05 07 07

Ulster must be defended! On the uses of Cultural Translation in Northern Ireland’s Race War

Susan Kelly

The end of the ‘Real IRA’ is news that will be welcomed by all Irish republicans. It was nothing more than a sectarian militia, unlike the actual IRA which fought a noble and legitimate campaign against… other protagonists in the conflict in which… both sides suffered equally... and we must all recognise… nobody has a monopoly on … there can be no hierarchy of… there is a time for war and a time for… everyone needs to recognise that… the reality is… the reality is… aaaaarggh… aaaaarggh…[1]

Over the last five years, the satirical online newspaper The Portadown News has registered the impossibilities, aporias, frustrations and sheer absurdities of post-Agreement[2] Northern Ireland. This peace agreement bore the unusual mark of coming not after a battle victory or after a transfer of territory, but after the British and Irish governments and the political parties of Northern Ireland agreed on a series of principles, structures, procedures and safeguards. Centrally enshrined in the Agreement is the principle of ‘parity of esteem’ which is founded on the ‘just and equal treatment of the identity, ethos and aspirations of both communities’.[3] This principle recognises the loss, suffering and victim-hood of ‘both the Protestant and Catholic communities’ and inscribes an ethos of what some have called ‘no blame, no shame’ throughout the document. Indeed, as many commentators have pointed out, the document avoids mentioning in any way the problems and histories that led to nearly thirty years of conflict in Northern Ireland. In doing so, the Agreement re-enforces, and arguably furthers a narrative of those thirty years, as a story of two ‘tribes’ whose fundamental division and enmity was and continues to be based simply on a lack of understanding.[4] This article will examine how the official scripting of the Northern Irish conflict in recent years has worked to define and accentuate ethnic and linguistic difference, suggesting that only officially mediated processes of cultural translation can bridge those ‘inherent communal divides’. I will go on to suggest that such a scripting produces not only absolute, reified identities, but also works against initiatives that seek to address questions of history, power and democracy in an attempt to produce a shared, and new political space in the North of Ireland today. In other words, the failed work of cultural translation between singular categories in Northern Ireland has never been the main problem, but rather a failure to address the political legacy of colonial sovereignty.

Constitutional clause 1 (v) of the Good Friday Agreement quoted above goes on to state that ‘all participants in the process recognise the importance of respect, understanding and tolerance in relation to linguistic diversity, including in Northern Ireland the Irish language, Ulster-Scots and the languages of the various ethnic communities, all of which are part of the cultural wealth of the island of Ireland.’[5] The years since the Agreement have seen the latter category of ‘languages of various ethnic groups’ virtually ignored, while a strong campaign for the promotion, teaching and translation of all official documents into Ulster-Scots has gathered force and made considerable gain. The 2001 UK Census translated explanatory notes into Ulster-Scots, the language is now on the school curriculum, and many of Northern Ireland’s official websites are now partially or fully translated.[6]

This development of Ulster-Scots has been aided in great part by the establishment of the controversial and openly Unionist ‘Ulster Scots Agency’ (or Tha Boord o Ulster-Scotch) shortly after the paramilitary ceasefires in the 1994. Ulster-Scots, a variant of lowland Scots (part of the West Germanic languages closely related to English), has struggled to argue for the status of official language rather than dialect, and for its implicit claim to be an almost exclusively protestant language. The promotion and defining of Ulster-Scots in this manner can be seen as part of a recent move to create a clear, unified identity in post-ceasefire Loyalist communities. Attempts to consolidate increasingly fractious loyalist and unionist positions in Northern Ireland (also seen in the 2006 ‘Love Ulster’ campaign in the Republic) reflect a new desire to move away from a straightforward alignment with Britain, to a more localised, ‘indigenous’ identity claim.[7] As Brian Graham has pointed out, the rise of Ulster-Scots appears as a strange deja-vu of the earlier essentialist and isolationist claims around language by Irish/Gaelic ethno-nationalists in Northern Ireland. On the other hand, in the context of an agenda of parity of esteem that frames Northern Irish society as (only) two different, but equally minoritarian, singular and misunderstood cultures results not only in a massive elision of history and power relations, but also in the farcical game of competing claims for marginality and victim-hood. The specific mention of Ulster-Scots alongside the Irish language in the Agreement is significant therefore, as it legitimises and validates definitions of specific ethnic identities in need of understanding and translation to ‘the other side’.[8] Positing ethnic identity through language in the midst of a peace process that narrates what preceded it as a misunderstanding between two distinct and recognisable ‘communities’ is therefore a deeply politicised and divisive move.

