Kate Hoey, ex-Labour MP and now Baroness, sparked controversy recently with a complaint that nationalists are apparently ‘dominating’ professional vocations in the North. Historian Fearghal Mac Bhloscaidh cuts through this latest sectarian discourse.
Kate Hoey, the former Labour MP and now ermine-clad reactionary, has today (7 January) published an opinion piece in the Irish News to explain remarks printed earlier this week in the Newsletter. Her latest missive is even more revealing and pernicious than the original rant about nationalist domination of the press, law and civil service.
Hoey begins by brandishing her left-wing credentials, which she employed to significant effect during the Brexit debate to deflect criticism of the public-school boys pushing for the measure and lend the campaign a populist veneer, service for which she earned her current position in the Lords. Hoey tells us she is concerned that ‘young people from working class communities succeed through education’.
Indeed, her affection for working-class loyalists finds lucid expression in her role as cheerleader for the Jamie Bryson-Jim Allister Roadshow that flooded town centres across the North last year with literally tens of demonstrators opposed to the Protocol – all under the watchful eye of loyalist paramilitaries who terrorize working-class communities.
It may come as some shock to readers that someone with British Labour credentials gives a toss about working class communities, but why would we doubt the Baroness Hoey, of Lylehill and Rathlin?
The Baroness doubles down on a point she made earlier, that ‘there is plainly an (albeit informal) elite nationalist network whereby a significant number of persons use the credentials afforded by their … status within those professional vocations to advance nationalist political objectives.’ As evidence, Hoey asserts that this elite network ‘swung into action seeking to misrepresent the context of my remarks, and thus shut down debate on this issue.’
She laments—oblivious to the entire history of the Northern Ireland state— that ‘no equivalent network of unionist activists using access and credentials obtained via positions in the professional class’ exists. To top it off Hoey attempts to provide an intellectual justification for this nonsense by stating that ‘the long march through the institutions advocated by the Marxist philosopher Gramsci, so beloved by President Higgins, is well underway and increasingly expressed in this new majoritarian outlook.’
We will take these three points one-by-one to expose the reactionary character of Hoey’s politics: what she is attempting should be understood as an Irish manifestation of the same intellectual malady infecting most of the Right across the Anglosphere. She borrows clumsily from the far-Right playbook enacted by Trump and Bolsonaro, adapting it for local consumption with a large dose of traditional Orange bigotry.
On the nationalist cabal: had Hoey not already flown the coop for a privileged perch in the Peers, she would have been expelled from the Labour Party if she’d claimed that Jewish professionals in Britain were operating a political network aimed at undermining the state.
Sectarian Conspiracy Theory
Her use of terms like ‘infiltration’ and ‘domination’ borrows from a deeply-rooted, openly sectarian conspiracy theory evoked by successive Unionist leaders at moments of insecurity and crisis.
During the Great Depression in 1932, chronic unemployment and the inadequacies of the Poor Law combined to temporarily disrupt the cross-class Unionist consensus that underpinned the Orange State. In October, 30,000 Protestant and Catholic workers marched to the Custom House steps—the first time since 1920 that they had united on class lines to defy Orange bigotry.
Sean Mitchell’s Struggle or Starve provides the definitive account of the Outdoor Relief Strike, but here the response of Orange elites is of particular interest. Faced with an aroused and united working class, Big House Unionists loudly banged the Orange drum, working intensively to stoke sectarianism.
This found classic expression in Basil Brooke’s infamous 1933 Twelfth speech which—after the movement’s defeat—acted as the rhetorical tinder for a explosion of cruel sectarian savagery in Belfast:
There was a great number of Protestants and Orangemen who employed Roman Catholics. [Brooke] felt he could speak freely on this subject as he had not a Roman Catholic about his own place (Cheers). He appreciated the great difficulty experienced by some of them in procuring suitable Protestant labour, but he would point out that the Roman Catholics were endeavouring to get in everywhere and were out with all their force and might to destroy the power and constitution of Ulster[.] He would appeal to loyalists, therefore, wherever possible to employ good Protestant lads and lassies.
I have highlighted the section that reverberates down through the decades to the doggerel produced by Kate Hoey and her pitiful defence of it today. Hoey’s claim that Unionism possesses no elite network flies in the face of a state built on the Orange institution and her ‘cold house for Unionists’ at Queen’s University and in the BBC ignores the pronounced official Unionism saturating these institutions.
‘Alternative facts’ are the currency of the new conspiratorial Right, and Hoey is positioning herself to be its Northern mouthpiece.
Abusing Gramsci, Again
Her second point represents the outraged reflex of bygone supremacy: in the zero-sum view she and her sectarian roadshow want to popularise among northern Protestants, any gain by the nationalist ‘other’ must undermine the position enjoyed by the chosen people.
