After fifty years of improvement and reform in Northern Ireland isn’t it time we gently surrendered to a vision larger than our old sectarian selves?

‘Reverting to a sectarian model of society.’

This is the conclusion attributed to author and journalist Susan McKay commenting on the ill-considered remarks of former Labour MP Kate Hoey regarding perceived nationalist domination of professions like media and law.

Given the benefit of the doubt, Kate Hoey, as claimed later, may have been trying to encourage ambition and aspiration within’ loyalist communities’. If so, the words and messaging were clumsily stereotypical to say the least. In addition, as cited in an article by Professor Peter Shirlow evidence for the conclusions was lacking.

But, ‘reverting to a sectarian model of society’ seems a bit of an over-statement. No less so than the claim of Matthew O’Toole MLA that unionism was adopting ‘McCarthyite tactics.’

You would expect someone of his normal good sense, experience and ability to display less of a knee-jerk reaction and avoid this nationalist tendency towards political nostalgia for a victimised past, that has long since disappeared.

Unionism, after all, has not been in charge of Stormont for almost 50 years.

Drawing upon this always present narrative of the past is its own worst enemy but as evidenced in the words of far too many republican and nationalist commentators, “unionist dominance” never cease to be the case so long as unionism and unionists exist.

Of course, prejudice is not now and never has been the single prerogative of any one group.

In 2019, I sat with fellow Derryman Eamon McCann in a studio in Radio Foyle to comment on events in Derry, August 1969. Whilst waiting for a cue, Thunderclap Newman and ‘Something in the Air’ came on. Eamonn burst into song. I responded: “Eamonn, I used to like that song.”

In fact, that and ‘Whiter Shade of Pale’ top my list. In the 1960s, there was a lot in the Derry air and not just CS Gas.

Susan McKay is quoted as referencing, when growing up in Derry, the sectarianism directed towards Catholics in regard to employment in one particular area of the public services.

I heard similar, witnessed individuals toss coins from the walls into the Bogside whilst shouting out sectarian abuse and heard the provocative sound of ‘No Surrender’ grow louder as bands paraded in close proximity to Nationalist areas towards the end of a parade.

It often drew an equally provocative response

The poor condition of housing and the queue of the many unemployed outside the Labour Exchange could not be missed. The housing of the Creggan and other areas and the prosperity for some who found employment in Du Pont and firms attracted by the advance factories and incentives were welcomed but it was not enough and not just for Nationalists.

Living close to the mostly Protestant Fountain area the poor condition of mostly rented property with outside toilets and no bathrooms and the uncertain employment in the gift of church, political and social networks and allegiances, it was clear that there was a need for a radical shift in politics into territory beyond tribal loyalties.

The exodus from Protestant homes of young people to textile work in Antrim and Carrickfergus and to employment in England and elsewhere was as keenly resented as in non-Protestant homes.

Against a backcloth of rail and shipping closures the decision to deny Derry university development and a willingness of younger and more senior people within the Unionist community to challenge the old rhetoric, urge reform and stand with the Civil Rights Movement momentarily presented as opportunity to construct a better future.

But that opportunity was squandered through an inability to view politics though anything other than the prism of sectarian labels.

Protestant ‘not an inch’ demagoguery, a preference for the isolation of doctrinal ’smash the state’ thinking, media coverage with a tendency to think in headlines, latent bigotry and leadership unwilling to look beyond its constituency cemented the community into relationships and violence which failed the potential for peaceful democratic reform.

Lacking any self-starter, ability for compromise and waiting for something to turn up, the community had to settle for a process shaped more than anything by battle fatigue and the prompting of external stakeholders for this to become a possibility. But more than fifty years on, we find (as if waking from a long nightmare) the original reform approach has changed things, and changed them radically.

Underpinned by legislation for equality and social justice and allied to marked improvement in communities, schools, housing and services there is now an opportunity for politics to work if political leaders and influencers can move beyond examining every proposal to see how it will affect their tribal appeal, narrative, interest and power; and to signal a real departure from sectarian emotions and histories which attempt to exclude the ‘others’.

It’s certainly not where a growing proportion of civic society is, nor wants to be.

The comments of Kate Hoey and some of the reactionary commentary it has attracted are an aberration in a changing environment as pro-Union groups and individuals unwilling to be defined by the tarnished unionism of the past advocate civic as opposed to Protestant unionism.

All are not on the same page but with abandonment of out of date PUL labelling there is no desire to resurrect or ‘revert to an old sectarian model.’ Where the Belfast Agreement may once have been seen as ground lost by many in the wider unionist community, it is now viewed as a process that can deliver a future based on inclusion, respect and the parity of esteem once advocated by some whose actions now show it to have been little more than pragmatic ‘parrot-speak.’

Drill down into civic-Unionist values and attitudes and the indications are positive and encouraging.

There is no interest in fighting a cultural war as culture is seen as hybrid and not equated to identity. Gaelic games or language carry no threat and in some cases are seen as an enrichment of belonging to the hybrid space Northern Ireland is gradually becoming. Those who see both as an act of ‘de-colonisation’ are surely entitled to their view but are seen as ‘too victim-purist’ in their interpretation given the extent to which Gaelic was embraced and promoted by non-Catholics.

If they need to seek medical or legal advice the faith, ethnicity or social background of individuals is not a prerequisite for engagement. Political preference is based on issues of quality of life, fairness and equality, well-being, education and the cost of living. Attitudes are being de-segregated hence the number of pro-Union voters who do not vote for Unionist parties and the priority of making Northern Ireland work for everyone.

Against some hyperbolic over-reach by the government in Dublin particularly in terms of the growing impetus of the Shared Island initiative (a worthy project, but since unionists have barely had time to consider their thoughts on it, it’s far from a done deal as some in the government there seem to think), reference to a non-existent All-Ireland Economy (where inter-trade is a more accurate reflection of reality) and calls for joint FDI, there is a willingness to remain involved and urge political Unionism to engage more constructively.

Similarly, there is a desire to see Unionist politicians aspire to leadership within the United Kingdom and abandon the begging-bowl syndrome. The potential for a NI Protocol with mitigations as an incremental, formative and energising influence on securing the principle of consent is increasingly being recognised.

Political nationalism and those who so identify seem unwilling to see or acknowledge this; opting instead to be offended and to fan the dying embers of outdated views of commentators like Kate Hoey and Ruth Dudley Edwards whose self-indulgent and disturbing comments on Colin Harvey place both on the fringe of change.

You have to ask: ‘Who is it who wants to revert to a sectarian model of society?’ It is long past time for them to stand up and make their voices count.

We develop trust across miles, and distrust around corners.”
— Tim Berners-Lee

Photo by 🇸🇮 Janko Ferlič on Unsplash