Ethnographic Study on Cross-Community Legislation in Northern Ireland

Proposed Dissertation Research Abstract

2018 will mark the twentieth anniversary of Northern Ireland’s key peace agreement: the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement. Despite a lot of progress around ending state and paramilitary violence, it is not clear whether “peace” has been achieved in Northern Ireland. I intend to follow peace as an analytical object throughout Northern Ireland’s political, legal, and social lives. In the political realm, the Northern Ireland Assembly has had a precarious position with politicians and civil servants navigating histories of conflict (and party agendas) while also trying to create “shared futures.” I seek to understand how legislation related to “cross-community” efforts create new questions regarding culture, heritage, transnational conflicts, and, ultimately, what peace is and can be for Northern Ireland. Methodologically, I will engage two sets of ethnographic sites within Northern Ireland: 1. institutions, such as city councils, political parties, and the national legislative assembly, and 2. the everyday life of individuals in non-institutional spaces. Both fields will help me discover a diverse range of perspective about politics and the history of Northern Ireland’s conflict. I contend that peace serves as a connection between the law and everyday life, especially in the realm of legislation. My project seeks to understand these connections and their larger implications for post-conflict anthropology and the anthropology of Europe. We can better understand peace as a larger entity for anthropology if we understand how Northern Ireland’s laws and social life are engaged in new forms of national transformation and reconciliation. Northern Ireland is its own place but it has larger engagements in Europe, transitional justice, and human rights discourse. Peace is the same. Issues of culture, society, and politics all become intertwined within this project. From there, the larger implications for theory in anthropology and the specificity of understanding under-studied nations also come into play.

Narrative Statement:

I propose to spend two months this summer in Northern Ireland to shadow and interview elected officials, party workers, and civil servants who are active in political affairs. I seek to engage multiple political parties and legislative representatives to get a diverse perspective on how legal services are provided and post-conflict transition is constructed through the law. My focus on legislation is particularly important as a means of rethinking how legal anthropology, human rights, and European studies are understood in the Northern Ireland context. I am interested in problematizing the role of the politician as a legislator of “shared futures” with “cross community” input (from formally conflicting parties) and the politician as a provider of social services that create community to think through larger questions related to peace and justice in post-conflict settings. More broadly, this experience will influence my larger questions regarding how peace, law, and social life all come together in Northern Ireland. While I made some initial connections and worked for the Northern Ireland Legislative Assembly from 2015-2016, I still have several preliminary questions and ideas for my future dissertation field site.

2018 is an important year for peace in Northern Ireland. It will be the twentieth anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, the document that created peace and created transitional justice standards for Northern Ireland. Also known as the Belfast Agreement, the document came after years of conflict, known as “the Troubles”, that was rooted in issues of politics, religion, ethnicity, and paramilitary organizations. Yet, despite these agreements, peace and reconciliation still remain elusive within Northern Ireland.  As of January 1, 2018, there is no functioning national legislative body and a potential crisis at the border with the Republic of Ireland as the United Kingdom negotiates its exit from the European Union. Since 1998, the Northern Ireland Assembly and a variety of local city councils have operated in constant flux with different political parties navigating cross-community legislation to produce shared futures” between Protestants and Catholics religiously and Unionists (those aligned with the UK) and Nationalists (those seeking a united Ireland) politically. Along with this legislation, these political bodies also attempt to provide legal services and representations their respective voters. I seek to understand how issues of peace are negotiated by these legislative bodies and how individuals obtain legal services during these periods of flux.

Legislation is a key component for my research. The Northern Ireland Legislative Assembly is the only self-determined lawmaking institution in Northern Ireland. While some major government projects like budgets and judicial decisions are made outside of the nation, the Assembly serves as a site for local issues of increasing important such as policing, same-sex marriage, and agriculture. However, the Assembly only functions at the will of the nation’s political parties. Without a functioning legislature, Northern Ireland is subject to “direct rule” or governance from the Westminster parliament in England instead of direct representation. As of January 2018, Northern Ireland is facing direct rule even as major questions such as Brexit come to the surface. I seek to understand why legislation does (or does not matter) in Northern Ireland, especially to political parties, as a means of peace-making and state practice. The Good Friday Agreement was essential for creating the Northern Ireland Assembly as part of Northern Ireland peace process. However, the Assembly’s current jeopardy also puts the Agreement in a precarious position. Without a functioning legislature, the central documents that create circumstances for peace will also be put into precarious positions. Peace, thus, becomes a key link for understanding legislation within Northern Ireland’s society. It is an analytical object that impacts people, places, and institutions to create new meaning and ideas within political and legal realms.

