Territoriality, Democracy and National Conflict Resolution in Ireland

  • James Anderson University of Belfast
  • Douglas Hamilton University of Newcastle
Keywords: Consociationalism, Democracy, National Conflict, Nationalism, Partition, Territoriality Transnationalism


The nation-state ideal, centerpiece of nationalist doctrine, is seriously flawed, most obviously where reality falls well short of the assumed geographical coincidence of 'nation' and 'state'. Attempts to make reality fit the ideal can lead to serious conflicts over national identity, sovereignty and territory; and such conflicts are not amenable to 'normal' democratic resolution precisely because what is at issue is the territorial framework for the exercise of democracy as conventionally understood. Strategies to manage or resolve these conflicts have included the re-drawing of territorial borders and the partitioning or re-partitioning of states, while within given state borders there have been various consociational or power-sharing arrangements which focus on inter-communal boundaries and relations. Both types of strategy may ameliorate particular conflicts at particular times, but they can be seen as 'national solutions to a national problem' and as contradictions in terms which not surprisingly fail to deliver a solution in many cases. They 'manage' rather than 'resolve', and sometimes they fail even to 'manage' because of their built-in tendency to reproduce if not exacerbate the problems they are supposed to solve. Typically, the powers who 'manage' share the same flawed assumptions as those they are 'managing'. More appropriate in such contexts are transnational strategies which stress the importance of crossing the borders between states and between national communities. Drawing on the Northern Ireland context and research into border crossings in both senses, this paper outlines the limits of territorial re-organization and of consociationalism, and argues instead that institutions which straddle territorial borders are necessary for resolving national conflict.                                             But to facilitate genuine conflict resolution, such institutions need to be democratic both in terms of electoral representation and in wider participatory and non-territorial terms.


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