Persistent Violence after War: Communal dynamics in Northern Ireland

Leverhulme Early Career Fellowship

The Northern Irish conflict known as ‘The Troubles’ officially ended over two decades ago. And yet today certain communities still experience the types of violence that were common during the conflict: clashes where predominantly Catholic and Protestant areas meet, paramilitary attacks aimed at those accused of criminality, and terrorist actions targeting the police. What explains the persistence of violence today? My research focuses on how pockets of support allow armed actors to carry out violence long after conflict ends. By exploring how the support of subgroups within certain communities leads to continued violence, the project makes a novel and important contribution to literatures on civilian agency, relations between civilians and armed actors, and the legacies of conflict.

Civil war research is increasingly interested in the agency of civilians and communities during war and how they interact with armed groups. In contrast, work on the legacies of war focuses on how violence affects individual civilians, what happens to the leadership of armed groups, their combatants, and more general political or economic impacts. Less is known of the legacies of conflict on the community–that is, the social systems in spatially defined areas–and how they contribute to the perpetuation of violence long after a civil war nominally ends. Drawing on a rich literature in urban sociology and community studies, I develop a theoretical argument to explain the puzzling levels of violence experienced in Northern Ireland today.

I seek to understand how support for armed actors leads to persistent violence. I argue that in areas where armed groups operated during conflict, communities became accustomed to systems of governance provided by armed actors. Over time, norms and practices emerge which provide a basis of support for armed groups to carry out violence. Armed actors employ violence to respond to the demand from subgroups of supporters within communities, but also to coerce and force out non-supporters from the community. There is thus a dialectic relationship between support and coercion which allows armed actors to carry out violence and secure their support base long after conflict officially ends. In the funded time, I will develop the argument and test its empirical grounding.

I propose a two-pronged empirical approach to measure subgroup support in communities and identify how support leads to persistent violence. My project will join a small but growing body of work in the political sciences that employs ethnographic research methods. I will carry out field research in Catholic neighbourhoods of West Belfast during the Fellowship in two ways. First, I will conduct participatory observation at a restorative justice organisation. These organisations mediate disputes in areas where the police have limited access and are often led by former paramilitaries. Their work therefore involves creating dialogue between paramilitary groups and their potential victims. The method will allow me to identify supporters and non-supporters within the community, and provide a unique window into the practices which people are not always able to articulate. Second, I will conduct interviews with members of the community focusing on their personal histories. The information shared during these interviews will allow me to determine traits or experiences that explain how subgroups form and identify the causal mechanisms of support and violence over time. My fieldwork will be complimented by a statistical analysis of the Northern Irish Life & Times (NILT) survey. As the ethnographic work will focus on one of potentially several spatially-defined communities, the analysis of survey data will ensure the generalisability of my findings across other communities in Northern Ireland.

The research will provide a rich account of the lives of individuals, families, and communities that live in the areas where violence persists, highlighting and documenting the legacies of a war that was, in contrast, well documented.