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'Politics of place and resistance: the case of Northern Ireland' by Anna-Kaisa Kuusisto (1999)

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The following article has been contributed by Anna-Kaisa Kuusisto (email:, with the permission of Oulu University Press. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of the members of the CAIN Project. The CAIN Project would welcome other material which meets our guidelines for contributions.
This article is taken from the journal:

Nordia Geographical Publications
NGP Yearbook 1999
Volume 28, No.2
Joint publication by:
The Geographical Society of Northern Finland, and
The Department of Geography, University of Oulu

Edited by Jani Vuolteenaho and Topi Antti Äikas (1999)
ISBN 951-42-5474-0
ISSN 1238-2086 (119pp)

Orders to:

Ms Mervi Tervo
Nordia Geographical Publications
Department of Geography
Box 3000
University of Oulu

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Anna-Kaisa Kuusisto

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Pauli Tapani Karjalainen

Politics of place and resistance: the case of Northern Ireland

Anna-Kaisa Kuusisto
University of Joensuu, Department of Geography

Abstract. The Northern Irish conflict has often been analysed in terms of identity, religion, cultural differences or politics. Therefore it is useful to study the problem from the viewpoint of 'place'. Place as a central concept of geography has often been neglected in the analysis of the Northern Irish conflict. However, politics of place and sites of resistance are at the very core of the conflict. The first part of the article introduces some theoretical ideas of politics of place and resistance, after this it is emphasised the differences between the Catholic and Protestant communities understanding of place and practices of resistance. Also some models for shared politics of place are analysed.


The concept of place has a central role in the tradition and methodology of geography. Its essence has varied in the course of time and according to the prevailing methodological paradigm. Within the discipline of geography, positivist, humanist, structuralist, constructivist and postmodern understanding of place can be found. ‘Positivist geographers’ were interested in regions and places in so far as they enabled the use of statistical information about the region or place in forming and testing spatial theories. Therefore region and place did not have a subjective meaning. (Häkli 1999: 57) Humanism in geography introduced place as meaningful and experienced environment. In those terms place was lived, hated and loved. Also, knowledge and feelings were attached to place i.e. the concept of sense of place developed. (Häkli 1999: 82) Structuralist methodology stresses the role of processes and structures which lies behind the action and institutions. The concepts of region and place were seen as distinct geographical units. In structuralist methodology some of the methodological views of traditional regional geography were introduced anew One example of this was locality studies in which the aim was to connect the old regional geography and its specific understanding of place and region with the generalisations of more social-theory oriented geography. (Hakli 1999:111-113) Constructionism in geography focuses on socially constructed reality. In this methodological view people see their everyday life as obvious reality, but simultaneously they construct this reality through thinking and action (Häkli 1999:133). Categories and language are ‘instruments’ through which socially constructed places will become part of people’s thinking. Finally in this postmodern situation many geographers have argued the disappearance of absolutist places and the emerging of a world of flows where the role of place is dispersed. In the postmodern understanding, flows and movement are valued over place and people’s attachments to certain places.

As the short overview to main methodological orientations and theoretical views of ‘place’ shows, finding a generally accepted definition for the concept of ‘place’ is problematic and therefore has inspired some authors to analyse the ‘essence of place’ (see e.g Relph 1976; Tuan 1977; Byles 1985; Agnew 1987; Taylor 1999). Edward Relph (1976: 43) sees the basic meaning — the essence — of place coming not merely from location, nor from the functions that place serve, nor indeed from the community that occupies it, nor again from superficial and mundane experiences. He stresses, however, that all these are common and perhaps necessary aspects of places. For Relph (1976: 43) "the essence of place lies in the largely unselfconscious intentionality that defines place as profound centres of human existence." Humanist tradition emphasis the role of meaningful places which are formed in dialectical relationship between place and society. In Relph’s (1976: 34) writing, the dialectical relationship between place and community becomes obvious when Relph stresses that "people are their place and a place is its people."

Another view to the essence of place comes from John Agnew. Agnew (1987: 43) is interested on structural sociology and therefore he defines place through three elements: locale, location and sense of place. He sees these elements as very important parts of the essence of place. Above all he argues that place is defined as a geographical context or locality in which agency interpellates social structure (Agnew 1987: 43). Agnew’s view stresses the role of structures over the sense of place.

