The DUP’s endorsement of an unhinged loyalist rant against nationalist activists who “dominate professional vocations” has set the scene for a polarising and bitter Stormont Assembly election campaign.
The comments by Antrim-born MP Kate Hoey (pictured) were printed in the loyalist Newsletter, a publication with a long history of anti-Catholic rhetoric. They were extracted from a foreward to a report by a loyalist blogger in which she darkly warned about the “positioning” of educated nationalists in key professions who she claimed were then “used to exert influence on those in power”.
The conspiracy theory recalls comments of previous DUP leaders such as Arlene Foster who compared nationalists to crocodiles “who keep coming back and looking for more”, acting in support of political leaders who she described as “rogues and renegades”.
Hoey also lashed out at those from the nationalist community who she absurdly claimed were “dominating” journalism. In a follow-up article, she insisted the comments were not “anything to do with religion”.
But Catholics reacted angrily to the comments, with many accusing Hoey of blatant sectarianism. Some defiantly posted details on social media of their background and educational achievements.
Historian Eamon Phoenix explained that in recent decades, northern Catholics pursued education as “a ladder out of second-class citizenship” in the unionist-dominated society in the North. Political commentator Susan McKay also recalled her community’s battle for employment in the face of unchecked anti-Catholic discrimination.
“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,” she wrote.
“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’.”
There was also a backlash from the National Union of Journalists (NUJ), who accused Hoey of adopting “an appallingly blinkered view of professional journalists”.
In an electoral appeal for the support of unionist extremists, the DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson described the twisted commentary as a “welcome contribution”.
In other signs Donaldson’s electoral strategy is based on igniting unionist sectarianism, he again threatened to collapse the Stormont Assembly if a Sinn Féin first minister is elected, or if Irish language legislation is passed.
Sinn Fein chairman Declan Kearney said Donaldson and those around him “knew exactly what he was doing and why” when they welcomed Hoey’s statements.
“The days of nationalists being denied opportunities are gone and they are not coming back,” added Sinn Fein’s Deputy Leader Michelle O’Neill. “Those who try to stop change and hark back to the past will fail”.
The Stormont Deputy First Minister also called on Ms Hoey to withdraw her “outrageous” remarks, which she said harked back to a “bygone era”.
And an academic at Queen’s University said there had been a surge in online abuse directed at him following Hoey’s comments.
Colin Harvey is a board member of the Ireland’s Future group, a group of nationalist professionals and celebrities which has organised meetings and debates in support of Irish Unity, but which has been specifically criticised by Hoey.
The Human Rights professor warned that a “targeted campaign” is seeking to close down conversations around the issue of Irish reunification.
Mr Harvey has come under attack in the past from unionists, and his appointment to a Stormont panel of experts on human rights was reportedly blocked by the DUP in 2020. He has previously spoken of feeling “under siege” from unionism and loyalism after criticism from some elected representatives.
The campaign against Mr Harvey is being compared to the orchestrated character assassinations directed in the past against nationalist human rights lawyers Pat Finucane and Rosemary Nelson, before they were murdered in 1989 and 1999 respectively.
“I am increasingly concerned about where this might all lead, not just for myself, but for anyone affected in this region ... everyone knows where this atmosphere can end in a deeply contested society like this,” he said.
Sinn Féin MP John Finucane said “the deliberate vilification and targeting” of Mr Harvey should be called out and condemned by all. “Colin Harvey is being targeted because he is a nationalist. It is reckless and it is dangerous. Those who engage in this behaviour need to be firmly opposed.”