Intervening In Northern Ireland

Roy Johnston reviews Intervening In Northern Ireland: critically re-thinking representations of the conflict, John Barry and Marysia Zalewski (eds), Routledge, ISBN 978-0-415-37314-2, £65 hbk

Intervening in Northern Ireland

THIS BOOK is the result of a workshop held in Queens University Institute of Governance which attempted to look critically at how the academic research community has been attempting to analyse the conflict problem.

There are 10 chapters, in two sections, the first attempting to address critically how the problem is structured, the second 'engaging the conventional specifics'. There is a preface by Elizabeth Meehan, who has a background in the Queens School of Politics and later the Institute of Governance, in which she stresses the need for innovative interdisciplinary thinking.

Marysia Zalewski (Queens - currently Gender Studies, Aberdeen) is an ex-Catholic from Poland family background with an English accent. She was required at the start of her period in Queens to declare her background Catholic or Protestant. We are immediately plunged into the over-simplification implied by the 'two communities' concept. Her analysis of the Northern Ireland Women's Coalition illustrates aspects of the gender issue lurking in the undergrowth.

Jenny Edkins (International Politics, Aberystwyth) attempts an analysis of the role of the intellectual in a period of change, with nods in the direction of Gramsci, Foucault and others. We have 'organic intellectuals' who try to make things happen, and 'traditional' ones whose job it is to stop them. Her illustration, in terms of 'cause and solution', of 'famines' in a global context, however I found unhelpful in the Northern Ireland context.

Nick Vaughan-Williams (PhD student, Aberystwyth) is attempting to analyse 'borders' in a global context. He brings in a useful outsider's critical view, referencing Habermas, Foucault and Derrida; the European integration process is seen as relevant, and the 'two communities' model is questioned. He is critical of the 'unintelligibility factor' in academic analytical theory. He reminds us, with Derrida, of the role of the border in setting the stage for 'the Troubles'.

Fiona Sampson edits Poetry Review and has published in Macedonia and in Romania. She brings an interesting Balkan perspective into the discussion, which includes the role of the understanding of the meanings of words in a problematic political context, and the role of myth.

Alan Finlayson (Politics and International Relations, Swansea) has contributed to the analysis of 'New Labour' in Britain. He is critical of how academics define their 'problems' in the Northern Ireland context, and how they claim to 'solve' them. He recognises the need for class analysis within the mutually hostile communities; poverty results from the need of 'capital' for a 'reserve army of cheap labour'; one senses a lurking Marxism, deserving more airing than it gets.

Ciaran O'Kelly (Law, Queens) explores the implications of the general lack of civic institutions within which an overlapping consensus might have been attained; basically the problem as identified at the time the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association was set up. He is however optimistic about the process of building civic consensus within the current power-sharing system.

Fidelma Ashe (Politics, Ulster) attempts to develop the feminist angle, going into more Northern Ireland-specific detail than Zalewski, exploring the obstacles to cross-community organisation for feminist objectives - agitation against withdrawal of free school milk, after all, need not be 'a Catholic anti-state protest'. The issues taken up by the Women's Coalition tended to be similarly constrained.

Kathryn Conrad (English, Kansas), who has been secretary of the American Conference on Irish Studies since 1999, launches an important attack on the simplistic 'two communities' model, homing in on the 'queer' (gay and lesbian) community as generator of a 'counterpublic' alternative to the 'zero-sum game'.

(The present writer can instance others, which the research community perhaps needs to explore. In particular the various specialist scientific communities, all of which to my knowledge are not only 'cross-community' but all-Ireland. Likewise the labour movement and the political left, which still exists, though somewhat marginalised by the Troubles. The Greens are emerging also in this context, perhaps in the context of a left-green convergence. We shall see.)

Dominic Bryan (Irish Studies, Queens) does a deconstruction job on the 'community' concept, challenging the idea that they are necessarily a good thing, even if bottom-up. He takes the 'parading community' as an example. 'Culture', 'identity' and 'community' can all be positive but 'are clearly mechanisms of control'. He ends on a warning note: "...we are providing legal justification for social practices that inscribe the conflict and exclude people...".

Margaret O'Callaghan (Politics and International Studies, Queens) alone of the contributors goes in some depth into the historical background, taking the academic community to task for their avoidance of 'deconstruction of partition lest it be seen... to substantiate the nationalist/republican argument...'. She homes in on the key episodes of modern history where Partition, basically engineered by the British imperial system, has left is with ongoing problems, simmering or at the boil: Ireland, Palestine, India.

This book should start a few critical hares and is not for the faint-hearted. It deserves a serious place in the global Irish studies libraries, and I hope the participants from Britain and the US will ensure it gets there. We need more analysis of the actors in the all-Ireland 'imagined community', the real Irish nation, which does not exist yet. It may yet emerge via the all-Ireland Green movement, allied with an emergent all-Ireland labour movement; it would be unlikely to emerge via an all-Ireland Fianna Fail, or all-Ireland unionism.

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This document was last modified by David Granville on 2008-09-23 10:22:55.
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