Here, the concept of place is understood as a politicised, socially constructed phenomena which, is nonetheless loaded with awareness of underlying processes and structures. In other words the nature of place is connected to structuralist and constructionist methodologies. This paper examines the construction of the notion of ‘place’ and people’s experiences of these. The paper will also discuss the politics of resistance and especially Northern Ireland analysed in terms of politics of place and resistance.

Politics of place

‘Place’ is not an empty or meaningless arena where people operate (see e.g. Taylor 1993: 225-228; 1994: 151). As often argued, spatial and social spheres are Intertwined and the relationship between them is dialectical. Thus, places are meaningful environments for people’s activities, but in addition people have an effect on places and the appearance of places.

The concept of ‘place’ includes a possibility of politics. Politics in this context should be understood in a broad sense. Politics is not only practised within institutions and nor only by politicians but also within wider society and by ordinary people. Politics concerns the processes of influencing, decision-making and action within society. Primarily, the politics of place refers to the practices in which the images and sense of place is produced and reproduced. In place politics, identity, politics and place come together. In addition the role of power becomes the focus when analysing the politics of place. Keith and Pile (1993: 38) argue that all spatialities (one of which place is) are political because they are the medium and expression of asymmetrical relations of power. Power, especially hegemonic power, defines the content and boundaries of action and practices of politics of place. However, sometimes counter-hegemonic power gets enough space and place to establish itself also to a wider audience. In these situations, ‘hegemony’ becomes challenged and often conflict in some form becomes inevitable.

Places are meaningful sites of people’s everyday life practices. These sites achieve their meanings through production of place and in social relations of people in and outside of certain place. However, it should be noted that politics of place must not be regarded as equal to 'politics in place’. ‘Politics in place’ does not necessarily include dimensions which would have effects on meanings or essence of place. 'Politics of place’ always have at least an aim to change the physical or mental appearance of the place. In addition it should be emphasised that the place politics should always be analysed in a specific context and can rarely be effectively generalised to concern other similar cases elsewhere. It should also be emphasised the multiple scales in which place politics is practised: local, national and international.

Usually people are attached to certain places whether real (London, Harlem etc.) or imagined (Jewish homeland). This bond between places and people is essential to collective identity construction but it also defines the sense of place. For example a "hostile" relationship between place and people can easily create narrow-minded and restrictive sense of place. Therefore, places can be, to mention two extremes: i) safe havens; ii) local sites of resistance; or iii) ‘interim slates’ which is something between the first two categories. This last category is the most frequently found. Places of resistance and the politics of place which is characteristic in these will be discussed further.

Sites of resistance

The politics of place is too often based on restrictive practices and negations such as bounding space, exclusion of certain kind of people and negative stereotypes. This has many times led to the emergence of coercive territorial practices. In these practices place and space are strictly guarded and boundaries of place are non-permeable. Hegemonic power constructs certain kinds of ‘spaces of domination’. However, these spaces may become challenged by counter-hegemonic groups. Counter-hegemonic construction of identity can lead to the politics of opposition (see Bondi 1993: 86). In the politics of opposition counter-hegemonic construction of the human subject is organised to challenge the dominant group and to organise the subordinated, to resist their stigmatising as ‘others’ or ‘minorities’, and to construct an alternative identity (Bondi 1993: 86).

Definition for hegemonic and counter-hegemonic power[1] or community is always context dependent. Sometimes the hegemonic group is not the majority of the area as in Argentina during the military dictatorship between 1976-1983 (see Radcliffe 1993) and then the majority population will "fight" against the minority ruled hegemonic order. Whatever the case, there can be found some common features in these counter-hegemonic sites. Through active resistance it is aimed to secure community’s place within hegemonic order. In addition it is aimed to challenge and re-order the general social- and place system. However, in this arrangement there is a "self-destructive" feature concealed. It is argued here that while the hegemonic order is challenged and aimed to be re-ordered the challengers will simultaneously "shake" their own base. If the hegemonic order changes, so will the essence of counter-hegemonic opposition because counter-community is always defined against the background of the hegemonic group. Therefore, challenging should always also mean reconsidering the base of identity within the (challenger) community.

