Kate Hoey’s now infamous comments last week spoke of welcoming the encouragement being given to young loyalists to further their academic and professional ambitions. Tangible evidence of this encouragement is difficult to find, but what is clear for all to see is that Joel Keys has been warned by the PSNI about his safety. The threats, and widespread abuse on social media, have come from his own community. There is an Ulster Unionist Party candidate from the Falls Road, from a Catholic family and with a grandfather murdered by loyalists. He has not been threatened. Interestingly, he graduated from Ulster University with a degree in journalism.
On the Falls Road, working class politics are visible and dynamic, coming through on murals etc. It’s not the same in East Belfast. Many of the murals there are concerned with territory, not with politics. The last thing that the Unionist political classes want is an educated Protestant working class as they are going to realise that they have been sold a pup.
Following Hoey’s assertion that Nationalists are dominating professions (citing law, journalism, and public service as examples) and using this domination to push their nefarious agenda towards a united Ireland, prominent Unionist MLA Jim Wells appeared on Talkback on (6 January 2022).
There is so much to pick apart about Jim Wells comments on Talkback. In this part of the world everyone is used to politicians blithely throwing out statements that in other parts of the UK or Ireland, or any civilised place, would end a career. Wells focused on the 1947 Education Act as being the cause of the problem. It didn’t have to be done, he said, but good old Lord Londonderry with the benevolence with which his class is known, faced down opposition and allowed Taig schools to be funded, and this had ‘laid down the foundation for a very well educated middle class which has then fed through to domination in the courts and other professions.’
What is interesting to me is why the likes of Hoey and Wells fear the well-educated Catholic / Nationalist middle class.
If the union is so appealing and only someone who is prepared to vote against their own interest would vote for a united Ireland why is this Catholic/Nationalist middle class to be feared? Surely they would be persuaded to the Unionist view and would be a massive voting bloc who would help secure the union indefinitely? But they mostly aren’t persuaded. And it’s not because of tribalism or a romantic view.
People in professions who are doing fairly well at life generally favour the status quo. They are worried about mortgages, their own children’s education and so on. The problem, as Hoey knows, is that reunification now feels like more of a status quo as it would be a return to a more appealing union in the EU.
Unionists have never, over the course of the last 100 years, sought to make the union appealing to Catholics or Nationalists. During these recent discussions, both Hoey & Wells did the usual ‘not all Catholics are Nationalists: some of the biggest Unionist are Catholic’ messaging. Most people don’t give a damn about religion and would give even less of a one if it wasn’t still being used as method of othering. I am Catholic but went to a Protestant (or state) school, swore allegiance to the Queen of England in Girl Guides, wore a poppy when they were sold in school and had maybe one Catholic friend when I was growing up. I was in a Unionist town, and my parents had pragmatically decided to raise us to fit in with the majority around us. If the Northern Ireland experiment was going to work on anyone it should have worked on me. I never saw the RTÉ toy show, and was far more familiar with British culture than Irish. On a family holiday when I was a teenager I was asked by an American if I would use a British or Irish flag and I said British. The problem was, to the PUL community that I was living amongst, I was still a Fenian and that was made clear to me in a load of small ways. I am not complaining or saying it was a difficult - it was just part of my experience but it was there.
Part of the reason I felt like this was of course the usual name-calling, but I was growing up in a pretty middle class environment and I was never chased or beaten up or anything. Instead I would notice the side-eye to me when someone would say ‘my dad says all those ones at Bloody Sunday were in the IRA’ or ‘the priests hide guns in Belfast/’ It still makes me cringe that I would agree with such stupid statements, young teenager or not. But it felt like it was a test at the time and I didn’t want to face the consequences of failing it. Increasingly, nationalists are not only accepting these challenges, but confidently and easily rejecting them. This will not regress, and will only get more pronounced.
Ben Lowry remarked that Queens University is a cold house for Unionists and backed this up citing the number of students wearing GAA tops round the place. I too found it shocking. I was shocked that they were brave enough to be wearing a top that would have attracted, at the very least, a good degree of negative attention in my town.
⏩ Winnie Woods is a recently retired housewife with an interest in human rights & politics.