Since the Agreement over 130 organisations dedicated to community relations and peace work have sprung up across Northern Ireland. While most of these organisations are involved in important grassroots activity, there is a tendency to publicly describe their work in terms of developing ‘mutual understanding’, ‘promoting cross-community contact’, ‘dialogue’ and encouraging ‘the acceptance of cultural diversity’. Simultaneously, of the 27 ‘peace walls’ or ‘interface barriers’ in Belfast today, 18 have been newly built, extended or raised since the Agreement.[9] In 2003-04 the Housing Executive of Northern Ireland spent a record £45 million re-locating families from towns and parts of cities where they have been intimidated, to what are euphemistically named ‘single identity’ areas.[10] Joe Cleary has commented that since the ceasefires ‘communal divides in Northern Ireland have hardened. The emergence of no-go areas, so-called peace lines that barricade off Protestant and Catholic districts, territorial markings such as painted kerbstones and mural graffiti, create the impression of a Balkanised state continually on the verge of disintegration.’[11] The contradictions presented by the increased drive toward promoting dialogue as part of a ‘peace process’ and the simultaneous reality of an increasingly segregated, violent society are as revealing as they are disturbing. It is against this backdrop of increased segregation and micro-territoriality protected by still functioning paramilitary groups that the championing of the Ulster-Scots language takes place and an official fix of mutual understanding, dialogue and cultural translation is offered up. In such material conditions, the accentuation of a ‘two tribes’ paradigm and the containment of ‘peace work’ to the realms of producing better understanding, emerges as little more than continued conflict management.

It would be a mistake to see this recent phase in Northern Ireland’s relatively short history as distinct, separate, or a historic new departure from what came before. While some of the worst symptoms of conflict have abated and life in many parts has ‘normalised’, albeit in a hyper segregated context, what has not been addressed is the problem of the state itself, the border and the histories it embodies. Increased segregation, antagonism and sectarianism are more or less deliberate and intentional outcomes of decades of failure to address these underlying problems. Policies developed by both the British and Irish governments in the early 1970s sought precisely to avoid an international territorial conflict by suggesting that the roots of the Troubles in Northern Ireland lay exclusively in the intractable sectarianism of two hostile and bigoted communities. Both governments sought to distance themselves from any involvement, let alone complicity in the Troubles and positioned themselves instead as external brokers in a conflict internal to a self-enclosed unit called Northern Ireland. The British government has consistently avoided, denied and dismissed suggestions that the political space it invented shortly after the first world war, and the interests it maintains there has anything to do with the current conflict. It also denies that since the Agreement, the Northern Irish state has remained essentially intact, as has the nature of authority there. Arguably, in Northern Ireland cultural translation is therefore part of what Michel Foucault calls a race war – a war which functions ‘as a principle of exclusion and segregation and, ultimately, a way of normalising society’. Such a war preserves intact the colonial sovereignty of the British State.[12]