Paul Routledge has analysed the ‘terrains of resistance’ (Routledge 1994; l996a; 1996b). He argues that terrains of resistance refers to sites of contestation and the relations between hegemonic and counter-hegemonic powers and discourses, between forces and relations of domination, subjection, exploitation and resistance (Routledge 1996a: 516). Terrains of resistance contains an interwoven web of specific symbolic meanings, commumcative processes, political discourses, religious idioms, cultural practices, social networks, economic relations, physical settings, envisioned desires and hopes. Therefore, a terrain of resistance is simultaneously both metaphoric and literal. (Routledge l996a: 516-517) In Lefebre’s (1991, quoted in Keith & Pile 1993: 24) terms this means distinction between spaces of representation (lived space), and representations of space (conceived space). Both of these are important in understanding and interpreting collective action (Routledge 1996a:519). The terrains of resistance are closely connected to certain localities. Collective action is often focused upon cultural codes which are themselves spatially specific (Routledge 1996a: 519), in other words place specific. Thus, place is important to sites of resistance, the creation of alternative knowledges (counter-hegemonic knowledge), and the interplay between local and global practices (Routledge l996a: 520).

‘Politics of resistance’ is very much about challenging power, but it is also about challenging and creating knowledge. Knowledge production is always context dependent. Therefore the sites of hegemonic and counter-hegemonic knowledge production and their results (the knowledge) are very different from each other. In hegemonic understanding, the counter-hegemonic sites are seen as marginal and deviant. These counter-hegemonic places are the precise opposite to hegemonic and generally acceptable knowledge, therefore it is often argued by hegemonic community that the margins will not play any major role in the knowledge production. This is not the case. Already just by existing, these marginal sites have an effect on hegemonic understanding of society and knowledge. In addition people in these marginal counter-hegemonic sites are aware of their subordinated role within the wider society, but at the same time they are very proud of their unique ways of preserving their historical roots, traditions, culture and all the knowledge in these. Thus, also marginal sites are saturated with knowledge. However, this marginal knowledge rarely has very much foothold in hegemonic society.

Resistance is always contextual. It takes place in a certain environment, within certain cultural context and it gets its unique form through the people involved. Resistance is place politics as it resists the outside coming reforms which would have very deep-going influence on the sense of certain place. On the other hand resistance is based on place politics where the opposite, threatening practices and sense of place is aimed to changed a bit closer to one’s understanding of place. In the following it is analysed how the politics of place and resistance are embedded in the Northern Irish conflict.

Place, resistance and Northern Ireland

The discussion of Northern Irish politics of place will begin with a historical perspective. It is emphasised the differences between the two communities’ construction of sense of place and politics of place in a time before the current armed conflict (before l960’s) appeared in Northern Ireland. In the Northern Irish conflict the two communities are often locked into categories of Irish / Catholic / Nationalist and British / Protestant / Unionist. However, the roots of the communities lie rather in multi than mono cultural basis. For example, the Irish cultural nation owes its heritage to the Viking, Norman, Scots and Anglo-Saxon contributions alongside those of the "ancient" Celtic race. Therefore it can be said that the exclusivist equation of "Irish Irish" with Gaelic and Catholic was in fact a betrayal of the full complexity of Irish culture. (Kearney 1997: 6) Another often forgotten fact is that between 1770 and 1790 many Protestants attempted to forge a collective sense of Irishness, which would unite them with the indigenous majority (Catholics), this was done only to achieve autonomy from England. Moreover the Ulster Presbyterian middle class was among the first who acted in the republican project. (Kearney 1997: 30—32) During the 19th century, the republicanism had mostly become connected to Irish nationalism. A result of this connection was that the idea of republic became less an end in itself which meant the sliding towards a nationalist end. The original project of universalist Irish nationalism was a failure and the tensions between Protestants, Catholics and Dissenters emerged. (Kearney 1997: 35-36) While the universalist republicanism emerged as a lost project, Ireland was to slip to the battle field of two sectarian nationalisms during the next two centuries.

Usually the differences between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland are explained through ethnicity, religion, culture or politics. The two communities understanding of ‘place’ is rarely examined nor the different practices of (re)construction of place in relation to conflict analysed. This viewpoint is very fruitful not only in understanding the different practices of resistance but also in finding a solution to the problem of sharing space and place.

The ‘sense of place’ is one result of the dialectical relation between community and place, whilst simultaneously defining this relationship. The ‘sense of place’ is formed out of the ways in which people experience representations of present and past landscapes and it forms an important part of territorial identity and geographical understanding (Duffy 1997: 64). In contrast to sense of place, ‘placelessness’ (Relph 1976) refers to lack of unifying narrative of place. In the Northern Irish situation it can be argued that Catholics have achieved a strong 'sense of place', while the Protestant community can be characterised with a certain kind of sense of placelessness.

