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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

2000, Vol. 3 No. 1 .


Identity, Rights and Constitutional Transformation
Patrick Hanafin & Melissa S. Williams

(Aldershot: Ashgate, 1999)
212pp. Index. Bibl. Hb.: 42.50; ISBN 1-8401-4034-8.



This book is a useful addition to existing literature, focussing on recent trends and newer critical viewpoints on the use of constitutions to address issues of identity and rights. It is also an example of an edition whose differing voices add to a complex harmony, rather than adding up to cacaphony.

The viewpoints here emphasise the balancing act which constitutional processes have become. Using different starting-points, including race, language, colonialism, globalisation, and cultural identity, they reveal different balancing-acts, but a broad shared conclusion that the effort toward equilibrium must continue. There is also at the heart of these essays a pragmatic understanding, both that the real-world consequences of constitutional provisions matter, and that these consequences will change over time as different groups or individuals invoke the provisions for different purposes. Contextualisation matters.

There are examples from several domains where constitutional provisions intended to portect or advance the interests of one group, later rebound in exactly the opposite direction. Vivien Hart, for example, discusses the post-colonial constitutions in which European elite interests were guarded by provisions later used by African elites, and now re-infecting Europe with an obligation to deal with human rights for its own citizens. Robert O'Brien notes simultaneous trends toward limiting the constitutional levers available to governments, on the one hand, while regional structures have increased scope for action with much lower requirements of popular participation. Pervading this volume is the sense of political juggling, negotiation, and the view of constitutions as having a role to play in conflict resolution.

On whether constitutions can be impartial, for example, Melissa Williams grapples with a series of caveats: "A deliberative politics of difference entails the conviction that the process of giving specific content to civil and political rights - and, I should add, to social rights as well - should include the voices of marginalised groups, and that the content of these rights should not function to reinforce unjust patterns of social, cultural, economic, or political inequality. A scheme of rights which avoids unjust inequalities may be articulable in difference-blind terms, but in some circumstances it may require some group-specific rights [which may in turn] reinforce the social distance between groups, reproduce intergroup hostility, and jeopardise marginalised groups' prospects for equality."

There is also a welcome sense of the limitations of constitutions and legal arrangements, which cannot, of course, do everything. Damian O'Leary makes this point: "The problem with constitutional proposals of the macro kind - large all-encompassing packages that re-shape and re-constitute political, social, legal and economic institutions evidenced in the Belfast Agreement - is that they fail to heed the fact that the province needs to be rebuilt from within as much as it needs to be rebuilt from without. That is, it is not just the constitutional status or the nature and procedural form of Northern Ireland's institutions that are in need of reform. The attitudes, the perceptions, the political and cultural stances of the people within Northern Ireland are also in desperate need of critical attention."

Oddly, for a volume which underlines the importance of contexts, this one is written from an overwhelmingly Northern viewpoint, Vivien Hart's essay being the honourable exception. However, most of the essays reflect attempts to take into account a broad range of experiences, and particularly the plight of the marginalised, which compensates somewhat for the limited range of voices.

In the long run, this book may find itself "dated" by the very determination to include newer viewpoints. The heavy use of key words such as project, discourse, and narrative may cause a loss of meaning as these are superseded by longer-lasting terms. Nonetheless, it is worth showcasing these viewpoints, and satisfying that the editors were able to make this into a coherent whole.


Sue Williams
Director of Policy & Evaluation Unit, INCORE




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