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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

1998, Vol. 1 No. 2 .


Identity, Ideology and Conflict
John D Cash

CUP, C, 1996
230pp. Index. Bibl. 0 521 55052 1, (30.00).



Cash's intention is firstly to develop "an approach which takes seriously the centrality of ideology and identity to the structuration of political life" (p. 7) and then to apply this approach to a dissection of Ulster unionism. The first part of this book is almost purely theoretical and attempts to develop a "somewhat novel" theory which sets out ideology as a "structure of signification, communication and subjection which is central to the organisation of both subjectivity and social and political relations."(ibid) If he is saying that political belief is a crucial means by which the individual constructs his or her identity and forms relationships with other individuals and society at large then it is difficult to argue with him. However it does not appear particularly novel. Novelty may come in his drawing together of various sociological interpretations (Structuralism, theory of communicative action etc) and psychological theories such as psychoanalysis to form a new prism in which ideology can be refracted; one which places "the unconscious rules of structuration" at the heart of its account. A socio-psychological approach to ideology and identity has much to recommend it and indeed cash's discussion of social systems as defence mechanisms is informative (p. 76-80). Yet the author flits rather too easily from theoretician to theoretician in constructing his analysis and fails to successfully weave together a clear solid thesis from the threads. Complicating this is the prose, which can be a little convoluted and jargonised.

As the author himself notes, it is the extension of theory to empirical analysis which is the most important test and in part 2 of the book Cash applies his understanding to Ulster unionism drawing on personal interviews, newspaper reports and loyalist publications in the process. His leading question is to ask how unionist ideology operated in Northern Ireland to reproduce that society as a divided society. Briefly, Cash sees three positions articulated within unionism; a dehumanising position in which nationalists are all suspect and little more than base objects; a persecutory position in which "guiless" unionists are victimised by "scheming" nationalists and an ambivalent position which is restrained and more understanding of the complexities of reality yet is marked by a sense of dependency and loss. Extrapolating on this Cash identifies two different modes within the "collective unconscious" of unionism; a conventional liberal mode which has an inclusive identity and idealises the state as a neutral arbiter between citizens and an affiliative corporate mode which is strictly ethnoreligious and evaluates the interests of other groups in term sof compatibility with its own. To say that unionism is not monolithic but incorporates exclusive and inclusive strands is not quite enough anymore. Jennifer Todd's seminal piece on the Ulster Loyalist and Ulster British poles within unionism was both conceptually clearer and more subtly nuanced (see Todd's "Two traditions in unionist political culture" Irish political Studies 1987). Furthermore although cash's work focuses on the crisis of unionism between 1962 and 1975 it is impoverished by a failure to mention the unionist reaction to the Anglo-Irish agreement of 1985 which was arguably the most traumatic and thought provoking event for unionists within the last 30 years. This is inexplicable given that cash has sought to bring his work up to date by bolting on a concluding chapter dealing with the unionist reaction to the Framework documents.


Kris Brown, The Queen's University of Belfast



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