This summer will be preliminary and feasibility work for my overall dissertation research. I plan on making affiliations with multiple political parties and shadowing Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) and City Council Councilors for four different areas in Northern Ireland: the capital city Belfast, the city Derry/Londonderry, the city of Newry (that is both in County Down & County Armagh), and the town of Bangor in County Down. As I describe below, each of these places have a unique place in Northern Ireland’s political landscape and each has its own history regarding the Troubles. With these locations in mind, I am in communication with multiple political parties that are active in all or most of these areas.

Over the past three years, I have been doing background research on the history of Northern Ireland’s political system. Currently, the two largest political parties in Northern Ireland are Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionist Party. Sinn Féin is the largest Catholic-affiliated party in Northern Ireland and is the center of the Republican movement for a united Ireland. The Democratic Unionist Party (or DUP) is the largest Protestant-affiliated party and is connected to the Unionist movements to continue Northern Ireland’s allegiance with the United Kingdom. The fall of 2017 has been a period of intense negotiation among the DUP and Sinn Féin in an attempt to keep the Legislative Assembly in operation. Despite their ideological opposition, both parties were part of a power-sharing agreement until March of 2017 that required them to form a government (since they have the most seats in the Assembly respectively). Since March, the government has been adjourned and new negotiations are ongoing.

While the DUP and Sinn Féin are the largest parties, there are several other parties that I am interested in engaging with. The Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) are a moderate Catholic Nationalist party that seeks a United Ireland but are primarily connected to the Catholic Church. The Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) is a moderate unionist and Protestant party that has joined with the SDLP to form an “opposition” to the DUP and Sinn Féin government in the Assembly. However, not all parties choose to designate themselves as part of the historical conflict based identification of “Nationalist” or “Unionist.” Instead, parties have chosen to designate themselves as “Other.” This “Other” designation is significant given the historical implications that Unionist and Nationalist have within the Troubles. To be “Other” is to subvert historical tensions and engage in new directions for Northern Ireland beyond the conflict. The largest of the “Other” parties is the Alliance Party (which was also the first party to elect a person of color to the Assembly) and up until Spring of 2016 was the party chosen to hold the Justice Ministry since the Department of Justice is a very contentious part of Northern Ireland politics (the Minister up until the Assembly dissolvent in March of 2017 was an Independent who was designated as Unionist). Smaller parties such as the Green Party (dedicated to progressive issues) and People Before Profit (an urban party dedicated to progressive and socialist agendas) are also active in left-wing progressive organizing around the nation. I have chosen to focus on parties that have had seats in the Northern Ireland Assembly and have full political agendas (as opposed to one issue parties such as those dedicated to legalizing marijuana).

I was very lucky to connect with members of all of these parties during my M.A. studies at Queen’s University, Belfast and these previous connections will help make this research project go smoothly. I have written to representatives of each party to begin scheduling opportunities to shadow either an elected representative or a party worker in either the Assembly or local Council office and in their local party constituency office. If all goes well, I will visit each office and spend time in different places to understand community relationships and local political actions. I will see how the different offices function and how they contrast to each other especially when it comes to the office function. I am curious about how the legislative offices handle issues of cross-community support in different ways than constituency service work handles them. I would also like to see how party works and politicians interact with each other and those who elected them.

The summer is an important time in Northern Ireland. Most government institutions go into recess for late June and part of July but a lot of key work is happening on the community level. So, while I look forward to understanding the role of law in peace and reconciliation in the future, this summer will be entirely engaged in politics. One key event is the 12th of July. The Twelfth, as it is known, is a holiday in the Protestant community and is a commemoration of King William of Orange’s victory in the Battle of the Boyne. Many members of the Protestant community, especially the Orange Order religious organizations, march in parades throughout the nation (and often in predominantly Catholic areas) that celebrate issues of heritage, tradition, and culture. This event is particularly relevant to Northern Ireland politics because it evokes many questions about the right to march in parades and raise sectarian flags that were foundational to the peace process. The Protestant community argues that these parades are part of their cultural and political identity while Catholics argue that these events are often forms of community intimidation (Bryan 2000). I hope to spend the evening of July 11th at different bonfire events that start of the festivities and then I will spend the parade day in different parts of Belfast beginning in the center of the city and moving south. Depending on my connections, I hope to also view the parades with different people with a variety of community and political affiliations throughout the day.