Her rubbish about the conflict being national rather than religious ignores the clear promotion of the concept of a distinct PUL community amongst her motley crew of reactionaries: indeed, she plagiarized the slogan from graffiti scrawled by loyalist paramilitaries in East Belfast.
The third element, Hoey’s bizarre invoking of the Italian revolutionary socialist Antonio Gramsci— a trick attempted regularly in the pages of the Belfast Telegraph by serial idiot and bigot, Nelson McCausland—firmly locates her position on the extreme Right.
This time last year I wrote at length about the abuse of Gramsci by Peter Hitchens, who emphasised the left-wing affiliations of many of Britain’s political elite to rationalise right-wing paranoia. Hitchen’s frail grasp of reality can be gauged by his concerns that the ‘march through the institutions’ was being led by one Tony Blair, war criminal and profiteer!
Hitchens and Hoey are fundamentally wrong in their conspiratorial mischaracterisation of Gramsci, and in the deluded notion that New Labour (or middle-class republicans, for that matter) are pursuing a left-inspired attack on the cultural institutions of civil society to win ‘hegemonic power’.
The same paranoid style underpins Hoey’s fantastical delusions about a Shinner network dominating the northern courts and the media.
History, not conspiracy
While it is true that post-Belfast Agreement NI has seen the emergence of a more confident Catholic middle class, this is the product of long-term historical trends and not outlandish conspiracy.
The key long-term factor was Basil Brooke’s reluctant decision to expand the British Labour government’s post-war welfare state to the North, intended again to plaster over cracks in the Unionist monolith. This sowed the dragon’s teeth of a Catholic minority that could for the first time survive at home rather than emigrate, and then educate itself after the 1947 Act.
Education brought many of them up against the glass ceiling of structural discrimination and helped spur the emergence of the civil rights movement, which eventually took on and helped bury the Orange State.
Throughout the conflict that erupted in 1969, the British and Irish states—sharing the same fundamental perspective—encouraged the creation of a stable middle-class Nationalist constituency as a means of undermining working-class insurgency: civil rights reforms, the early toothless Fair Employment legislation, cosmetic concessions on policing all spoke to this objective.
The 1981 Hunger Strikes intensified these exigencies, and with increasing US pressure, piece-meal reform became systemic through the application of the McBride principles, the Maryfield Secretariat, etc. In the 1980s, the rationale was clear, and is spelled out explicitly in documents now released for the public: the state aimed to defeat republicanism by providing a ladder of social mobility for some Catholics, even while Thatcher aggressively dismantled the welfare state in Britain.
This reading needs to take account of the dialectic between liberal diplomacy and repressive counterinsurgency in British policy. For while northern Catholics entered some arenas of the public sector, the North’s massive security apparatus left the structural economic differentials of the old Orange State modified but largely intact.
As late as 1988, Rowthorn and Wayne identified northern Catholics as the most economically disadvantaged community in Britain—indeed, in the then European Community. Unemployment amongst northern Protestants was actually less severe than in de-industrialised northern Britain, due primarily to the fact that ‘approaching one in ten of all Protestant men in paid employment worked for the security forces in some capacity’. There is little wonder then that Unionists erected a statue to the B-Men and UDR in Lisburn!
As the peace process kicked in and security jobs, metal and electrical trades etc. diminished, this subsidised advantage also partially receded, though to this day Catholics still tend to shy away from joining the police—hardly surprising given that they are twice as likely to be arrested.
Structural Inequality and Sectarian Dynamics
Hoey’s complaint is that Catholics have colonised civil society and public institutions from which they were previously excluded by an effective colour (or in this case religious) bar and are now intent on ending the existence of the state that oppressed them.
When the Baroness lumps middle-class nationalists into networks set on domination, she merely regurgitates the reactionary bile of centuries when fear of the Fenian ‘other’ stalked the nether regions of the colonial mind in Ireland, and it needs to be stated plainly: she is a vile reactionary.
The hundreds of middle-class northern Taigs who took to Twitter to vent their outrage, cataloguing their up-by-their-boot-straps, against-all-odds social ascent were surely correct to be indignant about Hoey, but wrong to limit their criticisms to the usual loyalist suspects.
My father did not attend secondary school, despite a scholarship to the local grammar, because he had to go and work in the local mill. I went on to receive quite a few qualifications, and then spent a decade teaching inside the northern educational system, and it stinks. Little has fundamentally changed since Pádraig Mac Piarais labelled the competitive examination system a ‘murder machine’.
