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Sectarian baiting, muted response show how little has changed in the North

15 January 2022

Former Labour MP Baroness Kate Hoey at an anti-protocol rally in Newtownards.

There were many expressions of outrage when Kate Hoey, Baroness of Rathlin and former British Labour party MP, joined with local front man for loyalism, Jamie Bryson in claiming a Catholic takeover of the media and professional bodies.

Hoey claimed there were “very justified concerns that many professional vocations have become dominated by those of a nationalist persuasion”. Professions mentioned included journalism, law and the public service. Bryson urged unionists to get themselves into the professions and retaliate against nationalists. Unionists were to do this “ruthlessly and relentlessly” with “no goodwill or balance” and not “a hint of shame”.

Condemnation has been accompanied with a dismissal of Hoey and Bryson as fringe figures. However, Hoey was a member of Westminster's Northern Ireland Committee. She is a notorious bigot and was the only public figure to support a loyalist attempt to bring in religious apartheid in Irish boxing. Bryson has links throughout the Unionist political establishment, is the PR voice for attempts at sectarian mobilisation in response to the Brexit Northern Ireland Protocol, and described his proposals as “returning the serve”. A term used by the late David Ervine in relation to the UVF’s Dublin and Monaghan 1974 bombing massacre, which  killed 33 people.

The sectarian assault had gone well beyond mere rhetoric. A prominent human rights academic, Colin Harvey was inundated with online threats while the DUP were charged with blocking his appointment to official bodies.

However indignation led to frustration and then silence when DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson welcomed the comments by Hoey and Bryson and the accompanying report. People should not discuss the prospects for Irish unity, he argued. Yet again he threatened the collapse of Stormont if the Brexit Northern Ireland Protocol is not abandoned and if the British press ahead with a culture act involving an Irish language commissioner. In the event of Sinn Féin emerging as the largest party he would have problems with a Sinn Fein first minister and no Unionist Party has evinced support for this outcome in the event of success by Michelle O'Neill.

Unionist sectarianism has never gone away. Unionist representatives do not support the current political settlement.  They have eaten away at it and are filled for nostalgia for a past where they had absolute control of the state and of political patronage. They were forced to the table by Britain and dream of collapsing the current settlement. Brexit seemed the perfect vehicle, now they find themselves despised by former supporters and betrayed by the Tories.

On the other hand, for all the tears, nationalists desperately support holding up the illusion of a settlement.  The Stormont Executive should struggle on. The opportunities available to the Catholic middle class are valued as gold dust. The Irish capitalists generally want stability based on partition and their blessing for a place in a coalition government in Dublin is central to Sinn Féin plans.

So instead of taking advantage of Unionist decay and appealing to a large sector of Unionist workers and a middle class disenchanted with the DUP, the nationalists are forced to hold their tongue. So also are the trade unions. With the exception of a protest by the Belfast branch of the NUJ local trade unions have kept silent, feeling no need to speak up for members obviously under threat. The local supporters of British Labour are also silent. No-one should play down the significance of a major British party ignoring the rawest of sectarian baiting by a leading member, especially when they are cheerfully expelling left wing Jewish members on charges of anti-semitism.

 The real force holding up the Northern statelet is of course the British government. That doesn't convert into disinterest. The hard core of the Brexiteers are fiercely Unionist and, although the political establishment are fragmented, there is no sign of letting go in Ireland. The close support for unionism is indicated by a sudden rule reversal designed to allow Jeffrey Donaldson to hold both MP and MLA status and help stabilise the DUP.

The sectarian stew in the North will get more rancid, but it will not disappear until someone offers an alternative.  That won't be Sinn Féin.  Their talking point is an appeal for the DUP to show responsibility and help keep the show on the road.

There has never been more general disenchantment with actually existing partition, or more opportunities to argue for a democratic and socialist Ireland. However a key element would be consigning to the dustbin of history the Dail alongside Stormont. That's going to be difficult as long as Sinn Féin and leftist groups are fixated on winning seats there.

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