My field sites are geographically and politically diverse around Northern Ireland. I hope to experience a variety of locations to get multiple perspectives on the political situation in Northern Ireland. I seek to understand the diversity and unique politics of each place while also seeking my own specific space for my larger dissertation field work. I hope to begin and end in Belfast, the capital city and site of the Northern Ireland Assembly. Belfast is a historical site of violence and is divided into four specific quadrants. North and South Belfast are politically mixed areas with South Belfast having a reputation for multi-ethnic and other forms of geopolitical diversity (it is also where Queen’s University is located). East Belfast is historically a major Protestant area while the West of the city is historically Catholic. Like Belfast, the city of Derry/Londonderry also has key historical divisions. As its name suggests, most Catholics and nationalists call the city Derry and most Protestants and unionists call it Londonderry. Most official documents and the Assembly use both names. Derry/Londonderry is also known as a city of walls because of it the walls that divide it (Belfast also has peace walls but they are more modern).It is the site of the 1972 Bloody Sunday altercation between Civil Rights protestors and the British Army (who had been deployed to quell paramilitary activity). Like Derry/Londonderry, Newry was also a site of Civil Rights marches. The City of Newry is near the border with the Republic of Ireland and is a working-class area. It has historically been a very Catholic part of Northern Ireland but also has some mixed communities. Finally, I hope to spend some time in Bangor, a town and almost suburb of Belfast that is along the coast. Bangor is a mixed and upper middle-class community that was the first constituency to elect a member of the Green party. Historically it has had a slightly higher rate of Protestants but voters have tended to be less ideologically extreme. I plan on engaging each place in its own terms and political histories while also considering how they shape all of Northern Ireland’s legal structure and peace process today.

My larger dissertation project seeks to understand the theory behind peace and Northern Ireland’s place within the anthropology of Europe. I seek to use methods and ideas from legal and political anthropology to unpack issues of culture and representation in post-conflict institutional rebuilding. I hope to begin long-term field work in Northern Ireland in the fall of 2019 and will spend at least a year doing ethnographic interviews and continuing to shadow politicians. Depending on my fieldwork this summer, 2018, I will choose my long-term field sites and begin the process of making long-term plans with individuals and institutions.  My perfect fieldwork situation would allow me to have access to the Northern Ireland Assembly while simultaneously engaging with several political parties both inside and outside of the government buildings. If the current government impasse continues in Northern Ireland and the Assembly ceases to function, I will move towards focusing on local councils with specific emphasis on Belfast City Council.

My project is rooted in the ethnographic method. It is very important for me to hear from the perspective of multiple interlocutors. Participant observation will help me understand the subjectivity of peace within Northern Ireland and how different communities are represented (or not) in Northern Irish politics. During my long-term fieldwork I will seek to connect with to the Jewish, Muslim, Chinese, and Polish communities in Belfast in order to understand their place in Northern Irish political discourse and how their communities are part of post-conflict legal rebuilding. I do not know what upcoming legislation will be on the agenda but I am following the workings of the Assembly and other legal bodies to plan for what specific issues will come up during my larger dissertation research fieldwork.

My work seeks to re-think legal anthropology through legislation and, more importantly, to engage new ideas about how to create peace. While scholars like Sally Merry have taken on courts, Emma Crewe has worked in Westminster, and Stanley Tambiah has theorized issues of reconciliation in ethnic conflict, there has yet to be a complete ethnographic investigation into post-conflict rebuilding that is focused on legislation as a peace-making tool. My work also questions the role of Northern Ireland as a part of studies of Europe and how the anthropology of Europe can and will engage the United Kingdom and Republic of Ireland as Brexit and international agreements change. We are in an age where peace must be analyzed but also theorized. Peace must be examined and also deconstructed. My work takes on all of these issues and seeks to compel ideas about how to create justice through legislation and peace through cross-community engagement.

Works Cited:

  • Bryan, Dominic. 2000. Orange Parades: The Politics of Ritual, Tradition, and Control. London Pluto Press.
  • Crewe, Emma. 2015. The House of Commons: An Anthropology of MPs at Work. London and Oxford: Bloomsbury Publishing.
  • Merry, Sally Engle. 1990. Getting Justice and Getting Even: Legal Consciousness Among Working Class Americans. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Tambiah, Stanley J. 1997. Leveling Crowds: Ethnonationalist Conflict and Collective Violence in South Asia. Oakland: University of California Press.

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