Historically, academic research into Northern Ireland was focused on segregated communities, paramilitary violence and, more recently, the dynamics underpinning a largely successful peace and political process. However, a significant amount of this literature has been dominated by the views, experiences and contributions of the Nationalist/Republican community and their political representatives. Therefore, Lee Smithey's account offers valuable insight into the previously under-exposed Protestant, Unionist and Loyalist communities, supplying a fresh perspective on an otherwise saturated field of literature.
From the outset, Smithey provides an excellent background to the nature of the conflict and subsequent segregation, polarisation, division and isolation that surrounds the two dominant communities in Northern Ireland. The book then grounds these contemporary issues within a number of theoretical approaches and perspectives on peace-building, identity and conflict transformation.
An interesting aspect of his work is the attempt to provide an understanding of what is meant by the terms Unionist and Loyalist. Historically, this discussion has largely been absent from the literature on Northern Ireland, so Smithey's exploration of this area through themes of religion and politics provides an insight into the complexities that surround the application and meaning of these concepts. However, the main thrust of the book is the analysis of Unionist and Loyalist symbols and events in the form of murals, parades and bonfires. Although as a subject this has been well analysed and documented by other researchers and academics, Smithey manages to engineer a new discussion through a lens of transformation and change. He takes these deep-rooted expressions of identity, culture and tradition and explores the macro- and micro-led processes that are attempting to transform them within a society undergoing monumental political and social change.
The book provides an in-depth and detailed review of murals, including the rationale for their existence, along with the impact and meaning attached to the murals at both the community and political level. Smithey also incorporates an excellent discussion on the symbolism and emotional attachments that many in Loyalist communities place on the Eleventh of July bonfires. A comprehensive examination of parades is also included, and it illustrates the changing role of the institutions responsible for the parades and their attempts to transform these celebrations into more inclusive, family-oriented events, while not diluting their cultural significance.
There are arguably three areas where the book could have offered further elaboration, given the access and range of interviewees who participated in Smithey's research. It would have been interesting to explore in more detail the internal divisions that exist within Loyalist communities, which are demarcated along paramilitary association lines. Alongside this, it might have been useful to examine the relationships between Loyalists and their elected representatives and whether this has supported or hindered transformative processes within these communities. Finally, considering the breadth of transformation that many of the historical and cultural symbols and events have undergone, it would have been advantageous to explore the community tensions within Loyalism surrounding these processes and elaborate on the rationales being applied on both sides of the debate.
However, there is no doubt that Smithey's exploration of Unionism and Loyalism provides the reader with a comprehensive insight into the cultural events, behaviours and practices of a section of society that, to date, has largely been ignored within the post-conflict narrative of the "new Northern Ireland". It is an extremely interesting read, and manages to move between theory and practice, while providing readers with the knowledge and understanding of the complex phenomena that constitute conflict transformation in a divided society.
Unionists, Loyalists, and Conflict Transformation in Northern Ireland
By Lee A. Smithey. Oxford University Press. 304pp, £40.00 and £65.00 ISBN 9780195395877 and 99875382 (e-book). Published 15 September 2011