Irishness has been defined by Gaelism, Catholicism and strong cultural nationalism. These characteristics exclude the Protestant community. In reaction to this the Unionist collective identity is based on opposition to Irish nationalism (Graham 1994; Connolly 1997). Protestants define themselves foremost through not being Irish or Catholics and only secondarily as British. Therefore, Ireland became divided less by the actual border than by juxtaposition of an increasingly confident Irish identity alongside a confused and heavily qualified sense of Britishness (Graham 1997: 8).

Protestants have never achieved to create a confident text of place (Graham 1994:266 quoted in Duffy 1997: 77; O’Dowd 1998: 244). There has not been a strong representative landscape, nor steadfast myths or traditions, nor cultural features, on which the collective identity construction could have been based. Protestant national identity in Northern Ireland is mostly a politically grounded phenomena: based on Britishness (Duffy 1997: 77). By politically defining and bounding the island of Ireland (and especially its northern parts) Protestants could avoid engaging with the contested cultural definition of the Catholic community. For some Protestants Northern Ireland still is more a target of conquering than a constructed entity, a territory loaded with socio-historical features of nativeness and motherland. It is argued here, that Protestants can have strong bonds to their local territories, however, the essence of place appears in a very different light compared to the Catholic community.

The Catholic community has been able to combine their historical and cultural traditions to the iconography of a cultural landscape. They created a coherent text of place in which spatiality, history and community fluently came together. One of the most central myths in the construction of the Catholic sense of place was the myth of Ireland’s West. The West was seen a rural, wild and primitive. Its mountain landscapes became part of nationalist iconography of the Free State. The West was the heart of Irish identity which was located in a landscape different to the industrialised and modernised landscapes of Britain. (see Duffy 1997: 66-69) This myth of the West was in contradiction with the reality. The West was one of the Ireland’s poorest areas and people were migrating (mostly to Britain). This, however, did not alter the vision of the romanticised West. The West was mystified by artist and writers. The idea of West contained the basic features of nation: national landscape, common heritage, native Irish people, Gaelic language and Irish place. These stereotypical images were made part of the Catholic politics of place. The myth of West can still be seen in local place politics for example in Gaelic street signs which are put alongside English ones. (See Fig. 1.)


Figure 1. Gaelic street sign in the city of Derry/ Londonderry.[2] (Photograph by author)

In general, the Catholic community’s understanding of place is not as exclusive as Protestant’s. In the south of Ireland (after partition in 1920) Protestants either became part of the Irish civic nation or at least did not form a separate 'nation within a nation'. Ireland’s official state politics was against the manipulated geography of homogeneity. Still, the strong local sense of place survived but it was closely related together with more diverse class, gender and ethnic trajectories of identity. These have created today’s secularised, materialistic and urbanised society of Ireland. (Graham 1997: 12) The Protestant minority in the south was included in the Irish place. In the North, the state never achieved the creation of a unifying narrative of place. Therefore the strong attachment to places has been based on territories defined in sectarian terms.

Northern Irish society can be characterised with cultural incoherence, political impotence and sectarian conflict. (Graham 1997: 12) The Protestant community in the North has no confident text of place provided by a representative landscape[3] (Graham 1994: 266 quoted in Duffy 1997: 77) and in the Catholic community the text of place is strong and secure. Already this will expose the conflict between the communities. While for Protestants the locality (e.g. housing estate) is a base for politically grounded opposition, for Catholics the locality is a site for political resistance but it is also a source of collective national identity and Irishness.

The differences in the essence of place have influenced on the forms of resistance. The Catholic community’s aim has been to secure its own place in Northern Ireland. This has meant securing and ‘purifying’[4] their own territories first and thereafter turning against the other community. Right after partition in 1920 the Catholic community in Northern Ireland focused on securing itself and its place in this new context. After a while the strong sense of communality emerged among Catholics (as it had for centuries) and the focus was moved to national liberation and unification with the rest of Ireland. The resistance of the Catholic community was at first passive. They did not take part in institutions or society in general. Although some times the choice for not taking part was made by the members of the Catholic community, often the discrimination against the Catholics excluded them from decision making processes within the wider society until the 1970’s. From the late 1930’s, the more violent forms of resistance were introduced such as the IRA’s campaign from 1939 to 1945 in Britain.

