North’s politics take a dark turn in sectarian direction

Is Donaldson’s electoral strategy based on re-igniting sectarianism?

What Kate Hoey says is not terribly important. She may be the Baroness of Rathlin but in recent years highlights of her political career have included a spin on a speedboat on the Thames with Brexiteer Nigel Farage, and a burger at a barbecue for the extremist TUV party outside an Orange Hall in Antrim.

The sectarianism of the comments she made this week, by way of preface to a report by a loyalist blogger, and published in the Belfast Newsletter, was distasteful but unsurprising. It was when the DUP leader, Jeffrey Donaldson MP, weighed in to welcome her contribution, and that of the so-called think tank behind the report, that things took a darker turn.

Hoey claimed there were "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". Professions mentioned included journalism, law and the public service. The report's author, Jamie Bryson, who stood for election as a local councillor in 2011 and got 167 votes, urged unionists to get themselves into the professions and, once installed, to "weaponise" their power, to retaliate against nationalists. Unionists were to do this "ruthlessly and relentlessly" with "no goodwill or balance" and not "a hint of shame".

This was, he said, "returning the serve". This term was infamously used by the late David Ervine to describe the UVF's motivation for bombing Dublin in 1974, killing 33 people. The IRA's Bloody Friday of 1972, which killed nine, was the serve. Ervine, wanting to leave all that behind, supported the Belfast Agreement. Hoisted onto the lid of a wheelie bin in Newtownards last April to address a handful of anti-protocol protesters, Bryson spoke of the DUP collapsing Stormont. Hoey has said the agreement was not sustainable.

Sense of humour

The North’s saving grace is its sense of humour. After the Newtownards incident, photos appeared, under the caption “how it started” and “how it’s going”, of Lord Carson on his pedestal and Bryson on his bin. This week disability activist Dermot Devlin posted a photoshopped picture of himself perched on a wheelie bin in his electric wheelchair, a mortar board on his head and a Machiavellian smirk on his face.

They're getting in everywhere and sure the post office is rotten with them. They, of course, were Catholics

But Devlin, who advises Stormont’s communities department on disability rights issues, told me he was very angry over Donaldson’s intervention. “You’d think a man in his position would be a bit more careful,” he said. “Everybody knows if you want to build a better future, you have to learn to sit down together and overcome differences.”

As a child, in the 1960s, I heard adults say things like, “They’re getting in everywhere” and “Sure the post office is rotten with them”. They, of course, were Catholics. The bigotry came from the highest echelons of unionism. Sir Basil Brooke boasted in 1933 he had “not a Roman Catholic about the place” and advised employers to take on “Protestant lads and lassies” since Catholics were “endeavouring to get in everywhere” and were out to destroy Ulster.

The Orange Order excluded Catholics and rewarded Protestants who were loyal to their “betters”.

In the 1940s my Orange grandfather opposed my mother going to college to train as a teacher. He did not want to be seen to have got above himself, and he had the promise of a job for her at the linen mill.

She and my father both benefited from the 1947 Education Act. So did many nationalists including leaders of the civil rights movement and politicians. As historian Eamon Phoenix put it in a BBC discussion on Thursday, northern Catholics began to see education as “a ladder out of second-class citizenship” in a closed society.

Some unionists complain that it has all gone too far. That you have to be called Séamus or Maireád to get a house or a job

Journalist Paul Clark tweeted that the headmaster at his Christian Brothers school told his students in the 1970s they were going out into a society that expected nothing of them, and urged them to prove it wrong. “We did,” Clark said. During the Troubles loyalist paramilitaries often singled out for murder those Catholics who were doing well for themselves. Pat Finucane and Rosemary Nelson were killed for being solicitors.

When David Trimble and John Hume shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 1998 the Ulster Unionist leader admitted unionists had built in Northern Ireland "a cold house for Catholics". We have Fair Employment and Equality laws now. They, meaning Catholics, have got way above the post office. But over the past 20 years I have heard some unionists complaining that it has all gone too far. That you have to be called Séamus or Maireád to get a house or a job. That Queen's University is a cold house now for Protestants.

Rest assured, there are still plenty of unionists in the professional classes, now rubbing shoulders quite cheerfully with nationalists. It is people from disadvantaged communities across the board in the North who are still under represented in third-level education and the careers it opens up. Among many working class Protestants the old passivity and deference still stifle ambition and confidence. Heather Wilson, from a unionist background, is an SDLP activist. She said last week, “no one has walked over working class unionists and loyalists like elite unionism has”.

Arlene Foster compared nationalists to crocodiles, and called their political leaders rogues and renegades. Donaldson claimed a Sinn Féin first minister would be a problem for unionists. Last week he said people should not be talking about Irish unity. If his electoral strategy is based on re-igniting sectarianism, many people, including unionists who respect nationalists, will talk of little else.