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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

2000, Vol. 3 No. 1 .


The Northern Ireland Question: Nationalism, Unionism and Partition
Patrick J. Roche & Brian Barton eds,

(Aldershot: Ashgate, 1999)
206pp. Index. Hb.: 39.95 ISBN 1-8401-4490-4



The two co-editors' third volume on the Northern Ireland Question focuses on the interrelationship between (Irish) nationalism and (Ulster) unionism and the resulting partition of Ireland. Although the book's contributors, all of which are highly experienced in Northern Irish affairs, present rather detailed factual accounts, a basic knowledge of Irish history and Anglo-Irish relations on the part of the reader is assumed. The volume's eight highly readable and informative essays form an important contribution to the academic literature on Northern Ireland.

In their respective essays on pre-partition nationalism and unionism, Brian Girvan and D. George Boyce provide the frameworks for the entire book. Brian Barton's piece on partition is a very well written contribution which brings back to life the forces that so decisively influenced the course of events in this formative period. Subsequently, Dennis Kennedy convincingly argues that nationalism's early "addiction to rhetorical purity" (p.79) sealed partition and that its continued emphasis on the symbolism of cross-border bodies obstructs rather than promotes the rapprochement between nationalists and unionists today. The two pieces by Graham Gudgin and Sydney Elliott - the former looks into issues of discrimination before 1972 and the latter into the North's electoral system - are valuable contributions, yet somewhat remote to the main theme of the book. J. Esmond Birnie's "The Economics of Unionism and Nationalism" offers valuable new insights, but it remains questionable whether the economic dimension is part of the core problem. In the concluding essay Michael Cunningham takes up the difficult task of presenting present-day unionist and nationalist thinking, at a time in which both are in a state of flux. His excellent analysis, therefore, is of provisional character.

One could criticize that the book fails to identify Irish nationalism and Ulster unionism as two antagonistic forms of ethnically-based nationalism. Thus the Northern Ireland Question is presented as an isolated problem rather than as part of the global phenomenon of inter-ethnic conflict. Since the editors deliberately chose to focus on Northern Ireland, this criticism is not valid. Yet, it might serve as a suggestion for the theme of a fourth volume on the subject.


Norbert Schnitzler
Harvard University




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