Catholics resisted discrimination, their subordination and Northern Ireland’s connection to Britain. They wanted to be equals with the Protestant majority and to have their places within society acknowledged. On the other hand the Protestant community tried to maintain their hegemonic power[5] over the Catholic minority. Protestants had maintained a kind of ‘colonial mentality’ meaning that first by conquering the land, then subordinating the native people and finally defining itself as superior, the controlling of society could be achieved. First of all, many Protestants resisted difference, i.e. the Catholic community, which could challenge their position as power holders. Catholics, on the other hand, resisted any British connection. It has become obvious that the forms of Protestant resistance are based on a more political understanding of place and space, while Catholic resistance is based on emotionally charged place and space. These basic differences between the communities are embedded in all scales of place politics in Northern Ireland.

Searching shared politics of place for Northern Ireland

For Kearney (1997) the whole problematic of Ireland (i.e. the division between north and south and the conflict in northern parts) can be emphasised in the concept of ‘sovereignty’. Kearney (1997:15) argues that the solution lies in the need to move beyond sovereignty. In other words this means leaving behind the thinking of one indivisible power. This, however, would mean the rethinking of Irish-British connections and two states’ long tradition of conflicting politics of place which especially has been embodied to Northern Ireland. In the case of Northern Ireland these practices have often been exclusive and conflict intensive. While the current peace process has challenged the old politics of place, these practices are likely to change slowly Paramilitary cease fire and political reforms such as early release of ‘political’ prisoners, pressure for decommissioning the paramilitary weapons and changing the practices of policing in Northern Ireland are such challengers. The new shared politics of place will not be accepted overnight and before it even becomes possible few prerequisites must be fulfilled. Kearney (1997: 24) has emphasised three conditions for a new pluralistic Northern Ireland which also can be associated with the new politics of place: 1. the need to separate the notion of nation from that of state, 2. to acknowledge the co-existence of different identities in the same society and 3. to extend the models of identification beyond the unitary sovereignty.

The challenge in Northern Ireland is to find the common text of place and shared politics of place. This is very demanding task for the whole society and also for the external agents involved in the task. Constructing "shared society" does not mean inventing it out of nothing nor would this be remotely feasible. It is argued earlier that already the history of the two communities has common features. However, in the course of time the two communities have been locked in to their trench warfare. Violence, intimidation and murders have had deep impact on both sides. To escape this Kearney (1997: 69) stresses the confronting of a double crisis of representation. Firstly, this means solving the crisis of representative democracy, which means that sovereignty must be disseminated beyond the frontiers of nation-state, but also within it (Kearney 1997: 68-69). Secondly, the crisis of imaginative representation has to be focused. This requires inventing and reinventing new images of communal identity to replace old sources and targets of identification. Also institutions would have to be remade according to these new images. This way community can have its radical imaginary and enable itself to change its institutions through a collective, self-reflective and deliberate activity. (Kearney 1997: 69) To be able to move beyond the sovereignty neurosis, the old model of absolutist sovereignty must be abandoned and the new more decentralised and disseminated sovereignty accepted. Kearney (1997) introduces three models for future co-operation in Northern Ireland: 1. A proposal for a joint sovereignty solution, 2. Northern Ireland's future as a European region, 3. Towards a Council of Islands of Britain and Ireland.

The first model A proposal for a joint sovereignty solution (Kearney & Cullen in Kearney 1997: 70) stresses that although these two communities have a history of contradictions and violence it is possible to come together and rule Northern Ireland together. However, before this can become reality, significant concessions have to be made on both sides. In the joint sovereignty, both sides would have an equal degree of generosity and an equal degree of concession. Northern Ireland would have a bi-national cultural identity. This would mean that both Irish and British passports would be legitimate, there would be two national anthems and two national flags. Also the historical memories of the communities would not be impaired, but would become co-equals. (Kearney 1997: 72)

Interest parties in this model are Irish and British communities in Northern Ireland and the Irish and British governments. They would negotiate over suitable political institutions which could be such as Northern Irish parliament or government, intergovernmental commission: whether interministerial or interparliamentary. Kearney and Cullen (in Kearney 1997: 74) argue that joint sovereignty is not transitional but a durable solution. By transitional it is meant that joint sovereignty and closer interaction with Ireland and Britain will not lead to united Ireland or biased Protestant governance. It is also argued that joint sovereignty is the best option to reconcile the two distinct cultural and national identities and to have lasting peace and stability. (Kearney 1997: 70-74)