After a bloody civil war and a failed Border Commission in the 1920s the government of the Irish Free State (later the Republic of Ireland) sought to repress the issue of Northern Ireland and get on with pretending that the remaining 26 counties constituted the entire country they had hoped to create.[13] After a brief period of overt support for Northern Irish republicans when the Troubles began in the late 1960s, once again the Irish state sought to distance themselves from republican communities in an attempt to avoid all out war and also to avoid raising the embarrassing spectre of the civil war. These tactical and strategic moves were accompanied by a powerful intellectual movement, later known as ‘revisionism’. Revisionist historians, politicians and press commentators argued that a colonial paradigm could not be applied to Ireland and re-cast Anglo-Irish relations as a relatively straightforward historical narrative of modernisation.[14] They questioned the nature of state formation, constructs of nationalism and republicanism but perhaps most importantly, like the British government, sought to frame the Northern Irish conflict as an internal affair. Much of this literature coincided with broader critical trends in historicism, literary and cultural theory in the 1980s and did some useful work to undo unquestioned ideas of community and identity formation in Ireland and Northern Irish republicanism.[15] However, the context in which these critical trends emerged, and the popularity of their ideological thrust in mainstream media in the Republic of Ireland in the 1980s and 1990s was deeply problematic. While the official Irish state laid claim to its revolutionary past, it sought to separate that past from the current conflict. The two major political parties in the Republic then and now are based on civil war divisions, yet 2006 has seen the first year in which major state celebrations were held in Dublin to commemorate the Easter 1916 Rising.[16] In other words, revisionist historicism and commentary coincided with the Republic’s policy toward Northern Ireland but did not seriously intervene in Nationalist discourse in the Republic. Moreover, it precluded forms of non-Nationalist opposition to the British state such as those put forward by many of the earlier civil rights activists in Derry and by left-wing anti-imperialist groups.

As the Troubles wore on into the late 1980s the legitimacy of the IRA’s armed campaign was increasingly called into question, not just in the mainstream press, who have consistently emphasised Republican violence over State and loyalist paramilitary violence, but also by a traumatised and embattled society. The Irish republic, gearing up for a new, euro, neo-liberal, globalised, celtic tiger re-invention, viewed Northern Ireland as an anachronistic and embarrassing territory that needed to be ‘settled’. So rather than enter into peace process negotiations in 1990s as a partitioned country with a particular stake, the Irish government continued its policy of treating northern Ireland as a separate internal, communal conflict and worked with the British government to contain and manage the conflict further.[17]

Within this context one can see the Agreement and the period since as the reflection of an socially and culturally altered, but fundamentally unchanged political policy toward Northern Ireland by the British and Irish governments. The increase in segregation, sectarian violence and attempts to consolidate absolutist identities through narratives of victim-hood and marginalisation can be linked to these broader processes. In taking the approach it did, the Agreement failed to address the problems that brought about a ‘divided society’ and inscribed ‘no other form of social existence in Northern Ireland except Protestant/ Loyalist and Catholic/ Nationalist’.[18] This ‘reality’ is reflected in the seeming normality of the division of cities and towns into ‘Catholic areas’ and ‘Protestant areas’. In many parts of Belfast for example, the points of exit and entry to these ‘single identity’ areas are policed by more or less overt paramilitary force. Large murals on the end of Sandy Row in South Belfast for example ‘welcome you’ to ‘Loyalist South Belfast, home of the U.D.A’ and the kerbs are painted a regular blue, red and white until you cross to a buffer zone roundabout and parking area. This reduction of possible forms of social existence in Northern Ireland and the hyper and micro-territoriality produced by it in cities such as Belfast, leaves no room for anything that could even vaguely pass for a shared space, or an opening to any form of new social or political space.

In January 2004, several newspapers in Northern Ireland and Britain declared Belfast to be the ‘racist capital’ of Europe. This followed a spate of attacks mostly in ‘the Village’ area of South Belfast on immigrant homes. A young Chinese man was beaten to death, the home of a Pakistani man and his eight-month pregnant sister-in-law had a 6ft wooden plank pushed through the window, pipe bombs were thrown into the homes of Ugandan families on Donegall Road and a rented house full of Polish construction workers was petrol bombed. A local estate agent reported that he had been ‘told’ not to rent properties to ethnic minorities.[19] A slight economic upturn since the Agreement has seen a broader movement of migration toward Northern Ireland. Many of these migrants rent houses in the inner city areas of Belfast, which are largely working class, highly segregated and often with high rates of violent crime. It is not so difficult to see why urban areas defined, normalised and funded as ‘single identity’ would be hostile to all perceived outsiders, including migrants or anyone who enters without permission from the local paramilitaries. It is not difficult to see why in the context of an Agreement that assumes that different ethnicities will automatically want to kill each other, that the stage is set for overtly racist attacks. It is also not difficult to see why there is no official political space or even normative discourse around migrant rights when all positions of marginality, exclusion and difference are already occupied to capacity by ‘indigenous’ groups. The Agreement makes occasional off-hand reference to ‘other ethnic’ groups, including their languages as quoted earlier. However, such references are usually tagged on to the two identifiable, different, equal and equally marginalised communities (ie. Catholics and Protestants) and all are mixed together without reference to history, geography, or hegemonic relations of power.

