The other troubles

Culture and Policy in Northern Ireland

May 29, 1998

It is a strange land in which the people of Northern Ireland increasingly find themselves. The new constitutional settlement may leave the border in place, but the horizon no longer looks the same as before. An agreement supported by a majority of the people drawn from both communities (and those of neither) and from both parts of the island paves the way toward unmapped territory. In the light of such a new dawn, how will things look on the ground? The essays gathered by Hastings Donnan and Graham McFarlane in Culture and Policy in Northern Ireland are a timely reminder that the war was only ever half the story, and that many problems of people in the North are unlikely to be solved by any constitutional conundrum.

Almost all of the contributions are the fruit of fieldwork studies undertaken by anthropologists in Northern Ireland. At first their focus looks daunting; too particular for any but the most ardent admirer of their own academic navel. However, this view is soon dispelled by close examination of chapters that discuss topics as diverse as the Irish language movement to the problems of early pregnancy loss, from the plight of the Northern Ireland Greens to the marching season.

The general strengths of the essays are twofold. First, most combine a clear policy orientation with analysis of the way in which culture helps shape the experience of policies when implemented. Second, by examining both the local circumstances in parts of Northern Ireland and the social experiences that will be familiar to many elsewhere, these essays tell a far more complex tale of life in the North than is often the case.

The interaction of local culture and macroeconomic change is examined in a number of the chapters that deal with issues of rural development. This is best illustrated by Andrew Dawson's study of "post-productionist" agriculture in the Ards peninsula. He argues that part-time and mixed farming or participation in information and assistance networks (standard features of farm diversification strategies) are "often seen as the preserve of the Catholic farmer" because these were necessary aspects of survival for Catholics over a much longer time. As a result, Protestant farmers must renegotiate aspects of their cultural identity to adapt to changing circumstances.

A number of the essays deal with employment and unemployment. Kate Ingram suggests that legal measures have only limited effectiveness in granting women equal opportunities by examining their experiences in the clothing industry. Eithne MacLaughlin argues for the need to integrate social and economic perspectives on labour-supply motivations by looking at the meaning of money to the unemployed in Belfast; and Donnan and McFarlane examine the perceptions of the needs of Belfast's jobless. The world these contributions illuminate will be familiar to the marginalised of any major post-industrial city.

Yet the peculiarities of place are not forgotten. The Irish language has long proved a contentious political issue. In a thorough and prescient study of British government policy towards the Irish language movement, Gordon McCoy shows why such debates are likely to remain heated. Colin Irwin compares the failure of education policies in Northern Ireland and in Israel to overcome division and suggests that this will continue to be the case until human rights become the defining framework of the North's political culture.

A new consensus on political arrangements for Northern Ireland may be just around the corner, but so too is the marching season. As Dominic Bryan and Neil Jarman illustrate in the final contribution, the question of the role of ritual in modern societies is nowhere more pressing an issue for policy-makers than on the roads of Belfast, Derry and Portadown. When all is said and done, the unemployed of West Belfast, the farmers of Fermanagh or Down or the women locked into low-paid jobs will almost all vote, one way or another, on the future status and governance of Northern Ireland. Then they will go back to their, perhaps, other more mundane (but all the more real) struggles and hold their breath.

Mark McGovern is lecturer in applied social sciences, Edge Hill University College.

Culture and Policy in Northern Ireland: Anthropology in the Public Arena

Editor - Hastings Donnan and Graham McFarlane
ISBN - 0 85398 690 9
Publisher - Queens University Belfast
Price - £9.95
Pages - 242

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