In the second model it is shaped Northern Ireland’s future as a European region. Kearney and Wilson (in Kearney 1997: 77) emphasise the vision of a federal ‘Europe of regions’ in which the power has been transferred down to regions from the nation-states and also transferred upwards to economic and monetary and political union. In the ‘new Europe’ the old nation-state system is challenged as well as the boundaries between the states themselves. This would mean a new kind of co-operation between regions and the emergence of more functional regions. However, the structures of nation-states lie very firmly in societies and often the political structures for the new region based co-operation are lacking. In spite of this, the emphasis on civil society, co-operation, economic imperatives and popular participation are features of the new Europe (Kearney 1997: 89). Kearney and Wilson (in Kearney 1997: 89) argue that it would be crucial for Northern Ireland’s future to adopt these new paths of development and begin to act not only on national scale but in the Europe of regions as well. Before this is possible, issues such as minority rights and cultural diversity have to be rethought. In addition Northern Ireland is lacking an European institutional culture in discussion of regional development (Kearney 1997: 85). Therefore, the new democratic structures for Northern Ireland must be laid. Kearney and Wilson (Kearney 1997: 90-91) stress seven points that should be included in such structures:


A popularly accessible assembly elected by proportional representation, with high degree of autonomy allowing strategic intervention in the economy and other policy arenas and with the ability to represent Northern Ireland directly in the institutions of European Community.


Removal of all barriers occasioned by the border and the development of the closest possible relationship in Ireland between the north and south.


In-built guarantees of pluralism in government.


A commitment to embrace cultural diversity within the region.


Legal entrenchment of individual and minority rights.


Extension of democracy and participation through a constitutional requirement to contract elected representatives, representatives of statutory authorities, employers’ and trade union organisations, and the community and voluntary sectors, with the assistance of the European Commission.


Recognition of sub-regional diversity through properly resourced local government.

When comparing Kearney’s and Wilson’s goals to the current situation in Northern Ireland it will become clear that quite many of these are to be realised at least in some form. The Belfast Agreement (1998) contains the establishing of democratic institutions in Northern Ireland (one of which is Northern Irish Assembly), guarantees of pluralism in government, respect for both cultural traditions and human rights. The new Northern Irish Human Rights Commission (NIHRC) was established in March 1999.

The road from signing the Belfast Agreement to its implementation has been rocky. At the moment the institutional progress in the Northern Irish peace process is locked up and the implementation of Agreement is only partial. The schism at the moment is related to decommissioning of paramilitary weapons and especially Sinn Fein’s role in the process. Unionist parties argue that they will not go to the same Assembly with Sinn Fein if the IRA will not decommission. The legislative authority should have been removed from Westminster to the Northern Irish Assembly at 10th of March 1999 (Sainio 1999) but this deadline has been delayed a couple of times and currently the whole peace process is in danger to collapse because there is no agreement between the parties. This is only one example which shows how difficult the building of a shared society at the regional level is. This means that Northern Ireland as an active political agent in United Kingdom but especially in Europe of regions is not yet established. However, Northern Ireland is target for many EU subsidies such as Structural Funds and European Peace Programme funds. This means that at least a few channels to European Union are already open.

In the third model (Kearney 1997: 92-95) which focuses on transnational co-operation Kearney refers to as Towards a Council of Islands of Britain and Ireland This transnational body would be formed out of four already existing bodies: 1. the Anglo-Irish Intergovernmental Council, 2. the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference, 3. The Forum for Peace and Reconciliation and 4. the development of all-party talks in Stormont. The new transnational body would challenge the old nation-state government which did not succeed in solving the Ulster problem. The functioning of the Council depend upon appropriate forms of decentralised regional government. One of these governments would be the North (i.e. Northern Ireland) along with Scotland, Wales, the Republic and England. Each of these would be quasi-autonomous, albeit interconnected, and would function under the overall aegis of Council. This model would mean the shifting of power downwards to local government and upwards to the transnational Council. (Kearney 1997: 93)

This third model tests on the assumptions that the Northern Irish Troubles were solved before the Council could be activated, however, this is not the case. Northern Ireland does not appear as an agreed concept. It still is divided into front lines both locally and nationally. The Council of regional governments is not a realistic option before the ‘Ulster problem’ begins to unravel. This process, however, needs transnational and international agents to be involved.

