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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

1998, Vol. 1 No. 2 .

Scorpions in a Bottle
John Darby

(London: Minority Rights Group Publications, 1997)
242pp, Index. Bibl. ISBN 1-873194-11-0..
Pb.: 1-873194-16-1.

Scorpions in a Bottle: Conflicting cultures in Northern Ireland, is an extremely well written, balanced and ac cessible book, which provides a very useful introduction to the present conflict. While it will be of interest to all scholars of ethnic conflict, the book's real strength lies in its concise summary of the dynamics of political conflict in Northern Ireland and will doubtless become an invaluable reference point for those dipping their toes for the first time into our own particular sceptic pool.

Darby packs a lot into his 242 pages, in a design which will no doubt delight the lazy undergraduate, with nine chapters of text and a chronology of events from 1914-1997. There is also a very useful reference section containing key political and constitutional documents, such as the Ulster Solemn League and Covenant of 1912 and the Government of Ireland Act of 1920, through to the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985 and Frameworks Document and Mitchell Principles of 1995 and 1996 respectively. Those readers accustomed to asking 'has it got any pictures?' will be happy to learn that there are a number of Martyn Turner's brilliantly withering cartoons scattered throughout the book.

The text is generally organised thematically, with the first three chapters providing contextual information on the background to the political conflict in Northern Ireland and a pen-picture of that dysfunctional society. The next four chapters examine in closer detail, the nature of the conflict and alternative viewpoints as to its causes and possible scenarios for resolution. The final two look at the lessons which the conflict presents to other sites of ethnic dispute, and an informative section on how to access further information on Northern Ireland.

One of the most striking things about the book is the way information is presented in a concentrated form. Did you know for example, that 'in 1992 the New York Times identified 48 ethnic conflicts throughout the world. These were geographically widely spread -9 in Europe, 7 in the Middle East and North Africa, 15 in Africa south of the Sahara, 13 in Asia and 4 in Latin America'? (p.1) Trivial Pursuits was never this good! The historical narrative is well summarised and given a balanced treatment. The author's main ideological position is that regardless of what lines are eventually drawn on the map and what political institutions are devised for the region, the roots of the conflict lie within Northern Ireland itself and will remain until the two rival factions can agree on some form of peaceful co-existence. The author outlines the polarisation of political allegiances in Northern Ireland with undoubtedly the best sound-bite in the book: 'Elections are less about casting your vote than voting your caste'. (p.58)

Darby concludes by suggesting that resolutions of ethnic conflicts are more likely to emerge if we come to a better understanding of the dynamic forces which create them, a process which may permit an approach of prevention rather than cure. Who could disagree with the sense in the comment from former Secretary General of the United Nations Dr Boutros Boutros Ghali: 'It is in fact easier, and cheaper, to prevent war than to end a war once it has started. This preventative capacity is based largely on research and access to information that can help us anticipate events more effectively.' (p.154).

Feargal Cochrane, University of Ulster

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