“What Kate Hoey says is not terribly important,” sneered Susan McKay in the Irish Times, after the furore over Hoey’s forthright foreword to the Unionist Voice Policy Studies report, Vetoing the Protocol: Restoring Cross-Community Consent Protections.

Published: 18 January 2022

“She may be the Baroness of Rathlin but in recent years highlights of her political career have included a spin on a speed boat 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 News Letter, was distasteful but unsurprising.”

McKay’s position is that the problem is that the DUP agree with Hoey.

She tweeted her article with: “My piece on the DUP and its welcome for a revival of traditional sectarianism: North’s politics take a dark turn as Catholics ‘get way above themselves’.”

Now I hate the protocol, but unlike Hoey, the TUV and the DUP, I’ve moved toward Doug Beattie’s and John Kyle’s pragmatic position that it’s here to stay, and that if its major deficiencies are ameliorated and Northern Ireland businesses exploit it intelligently, it could strengthen the Union.

But I completely understand why unionists fear it’s a Trojan horse for Irish unity, not least because of the chorus of activist nationalists pushing in that direction.

So I’m with Hoey in welcoming the “increasingly strategic activism” of some in the unionist community in coming together in various ways to develop networks and share ideas, particularly in encouraging young working class loyalists to aspire to enter professions like journalism, public service, and law.

And although I think it was clumsily phrased, I also agree with her statement that “there are 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”.

This is certainly true with newspapers and the law, where armies of lawyers acting mostly for republicans have been seriously waging war on free speech throughout the island, which inevitably has a greening effect on the media.

And the relentless abuse from Sinn Fein on social media has also discouraged those they target. There are some excellent rational and witty unionist tweeters, who challenge and ridicule them, but more are needed.

But back to McKay.

I find it “distasteful but unsurprising,” to borrow her phrase, that this Northern Irish self-proclaimed feminist and one-time Chief Executive Office of the National Women’s Council of Ireland, should condescendingly dismiss one of the most impressive Northern Irish female politicians of our time and accuse her of the sectarianism she has always fought against.

It’s unsurprising, though, because McKay, a Londonderry Protestant, long ago became a Dublin progressive.

McKay disliked my 1999 book on the Orange Order, but I genuinely tried to be fair when the following year I reviewed her Northern Protestants: An Unsettled People, which was based on more than 60 interviews.

However, I found it appallingly mean-spirited.

I noted that somehow she had failed to find people that most readers would want to spend ten minutes with.

“Where, I kept wondering, are all those wonderful people I know in the Northern Ireland Protestant community, with whom I have marvellous conversations and innumerable laughs?”

And I was shocked by the bias of her negative account of two events involving loyal institutions that we had both attended and which I had found very positive.

Her problem, I wrote, was not only that she was encumbered by the baggage of a Dublin liberal, but that she hadn’t realised that to understand a community you have to spend enough time with them to achieve a level of intimacy and trust and form deep friendships.

I couldn’t face her recent Northern Protestants: On Shifting Ground, but again, it’s gone down very well with the Dublin and London elite who despise non-progressive unionists, and, of course, with Sinn Fein.

Do McKay and others who are calling her a sectarian bigot have a clue about how Hoey defied her party leaders throughout 30 years in the Commons fighting against tribalism in Northern Ireland by relentlessly (if unsuccessfully) lobbying the Labour Party leadership to organise here as the Conservatives did? This probably did for her ministerial career as a well-regarded sports minister.

She was a notoriously assiduous and effective member of parliament for the difficult constituency of Vauxhall where she was a fierce fighter for the disadvantaged and a highly effective chairman of the unfashionable Countryside Alliance for nine years.

Her interest in foreign affairs extended to visiting Sarajevo at the height of the siege and going undercover to Zimbabwe at a time of a terrible political and humanitarian crisis.

At a celebratory gathering of journalists to celebrate Brexit, she was guest of honour.

And now, as a member of the House of Lords, in addition to her valiant work for the union, she is a great warrior for free speech at a time when we really need it.

She is a remarkable woman.

Susan McKay should be ashamed.

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