Discourses of Irish ethno-nationalism have often produced an exclusive, white Catholic identity in Northern Ireland. However, many republicans would argue that in the context of the Northern Irish state loyalism itself was a racist inspired movement. In recent years the British fascist group Combat 18 have been working openly in loyalist areas of South and North Belfast. There is a popular argument in Northern Ireland that new enemies are merely tagged onto old enemies. However, attributing an inherent racism to different positions, or assuming an extended logic of communal enmity elides the fact that recent racist attacks and developments within the segregated urban areas of Belfast are framed within the logic of the colonial state. A history of British and Irish relations and an Agreement that scripts the war in Northern Ireland as inter-communal, tribal, and based on religious hatred, bigotry and violence, perpetuates a logic of race and inevitable enmity. The fragmented, militarised, micro-territories of Belfast become sites where Northern Irelands’ war in another form intensifies and where its imposed and simultaneously enacted logic becomes more deeply entrenched.

James Craig, 1st Viscount Craigavon, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party and the first Prime Minister of Northern Ireland’s Stormont parliament declared in 1937 that he stood for a "Protestant parliament for a Protestant people". Many republicans argue that regardless of how you reform it or share out the task of administering it, the Northern Irish state will not change until it is fundamentally taken apart and the premise of British rule is addressed. They argue that having a share of the action in the Stormont parliament is not the same as democracy. Indeed, as Duncan Morrow has commented, democracy and elections within this contested space will only ever amount to ‘a headcount on the issue of the border’, for the legitimacy of majorities depend on the legitimacy of the border.[20] Stating this however, is not tantamount to advocating for a united Ireland, especially since the Republic has long since lost the socialist and egalitarian ideals many of its founders argued for. While it is difficult for many left wing activists and republicans who have parted company with pro-Agreement constituencies to articulate an anti-imperialist, anti-sectarian position that isn’t a united Ireland, this is precisely the challenge ahead. If the Troubles broke out in the late 1960s because the state could not grant the civil rights demanded by the people’s movement in Derry without falling apart, it seems that today, only a challenge to the logic of communal, racist and sectarian divide on which the state is premised would provoke a similar challenge. Only when other forms of social existence are opened up and other forms of opposition to the state are articulated will even a glimmer of the new political space that is necessary come into view. Meanwhile, efforts to reconcile, pacify and communicate ‘across the divide’ will have little effect.

[1] “Jim Glibney: The column that holds nothing up” The Portadown News, August 8th, 2005,

[2] ‘Agreement’ refers to the ‘Good Friday Agreement’ or the ‘Belfast Agreement’ of April 1998. For the full text of the Agreement see:

[3] Quoted from the text of the Good Friday Agreement: Constitutional Issues: 1 (v). Notice the constant reference to ‘both communities’.

[4] This view is also put forward by Eamonn McCann, ‘It's Not Philadelphia, Is It?’ Margot Gayle Backus interview with Eamonn McCann, Rethinking Marxism 13:1, 2001, pp. 83-97.