Like my father, I had the academic ability to climb the greasy pole: I had access to the opportunity my father was denied. Yet over two thirds of my peers were told at age 11 that they were failures, and sent to the ‘stupid’ school. The legacy of this structural inequality survives, and it takes a devastating toll on the lives of young working-class Protestants in districts like the Shankill.
As I have written previously, colonialism is not an event, but a process. Peter Shirlow tweeted in response to Hoey-gate that of the hundred most deprived localities in the North, 70% were in nationalist-majority districts, making the important point that the sectarian discourse being peddled by Hoey and Bryson undermines social justice for all. Whatever the limitations of his lukewarm unionism, Shirlow is entirely correct about the imperative to speak in terms of class and not religion/nationality.
Hoey’s rant highlights the ways our politics and society remain locked into a sectarian dynamic, where liberal or progressive opinion [uniformly represented by earnest middle-class commentators] is embedded in sectarianism, unable to acknowledge the historical process underpinning the entire presumptions of the Northern State. This found classic expression in Terence O’Neill’s lament at his resignation that
It is frightfully hard to explain to Protestants that if you give Roman Catholics a good job and a good house they will live like Protestants because they will see neighbours with cars and television sets; they will refuse to have eighteen children. But if a Roman Catholic is jobless, and lives in the most ghastly hovel he will rear eighteen children on National Assistance. If you treat Roman Catholics with due consideration and kindness they will live like Protestants in spite of the authoritative nature of their Church.
Liberal myopia concerning the colonial history and structural violence embedded into the northern polity finds frequent public expression in the outpourings of the insufferable Newton Emerson.
Emerson was on target this week when he wrote that Stormont is based on ‘elite co-operation’ or power sharing: the political representatives of the Protestant and Catholic middle classes manage politics together. Sinn Féin’s craven opportunism in the 1990s—donning the SDLP’s mantle as they slipped into their Armani suits—mirrored the Blairite triangulation trick of taking the Red Wall, Scotland and Wales for granted.
As discussion of a Border Poll heats up, the Shinners tell us to wait and get unity over the line before dealing with structural inequality, as they ride into power while the communities who carried them most of the way wallow in poverty, deprivation, and trans-generational trauma.
True to form, Emerson ignores the fundamental sectarianism of the Stormont institutions, insisting that ‘we are Alsace-Lorraine, not Algeria’: he winces at the ‘resurgent fashion to analyse Northern Ireland as a colony – analysis that quickly turns into sectarianism once it escapes its academic confines’ (Irish News, 6 Jan 2022). Earlier he felt compelled (Irish Times, 31 Dec 2021) to counter heavily-covered public demolitions of the Orange State from Joe Brolly and Bernadette Devlin.
In response Emerson makes the bizarre claim that the experience of the vast majority during the Troubles was of a society ‘almost bizarrely inclined towards normality’: the North apparently sustained its ‘innate decency’ throughout the Troubles. Those who want to quantify just how stupid an argument this is can read Brendan O’Leary’s account of Troubles violence in the first volume of his treatise on Northern Ireland.
Yet such is the urge to hear reassuring liberal nonsense that a middle-class twit like Newton, can get paid by news outlets north and south to tell us that it all be okay if we just have enough boutique shops and bespoke retail outlets. He a fool whose neoliberal tripe gets far too frequent a hearing, and there is a reason our rulers north and south are willing to peddle this rubbish.
The O’Neill/Emerson dream—that all the North needed was for just the right number of Taigs to become liberal middle-class Prods—underpinned British (and indeed Irish policy) for decades. Yet the historical reality of the violence and sectarian logic underpinning partition, and of the capitalist social system for that matter, shattered liberal complacency after 2008.
All those well-heeled Taigs joining the golf club or rocking up to Ravenhill in the early noughties were suddenly reminded after Brexit—and by the catalogue of intransigence, bigotry and corruption that passed for DUP governance—that Brooke’s old admonition still held good.
Now they must ask whether the New Ireland they want is only for those who, like themselves, ascended the greasy pole, or if it is to offer anything beyond flags and lofty rhetoric to those who suffered most during the Troubles: those who cleared the path for their ascent through their suffering and sacrifice, and who today lie prostate, pummelled by a decade of austerity.
The working class—Catholic, Protestant and Other, that great respectable class and the majority of the people on this island —remain (as Connolly insisted) the only force able to remake this society.
If that is the case, then it is necessary to remove the splinter from their own eye as the new Nationalist elite point to the plank in Kate Hoey’s. Nationalism cannot transcend the colonial and class divides that continue to disfigure our island. That can only be achieved by a movement which opens prosperity to all and provides for all the opportunity for individual freedom and fulfilment until now restricted to the fortunate few.
This article is an abridged version of a piece that appeared on the blog Blosc. Reprinted with author’s permission.