Kearney’s (1997) models emphasise how ‘politics of place’ could be actualised in multiple scales in Northern Ireland, but it does not discuss how people might accept and adopt these practices. Actions taken in political spheres do not necessarily gain acceptance in the minds of people. Therefore, the people’s role should not be underestimated. Support is gained and the shared practices and politics are be built on the strength of public opinion.

These three models for future Northern Ireland are not mutually exclusive. Although they approach the same problem from different angles, they have the same goal: to change the coercive politics of place in Northern Ireland. It is argued that more pluralistic, disseminated and decentralised sovereignty is the key to future. There is also a time factor included to these three models: starting with small steps of joint sovereignty and ending with the Council of Islands. At least some of the proposed changes in administration and political status in Northern Ireland might open the path to peace. However, history unfolds in unpredictable ways. A promising beginning is not a guarantee of successful conclusion as seen lately in Northern Irish politics.[6]


The politics of place is embedded in the construction of collective identity and the politics of resistance. Often this influence of the ‘politics of place’ is misinterpreted as not being a separate process but as one feature in the politics of identity and resistance. However, place politics is a distinct process in which the meanings and sense of place are produced in the interaction of people and ‘spatial’. In the politics of place, people, identity and place become together as result of the interdependent nature of social and spatial spheres.

Postmodern society and its content has been widely discussed during the 1990’s. It is argued that fragmentation and pluralism are becoming essential part of contemporary societies. This will lay challenges also to the understanding of place. Although it is stressed that nation-states would loose their hegemonic power and boundaries between them would become more permeable or disappear totally, it is argued here that politics of place will be able to secure its distinctiveness. Context is and will be an essential part of politics of place. The new ‘Europe of regions’ which is hoped to emerge, is one example of this. In regionalist thinking, people and their local environment (context) becomes into focus. The implications of this are that people will have more to say about the future of their region in social and cultural but primarily in political terms.

The current practices of categorising ‘us’ and ‘others’ will remain essential part of the postmodern society. However, the politicisation of these categories and the varied sites of resistance will hopefully diminish. The achievement of difference will not take place through violence but more through communicative practices such as shared community projects, discussion panels and even art.

Pluralism in society is always a challenge. It is, as Oomen (1995: 266) argues, conceding the existence of a variety of identities and boundaries. He also stresses that identity becomes irrelevant when context changes. This places the emphasis strongly on the connection between context and people. Therefore, while context changes, identity will change too, not disappear. Oomen (1995) continues: the problem arises precisely because the tendency to retain identities persists irrespective of the change in context. This is the case in Northern Ireland. Despite the changing context (for example after partition when Northern Ireland as an institution was established, and during the current peace process) people tend to be locked into exclusive identity categories. To move beyond these, rethinking the strongly categorised politics of place and its eligibility to postmodern society is a prerequisite. The plurality of identities should be valued and the myths of superiority and ethnic purity should be abandoned. Another question is how in reality people will overcome the boundary between the secured and purified nation-state project, and the postnationalist, pluralist mixed reality?


I am very grateful to all who commented the earlier version of my paper in Oulunjärvi, especially Mike Crang and Rob Shields. Also the detailed comments by Marie Smyth and technical support by Martin Melaugh helped me to finalise this article. Writing this article was possible as part of research project SA 42657 funded by Academy of Finland.



In the Northern Irish situation the terms hegemonic and counter-hegemonic do not always refer to the same part of the society. These different sites of power are constructed and defined in a unique way depending on context. In other words hegemonic community in other context could become counter-hegemonic. It is not the aim of the paper to argue which segment of society has more power over the other.


There has not been a commonly acceptable way to refer to the city of Derry/Londonderry. The first term is used by nationalists and the latter by unionists.


In Protestant community the significance of parades as the core of the culture is acknowledged by the author. However, the message of parades is often connected to negative sense of ‘siege mentality’, therefore not giving the same confident to cultural traditions of Protestant community than in Catholic community.


The purification of social space involves the rejection of difference and the securing of boundaries to maintain homogeneity (Sibley 1988: 409).


Not all Protestants can be included under the category of ‘hegemonic’ at the time. There were some dissenters among the Protestant community, who had for example anti-state or anti-British opinions and therefore where often seen as ‘enemies’ by the majority of the Protestant community.


In October 1999 Assembly negotiations are still locked up. Also some violent confrontations between the communities and local police force has emerged in Belfast, Londonderry and Lurgan in August.


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CAIN contains information and source material on the conflict and politics in Northern Ireland.
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