Parity of esteem: a conceptual approach to the Northern Ireland conflict.

Author:Ruohomaki, Jyrki

This article applies a method of conceptual analysis to understand peace processes in a divided society. Through the analysis of the concept of parity of esteem, this article examines some neglected dimensions of conflict studies, including politicizations contestations and politicking involving key concepts in peace processes and conflict resolution. The analysis focuses specifically on politics in Northern Ireland, but it also seeks to inform a more general understanding of the dynamics of peace processes and conflict reconciliation. Keywords: Northern Ireland, conflict resolution, rhetoric, parity of esteem, peace process


This article discusses the Northern Ireland peace process through an analysis of the conceptual contestations over the vocabulary of the peace process and, more specifically, through an analysis of conceptual struggles around the concept of parity of esteem. Rather than searching for a dictionary meaning for this concept, I will look at the kinds of political intention that can be identified in the mutually conflicting attempts to define the concept of the parity of esteem in the Northern Ireland context. I am thus interested in how the concept of the parity of esteem has been used as a move in an argument, not in what the meaning of the concept could be.

The timespan of the analysis covers debate about the parity of esteem from its introduction into the Irish context in the early 1990s to the Belfast Agreement of 1998. This latter date can be taken to mark the closure of this particular debate; the use of the concept has since lost its role as a normative tool in conflict resolution and as a concept in daily political struggles, partly for reasons I will examine in the article. Although the article addresses the conflict in Northern Ireland in particular, I hope that this approach can also contribute to a broader understanding of the challenges facing practices of conflict resolution in divided societies.

Although conceptual struggles can be considered to be an important part of peace processes and conflict resolution, they have rarely been studied. The power of a political concept is seldom as clearly visible as it is in the case of the parity of esteem. The content given to this particular concept influenced political decisions and discussions from the Protestant parades to the debates about the constitutional status of Northern Ireland. As with any political concept, attempts to define the concept of a parity of esteem are firmly anchored in the political context of its time. I will interpret these attempts to contest and define the concept as examples of political action through words by contextualizing the Northern Irish politics of the time.

The normative use of the parity-of-esteem concept in Northern Ireland's peace process is grounded in the assumption that there are two mutually exclusive and hostile political cultures in Northern Ireland, and that those cultures must be accommodated. These two cultures are Northern Irish unionism and the Northern Irish strand of Irish nationalism. Parity of esteem was seen as a helpful concept to accommodate both of these cultures peacefully. Simon Thompson, who is one of the academic advocates of the concept, defines the idea behind its use to be a commonsense assumption that the two distinctive cultures should be acknowledged in any future political settlements in the region. (1) In practice this means that the application of a parity of esteem should show in the institutional setting of Northern Ireland. Thompson sees the concept as useful in "a political project of cultural engineering" set to create two moderate political blocs, which are able to function in one political system. (2)

The concept of parity of esteem expresses the idea of striving for acknowledgment and recognition. One can nevertheless ask whether the assumptions sustaining this thinking are viable. Can the Northern Irish conflict in particular be framed in such a way, and would we not lose some of the analytical power that could be reached through a more refined reading of the conflict? The concept of parity of esteem is nevertheless used as a concept in political engineering and as a normative tool in conflict resolution. Whether this has been successful is one of the questions I want to consider here.

The Bipolarity of Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland unionists hold it paramount that the constitutional status of Northern Ireland as a part of the United Kingdom should be maintained. Nationalists, on the other hand, dispute these premises and claim that only one legitimate state exists on the island of Ireland, the Republic of Ireland. Since the Belfast Agreement (1998), this debate has taken place without a major threat of political violence.

The concepts defining the parties in the Northern Ireland conflict are very diverse. Can one usefully speak, for example, of the struggle between the Protestants and the Catholics, as the conflict is often described in the media, especially outside the United Kingdom, or should one use the terms referring to the political objectives and speak of unionists and nationalists? This article will use the terms "unionist" and "nationalist" when speaking of the political conflict, and the terms "Protestant" and "Catholic" when referring to cultural communities and traditions. One must also remember that the division of the unionists and nationalists is very imprecise. For example, unionism can be divided into unionism and a more extreme loyalism or to multiple conflicting political traditions inside unionism. Loyalism is also a diverse concept since it includes not only demagogues such as Ian Paisley but also the loyalist paramilitary organizations, even though politically the two have little to do with each other. (3) Loyalism is also more working-class than the broader unionism. (4) On the other hand, nationalism can be interpreted to include republicanism, which historically has striven more straightforwardly toward a united Ireland. More moderate constitutional nationalism can therefore be said to form a parallel concept to constitutional unionism. From the main nationalist parties in Northern Ireland, the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) has represented constitutional nationalism and Sinn Fein republicanism. (5) From the main unionist parties, the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) has been more moderate, while Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) has been loyalist. The concepts of unionist, loyalist, or Protestant can also be used as a part of a political strategy, as, for example, when it is argued that the Protestant Orange Order parades are not political (loyalism) but cultural (Protestantism), an argument that can be reversed if necessary. (6) This also goes to show the arbitrary and contestable nature of these terms.

There are also political forces, such as the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland (APNI) and the Northern Ireland Women's Coalition (NIWC), that are trying to position themselves outside the hegemonic division between unionism and nationalism. The bipolarity of Northern Ireland has nevertheless proven challenging for these parties. This can be seen, for example, from the decreasing support of the APN and of the problems that the NIWC has faced. (7) The all-embracing constitutional question establishes a demarcation to unionism and nationalism, especially during political crisis. This easily marginalizes those who do not fit into this division. The political debate in Northern Ireland is therefore very strongly constructed by the two hegemonic discourses of unionism and nationalism. (8) This also contributes to the politicization of concepts such as the parity of esteem to the point that they reflect this bipolarity, even if they were created to serve as nonpartisan instruments. In fact, by upholding the hegemonic bipolarity, these concepts do their part to exclude opinions and ideas questioning this bipolarity.

Another example of the conceptual struggles in Northern Ireland is the naming of the area itself, and particularly whether one should call the area a state, an autonomous province, Ulster, or the six counties (so as to separate it from the historic nine counties of Ulster). Although Northern Ireland is constitutionally a part of the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland is not similar to Wales or Scotland. To use the concept of a state is especially problematic and easily locks its user into a particular way of understanding the conflict. To call Northern Ireland a state does not, however, make one a unionist, as the concept of the state has been used to both legitimize and delegitimize the independence of the area, for example by appealing to the exclusive nature of the Northern Irish state. (9) However, the state powers and the monopoly to use force in Northern Ireland derives from the United Kingdom, so that one cannot really speak of the Northern Irish state as an independent actor. Politicking with the concept of the state can be seen as a one more example of how important it is to get legitimacy for a particular meaning of a particular concept.

From the premises described above, it is not surprising that naming and conceptual contestations have played a significant role in the Northern Irish peace process. Although this process came to an important interim conclusion at the Belfast Agreement (1998), it is still unfinished. The Belfast Agreement was partly renegotiated at St. Andrews in 2006, and the local parties have had difficulties reaching an agreement upon policing and decommissioning of paramilitary weapons. In addition, the "peace process" itself is a somewhat contested concept as the term process implies movement and change, which are opposite to the core idea of unionism, which stresses permanence and seeks to anchor the Northern Irish constitutional status quo to a future far ahead.

History of the Concept

The roots of the concept of a parity of esteem are in the...

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