin Poots to derail the hated protocol, Hoey goes on to commend various efforts within unionism to advance the cause: understandably – though one-sidedly – singling out recent efforts to encourage working-class unionists to enter establishment professions.

Then came the sentence that inspired the furore:

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.

Yet the two assertions contained even in that sentence are really only at worst moderately objectionable.

For one thing, it may or may not be that nationalists are now overrepresented in some establishment professions (an issue that can be pretty easily checked in the statistics) but the claim is not immediately illegitimate. For another, it seems reasonable enough to expect that politically motivated people will sometimes attempt to place like-minded people in influential positions. Such is human nature.

Where the comment is singularly ill-judged (even ignoring her choice of the word “domination” – a term we’re fairly familiar with in Northern Irish conversations) is her clear implication that the current presence of nationalism in Northern Irish professions must be mainly due to a conscious “positioning of activists” in influential jobs.

She effectively accuses political nationalism of a conspiracy to pack the professions with its own. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that Hoey’s claim here is pretty dubious, not to say self-pitying and – yes indeed – sectarian.

Sadly though, any measured arguments that might have been made in response seem to have been drowned out of both mainstream and social media by a tsunami of hyperbolic, whataboutist, hypocritical and depressingly tribal denunciation.

In a massive wave of exculpatory hand-washing, celebrities, columnists, public representatives and grassroots middle-class PhD-holders alike have all rushed to condemn her attitudes, wheeling out their going-barefoot-to-school stories like so many 1970s bosses lecturing employees on how there’s no such thing as luck, gleefully listing the old sectarian obstacles and praising the attitudes to education and hard work taught to them by their parents, often accusing entire working class (loyalist) communities of failing to teach the right values to their children.

There was even occasional mention of the Famine and the Penal Laws from lots of people who should really know better. Why ought nationalists worry, many suggested with poorly disguised relish, if the boot really was now on the other foot?

To connoisseurs of Irish nationalist politics, none of this impressionistic picture is surprising (and one must stress that in all the mean-spiritedness there did appear the occasional kernel of empathy), yet it’s worth noting that many of the people willing to squeeze out this self-indulgent nonsense are widely considered progressive – even on issues of inequality in education.

One supposes some of them would claim without irony that there isn’t a sectarian bone in their bodies. But the attitudes that so many have flaunted over the past few days are clearly anything but progressive – and anything but non-sectarian.

In this self-righteous tumult, little productive discussion is generated; either on whether the alleged tribal imbalances in the professions actually exist or on whether working-class loyalists (and particularly boys) really do suffer special educational disadvantage.

It’s regrettable too that some among the very professional groups theoretically best equipped to dispassionately discuss such important issues seem – at least at first glance – seem prone to a defensiveness that often blinds their judgment.

What this episode has provided is new evidence of something that some of us have recognised for quite a while: once you peel back the expertly applied veneer of progressive ideology, a fair proportion of Irish nationalist professionals are – or have become – every bit as prone as their unionist predecessors to that special mixture of tribalist prejudice and defensive middle-class snobbery so peculiar to Ireland (and not just to Northern Ireland).