The Endurance of Ethno-national Identities in Northern Ireland

The Endurance of Ethno-national Identities in Northern Ireland

This week, Henry Jarrett (University of Exeter) discusses the endurance of the respective ethno-national identity of unionists and nationalists in Northern Irish politics.

It is difficult to think of something with a greater ability to unite or divide people than nationalism. Whilst its significance is undoubtedly prevalent in all societies, it is particularly important in those that are ethnically divided. In these societies, what a person is not is often just as important as what they are. This is fuelled by the presence of the ‘other’, and the beliefs, opinions and often misunderstandings of an opposing group’s perception of it. In Northern Ireland, the murals on Belfast’s republican Falls Road and loyalist Shankill Road illustrate not only the history, culture and heritage forming one group’s identity, but also fear of the ‘other’ and how its identity can be used against one’s own. Politically, Northern Ireland’s distinct ethno-national identities are perhaps best demonstrated by its ethnic party system. With the exception of the Alliance Party, all major political parties are either unionist or nationalist affiliated, with these identifiers often more important to both parties and voters than the socio-economic issues affecting everyone in Northern Ireland. This affiliation plays a significant role in how parties campaign. In literature, many resort to flags, emblems and other symbolism demonstrating their allegiance to a particular community to garner support. Similarly, canvassing is often restricted to areas where members of the ethno-national group that a respective party seeks to appeal to are in the majority, as going beyond these is considered to be a futile use of resources.

It is surprising that more do not question why this is the case. After all, wasn’t the question of Northern Ireland’s constitutional future, around which these two identities are ultimately based, settled with the Good Friday Agreement in 1998? Hasn’t violent conflict all but ceased, save for occasional murmurings from dissident republicans or dissatisfied loyalists, with divisions no longer an issue? At the political level, the situation is quite clear: voters are still drawn to parties representing their own respective community. At the 2011 Northern Ireland Assembly election, more than 86 per cent of first preference votes were cast for ethno-national parties.[i] The ‘ethnic tribune appeals’ thesis offers a useful explanation for this.[ii] It argues that voters are drawn to the stoutest defender of their community to represent them in a power sharing government, as they recognise that positions become watered down as part of multi-party inter-ethnic bargaining. This explains why parties retain their ethno-national focus and continue to base their electoral appeals around this symbolism and rhetoric. It also explains why the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Fein, formerly considered to represent the extremes of their respective unionist/loyalist and nationalist/republican communities, have in the post-Good Friday Agreement era become the two largest parties in Northern Ireland.

This explanation, however, does not deal with the root cause of the phenomenon. Whilst voters opt for strong ethno-national parties to represent them when negotiating with the ‘other’, why exactly is this so important? It is ultimately due to the endurance of the respective ethno-national identity of unionists and nationalists. This manifests itself in the form of a unique culture and history, with common myths, memories and symbols, which link the past and the present.[iii] For unionists, this includes historical events such as the Battle of the Boyne and the Battle of the Somme, as well as the British monarchy, and the symbolism of the union flag, the Ulster Banner and the Red Hand of Ulster. For nationalists, this historical connection is provided through events such as the Easter Rising and the Hunger Strike, in addition to the Irish language and symbolism of the Irish Republic. Since the Good Friday Agreement, much consideration has been given to the idea of a ‘new’ Northern Ireland, Northern Irish identity and symbolism, around which both unionists and nationalists can unite and divisions can be overcome. Neutral symbols, such as the flax plant for the Northern Ireland Assembly, are intended to facilitate this. It is, however, difficult to imagine this symbolism eliciting the same level of devotion as the union flag amongst unionists or the Irish tricolour amongst nationalists, due to its lack of historical foundation.[iv] It is for this reason that a genuine, common Northern Irish identity is unlikely to ever be shared by the majority of the population. Ultimately, it is the endurance of unionist and nationalist identities that explains the continued significance of ethno-national political parties and the perpetuation of divisions in Northern Ireland.

[i] See for election results.

[ii] Mitchell, P., Evans, G. & O’Leary, B. 2009. Extremist outbidding in ethnic party systems is not inevitable: Tribune parties in Northern Ireland. Political Studies, 57(2), pp. 397-421.

[iii] Smith, A. D. 1998. Nationalism and Modernism (London: Routledge), ch. 8.

[iv] MacGinty, R. 2001. The political use of symbols of accord and discord: Northern Ireland and South Africa. Civil Wars, 4(1), pp. 1-21.

Henry Jarrett is a third year PhD student in the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies at the University of Exeter. His research uses ethno-symbolism to analyse political party election campaigns in Northern Ireland and other divided societies. He has recently been appointed assistant editor of Ethnopolitics Papers.


One thought on “The Endurance of Ethno-national Identities in Northern Ireland

  1. There is a socio-economic consequence of the endurance of ethno-nationalism as the most significant factor in Northern Irish politics. It ensures the continuance of the economic status quo and prevents progress on issues such as the redistribution of resources.

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