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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

2000, Vol. 3 No. 1 .


Identity in Northern Ireland: Communities, Politics and Change
Cathal McCall

(London: Macmillan, 1999)
230pp. Index. Bibl. ISBN 0-312-21844-3. 42.50.



In Identity in Northern Ireland, Cathal McCall takes an unusual look at the oft examined problem of the prospects for peace in that troubled region by examining the extent to which changes in the political, economic, and cultural structures of the UK, Ireland, and Europe have affected the identities of Irish Nationalists and Ulster Unionists. In a Postmodern critique of modernist notions of identity, he examines changes in the cultural, economic, and territorial identity resources of both communities in the contexts of the burgeoning EU and the 'axis' of Anglo-Irish cooperation in seeking a solution to the Troubles.

The main feature of McCall's argument regarding the new postmodernism in Europe surrounds the principle of subsidiarity in the EU, the availability of economic resources on the regional level, and the acceleration of regional cultural linkages as alternatives to state-centered and state-sponsored initiatives. The willingness of the EU to create forums for regional action and association leads, in McCall's opinion, to new forms of identity and to sources of identity that are not constrained by modernist, state-centered and territorial dictates. At one level the reality of these postmodern forces is quite clear, however, the lack of cultural linkages for the Unionist community-as well at the continuing reliance of many members of both communities to frame their identities in territorial terms-lends credence to McCall's realization that only 'intimations' of postmodernism rather than sweeping forces are present in the conflict.

One difficulty with his argument is the proposition that communal identity is best represented as being made up of a finite number of resources-political, economic, and cultural-that change over time. While this may in fact be a viable breakdown-even if it ignores psychological theories of identity-McCall's decision to embody possible changes in identity through interviews with officials from the main parties tends-in this author's opinion-to ignore the contributions of grass roots movements such as the Women's Coalition and the many inter-community projects run by concerned citizens and ex-paramilitaries from both sides of the conflict.

Despite the lack of an earth-shattering breakthrough Identity in Northern Ireland does live up to many of the author's promises. It examines the conflict and peace initiatives in Northern Ireland within a larger context-both showing the promising movements forward as well as the 'modernist' difficulties impeding a final resolution. Through his interviews with mainstream party representatives McCall shows that many are contending with the facts of a 'postmodern' European climate, even though many believe that the politics of nationalism will continue to rule the day. Although the book's projections tend to be as tenuous as the current peace process, its analysis brings up many salient points that a student of Northern Ireland would do well to know.


Landon Hancock
ICAR




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