Peer faces backlash after claiming NI professions ‘dominated’ by nationalists

Kate Hoey accused of ‘gross stereotyping’ of journalists and lawyers in unionist pamphlet

A former UK Labour minister has been accused of perpetuating "gross stereotyping" of professionals in Northern Ireland and advocating "McCarthyite tactics" after she claimed careers such as law and journalism "have become dominated by those of a nationalist persuasion".

Baroness Kate Hoey served in Tony Blair's government in the 1990s and campaigned alongside the prime minister in support of the Belfast Agreement. She stepped down as a Labour MP at the last Westminster election. A strong supporter of Brexit, the Co Antrim-born baroness was given a peerage by Boris Johnson and now sits in the House of Lords as a cross-party peer.

Writing a foreword for a pamphlet from Unionist Voice Policy Studies, a group set up by the loyalist activist Jamie Bryson, Ms Hoey encouraged unionists, “especially those from working-class loyalist communities”, to enter higher education in order to pursue careers such as journalism, law and public service.

She went on to argue 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”.


Those comments provoked a backlash, with the Belfast branch of the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) accusing her of adopting “an appallingly blinkered view of professional journalists” by implying that “every reporter, photographer, editor or PR person should carry their supposed religion as if it was a number on their back and jockey with every other of the opposite religion for influence”.


The NUJ added that journalists in Northern Ireland had “all too frequently” faced threat, and “representing the media as if they were the terrain of a sectarian tug-of-war can only give credence to, and encourage, those who would perpetrate such abuse”.

Two journalists, Martin O'Hagan and Lyra McKee, were murdered whilst pursuing their profession in Northern Ireland, as were several lawyers, including Pat Finucane, Rosemary Nelson, Edgar Graham and the judges and magistrates William Staunton, Martin McBirney, Rory Conaghan, William Doyle and Maurice Gibson.

Defending her remarks in a platform piece for the nationalist Irish News, Ms Hoey insisted her comments did not have “anything to do with religion” as “the contested nature of Northern Ireland is not about religious theology, it is about national identity”.

She pointed to initiatives such as a letter on Brexit sent to the taoiseach in 2018, which was co-signed by 1,000 “civic nationalists”. She argued that such initiatives illustrated her point that “there is no equivalent network of unionist activists using access and credentials obtained via positions in the professional class to advance the cause of unionism”.

The Sinn Féin vice-president and Stormont Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill called on Ms Hoey to withdraw what she described as her "outrageous" remarks, which harked back to a "bygone era". Ms O'Neill added that "the days of nationalists being denied opportunities are gone".


However, the former DUP Stormont minister Jim Wells voiced his support for Ms Hoey. Mr Wells told BBC Radio Ulster: "If you look at the passing-out of the latest cohort of solicitors and barristers in Northern Ireland, the vast majority of them have been educated in what we would perceive to be Catholic grammar schools. It doesn't necessarily follow they are nationalists, but obviously the vast bulk of nationalists are from the Catholic persuasion. It's important we address that imbalance, because if that imbalance occurred in any other profession, the Equality Commission would be all over it, but because it's the law it is quietly ignored."

There are no breakdowns for the political affiliation of employees and professionals across broad sectors of the Northern Ireland workforce. But the 2011 census results showed there were 2,474 legal professionals with a Catholic background (57 per cent), compared with 1,665 from a Protestant background (38 per cent), while the remaining 192 had another or no perceived religious affiliation (4 per cent).

The unionist News Letter argued this census data backs Ms Hoey's contention. However, a Northern Ireland Judicial Appointments Commission report from July 2021 appears to indicate a more even distribution among those appointed to senior legal posts such as judges and magistrates. Among 331 such post holders, the commission reported that 48.3 per cent were from a Protestant background and 46.5 per cent from a Catholic background, while 5.1 per cent fitted neither category.

So far as journalism is concerned, similar statistics don’t appear readily available. The Northern Ireland Equality Commission’s fair employment monitoring returns do provide figures for individual companies and public sector bodies. The 2019 returns, for example, show BBC Northern Ireland – where Ms Hoey claims the prevailing climate is “soft nationalism” – has a workforce which is 53.6 per cent from a Protestant background and 46.4 per cent from a Catholic one, whilst UTV’s is 56.8 per cent from a Protestant background and 43.2 per cent from a Catholic one.


The SDLP MLA Matthew O’Toole accused Ms Hoey of encouraging unionists to adopt a “McCarthyite tactic of othering members of the judiciary, lawyers, academics or journalists just because you disagree with them”.

While Ms Hoey’s article has undoubtedly stirred a hornet’s nest, the debate about disparities in educational achievement and employment opportunity is far from new. A series of reports have registered concern over the poor level of achievement demonstrated by working-class Protestant boys in the classroom. In December, the independent think tank Pivotal reported on the separate but related issue of the “brain drain” which has seen many school leavers head to universities in Britain, never to return home.

The former DUP minister Jim Wells claims young unionists are more likely to be part of this exodus as Belfast’s Queen’s University is perceived as “a cold house for the Protestant community” – a point the university strongly disputes. In its report, Pivotal called on the Stormont Executive to develop “a comprehensive and ambitious strategy to address the loss of talented young people from Northern Ireland”.

Commenting on the latest controversy, the Northern Ireland Equality Commission told The Irish Times it believes "it is important to highlight the impact of enduring inequalities in the Northern Ireland education system. Whilst the education system works well for many of our young people, some groups of children do less well. This includes those entitled to free school meals, particularly boys, notably Protestant boys. These children struggle to fulfil their potential within the current system, and this determines the extent to which all children can realise their full potential in all aspects of life."

While not addressing the furore over the Hoey comments directly, the commission called for “action to improve childcare and early-years provision” to help tackle enduring barriers to opportunity which disadvantage the most vulnerable in Northern Ireland.

Ms Hoey herself shows no sign of acceding to Michelle O’Neill’s demand that she withdraw her remarks. Instead she describes the NUJ’s statement as “scandalous” and claims the angry reaction to her article shows an “elite nationalist network” is “rattled” and has “swung into action seeking to misrepresent the context of my remarks, and thus shut down debate on this issue”.