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Unionists, Loyalists and Conflict Transformation in Northern Ireland by Lee Smithey (review)

From: New Hibernia Review
Volume 17, Number 2, Samhreadh/Summer 2013
pp. 152-154 | 10.1353/nhr.2013.0027

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The cessation of violence in Northern Ireland did not signal an end to conflict; rather, it ushered in an era marked by different kinds of contestations experienced within as well as across traditional sectarian divides. In Unionists, Loyalists and Conflict Transformation in Northern Ireland, the sociologist Lee Smithey contributes to a growing literature on the uncertain and arduous processes that accompany conflict transformation. Smithey develops a nuanced understanding of identity formation. Examining a rich set of examples of public displays and performances of heritage and cultural expression in Protestant, Unionist, and loyalist communities, Smithey explains the significance of—and also identifies the potentials and problems associated with—"cultural traditions" work. Central to the book's argument is the notion that collective identity should be understood as a process, not a product, of conflict transformation.

Smithey began his research in 2007, almost a decade after the Good Friday Agreement shifted Northern Ireland's political, social and psycho-cultural landscapes, and just as a power-sharing coalition government formed at Stormont. In extensive interviews, thoughtful participant observation, and a painstaking analysis of documentary data from government, nonprofit, and media sources, he examines the shifting sands of identity, especially in working-class communities where residents widely consider themselves on the losing end of the peace process. Smithey makes the case that grassroots cultural heritage work is an opportunity for working-class loyalists and Unionists to learn skills necessary for effective engagements with the media, government agencies, and the republican community.

By tracing incremental, subtle changes and reinterpretations of narratives, rituals, symbols and collective action, Unionists, Loyalists and Conflict Transformation in Northern Ireland simultaneously provides insights into experiences of political and social alienation and suggests a way forward to a transformation of polarized ethnopolitical relations in Northern Ireland. Modifications in parading, mural painting, and cultural traditions work involving things like the Ulster-Scots language, Scottish dancing, reenactments, and other engagements with heritage can be understood as a kind of bricolage; these activities introduce new ideas into group discourse through the very same rituals and practices that sustain the continuity of collective identities. In other words, cultural traditions are changing cultural traditions. Identity shifts mural by mural, one flag (or one flag removed) at a time.

Smithey uses a discussion of the changing thematic content of murals in five areas of Belfast (Belfast, East Belfast, North Belfast, Sandy Row and the Shankhill) to explore the idea of mitigation, which he explains as a process of moving away from contentious symbols and rituals of identity or those designed to intimidate or cause offense. He argues that the modest decline in murals with paramilitary, military and Orange themes should be seen as a positive sign that citizens are engaged in a dynamic cultural process. In seeking to re-inscribe Protestantism, loyalism, or Unionism onto the cityscape in less contentious ways, citizens are shaking up fossilized conceptions of identity. A chapter on parading and the Orange Order examines the relationships between collective identity and collective action. Tracing changes in the performance of memory, Smithey suggests ways that external forces—for example, a desire to capitalize on potential for tourism revenue—can create openings for reframing longstanding identities. People, he argues, can "act themselves" into new ways of thinking. For instance, events aimed at diluting the triumphalist and aggressive activities associated with parading—in order to attract broader public consumption—can eventually contribute to conflict transformation by "incrementally shifting collective identities in less exclusive directions." Later, Smithey argues that even memory work that might appear at first blush to be a self-serving rehearsal of old grievances or a repetitive articulation of mutually exclusive and oversimplified narratives that defend sectarianism can diminish fear and insecurity, and offer opportunities for change. Specifically, they can lead to more "persuasive" forms of contention in societies emerging from armed conflict, lending themselves more readily to dialogue and engagement than violence ever could.

The interviewees' remarks on tensions within Unionism and the long history of papering-over differences within Protestant communities help readers to understand Smithey's argument that cultural heritage work is as much a process of identity formation and community-building as it is one of articulation of identity to outsiders and...



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