[5] Quoted from the text of the Good Friday Agreement: Constitutional Issues: 1 (vi)

[6] See the Arts Council of Northern Ireland website:

[7] Many loyalist communities feel betrayed by the Agreement and the British Government, who allegedly used loyalist paramilitary groups as their ‘gloves off’ on-the-ground divisions during the Troubles. The recent ‘Love Ulster’ campaign encourages Loyalists to unite and fight the British Government’s perceived abandonment of Northern Irish Protestants since the Agreement. A ‘Love Ulster’ campaign poster narrates the various moments of abandonment: ‘In the 70s they came for the B-Specials; In the 80s they came for the UDR (Ulster Defense Regiment); In the 90s they came for the RUC (Royal Ulster Constabulary); In 2005 they came for the RIR (Royal Irish Regiment). Now is the time to say: Enough is Enough!’. See:

[8] It is worth mentioning that the British government describes the inclusion of Ulster-Scots under parity of esteem legislation in the Agreement as an obligation under the European Charter on minority languages.

[9] Neil Jarman, ‘No Longer A Problem? Sectarian Violence in Northern Ireland’, Institute for Conflict Research, University of Ulster, March 2005,

[10] Duncan Morrow, the Director of the CRC (Community Relations Council) revealed some of these statistics in a recent lecture where he also publicly criticised the Housing Authority’s practices of re-location. He describes the idea of the ‘single identity community as ‘a terrifying euphemism for an area in which no member of that community would live unless they wanted to face intimidation, expulsion or murder.’ Duncan Morrow, ‘A Shared Future: The Democratic Imperative’, USIP Seminar, Washington DC, 15 March 2006,

[11] Joe Cleary, Literature, Partition and the Nation State, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002, p. 102.

[12] Michel Foucault, Society Must be Defended, trans. David Macey, London: Penguin, 2004, p. 61.

[13] The Irish civil war came after the Irish war of Independence and was as a conflict between supporters and opponents of the Anglo-Irish Treaty of December 6, 1921.This treaty established the Irish Free State which only included twenty-six southern and western counties of Ireland. The remaining six northeastern counties (6 of the 9 counties of Ulster, one of Ireland’s 4 provinces) were to remain part of the United Kingdom as Northern Ireland. Civil war proceeded when Michael Collins, the republican leader who had led the Irish negotiating team to David Lloyd George and Winston Churchill in Westminster, split from his old comrade Éamon de Valera who felt that the agreement was a compromise of the Republic. The war lasted a year, cost over 4,000 lives and left Irish society deeply divided. The Border Commission established by the pro-Agreement Irish Free State to negotiate the sites of the border and how long it would be in place for, lost all ground to the British government in the subsequent years.

[14] See for example the writings of Conor Cruise O’Brien, John A Murphy and Eoghan Harris.

[15] See Joe Cleary, Literature, Partition and the Nation State, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

[16] The armed uprising of Easter 1916 inaugurated the Irish war of Independence and is seen as the most important event in the history of Irish freedom for all Republicans. Since the Agreement Sinn Fein have begun operating as an all-Ireland, 32 county political party. In recent elections they have made significant gains, posing a threat to the main coalition parties in the Republic. The ruling party, Fianna Fail’s desire to reclaim the history of 1916 is also an attempt therefore to oust any exclusive claim Sinn Fein may have on nationalist history in Ireland.

[17] One of the main tenets of the Agreement was that the Republic of Ireland would give up its territorial claim on Northern Ireland. Articles 2 and 3 of the Irish Constitution, which laid this territorial claim to Northern Ireland, were removed after a referendum.

[18] Eamonn McCann, ‘It's Not Philadelphia, Is It?’ Margot Gayle Backus interview with Eamonn McCann, Rethinking Marxism 13:1, 2001, p. 90.

[19] Saying you were ‘told’ to do something without mentioning a subject, is usually a euphemism for a paramilitary order that cannot be refused.

[20] Duncan Morrow, ‘Nobody's Aspiration, Everybody's Predicament’, British-Irish Association,

Oriel College Oxford, 11 September 2004, Many anti-Agreement republicans were amazed by Sinn Fein’s acceptance of the clause that Northern Ireland would not become a united Ireland unless the majority of people in Northern Ireland votes for it. In doing so he accepted the 6 counties of Northern Ireland as a legitimate political space for the first time.

Susan Kelly