Closure Theory and Citizenship: The Northern Ireland Experience


Max Koch University of Ulster

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The road to the Good Friday Peace Agreement in Northern Ireland is interpreted from the perspective of a theoretical ‘closure notion of citizenship’, which is taken from both the citizenship approach and the theory of closure. The argument is that T.H. Marshall’s classic account leads to a too static, linear, and one-dimensional notion of the process of extending citizenship rights, and that these deficits can be resolved by the consideration of closure theory. The latter points rather to the dynamic and multi-dimensional character of conflicts around citizenship rights. Possible resolutions or regulations of these conflicts include three scenarios: retention of the status quo; revolutionary usurpation; and an institutional compromise, expressing the interests of both conflict parties in some way. The application of this concept to Northern Ireland shows that its recent history has gone through a sequence of the three conflict scenarios. The Good Friday Agreement is understood as an institutional compromise of the Unionist and Nationalist strategies of closure and usurpation.

KEY WORDS:closure theory; citizenship; stratification; social exclusion; Northern Ireland; peace process


Northern Ireland has witnessed a lengthy conflict between Unionists, who want to ensure that Northern Ireland remains part of the United Kingdom and who, until recent reforms, monopolised political and economic power, and Nationalists, who aspire to bring about a united Ireland and who were mostly excluded from power. Unionists are predominantly Protestant and comprise a majority of the population, while Nationalists, whose share in the population is increasing, are normally Catholic.2 A relatively small proportion of the population sees itself as a moderate centre between the two blocks. Over the past 35 years this conflict has, at times, presented itself as a violent one and around 3600 people have lost their lives as a direct consequence.

In the mid-1990s a peace process began and this has improved the prospects for a transition to normality in the region. The focal point in this regard is the Good Friday Peace Agreement of 1998, which was subsequently confirmed in a plebiscite in the North and South of Ireland. It is based on the three principles of non-violence, partnership and mutual respect.


It is important to note that the assembly has been suspended but not the agreement itself. Institutions such as the North-South commissions and the Policing Board continue to operate. Especially at the level of British-Irish consultations, the present situation is characterised by attempts to overcome the crisis in order to return to devolution as soon as possible. Regardless whether these attempts turn out to be successful or not, it is important to note that the Good Friday Argeement remains the foundation of the political development in Northern Ireland for the forseeable future. I do not intend to examine the debate on whether this agreement is likely to provide a long-term solution of the Northern Irish conflict. Instead, I would like to contribute to the sociological understanding of the developments to this point, an understanding that has – naturally – lagged behind the political events. I owe much to previous interpretations of the conflict; in particular to those who, like John Fulton (1991), stress the centrality of relations of power and dominance, on the one hand, and those who, like Kathleen P. Lundy (2001), raise the issue of social inequality and citizenship on the other hand. My own contribution aims at bringing the two lines of argument – power and inequality – together in what could be called a ‘closure notion of citizenship’. In the 1970s and 1980s Frank Parkin’s and Raymond Murphy’s closure theory provided new insights into social divisions, especially ethnic divisions. In the 1990s, the sociological discussion largely followed other routes with closure theory being for the most part neglected. Parkin’s and Murphy’s theoretical concepts were not developed any further nor were they applied to empirical and historical research. This paper is an attempt to redress this imbalance and show that closure theory can offer valuable insights into the extension of citizenship rights in general and into recent Northern Irish political history in particular. First, I outline the theoretical elements for such an approach and then I interpret the process leading to the Good Friday Agreement from that angle. The conclusion summarises both theoretical arguments and historical developments.

Closure Theory

The differentiation made by Max Weber between open and closed relationships is generally seen as the starting point of a theory of closure. An open relationship ‘does not deny participation to anyone who wishes to join’, whereas a relationship is defined as closed against outsiders ‘so far as, according to its subjective meaning and its binding rules, participation of certain persons is excluded, limited, or subjected to conditions.’ (Weber, 1978: 43) Closure is hence a process through which social groups maximise advantages by limiting access to privileges and life chances – ‘rights’ in Weber’s terminology – to an inner circle of selected persons. To achieve this aim, that is the monopolisation of life chances and the definition of outsiders, practically any feature – language, race, class, gender, religion, etc. – can be singled out. Although this definition appears to point to a general concept of closure, in his practical work Weber discusses closure mainly in reference to economic relationships. Here, ‘usually one group of competitors takes some externally identifiable characteristic of another group of (actual or potential) competitors as a pretext for attempting their exclusion.’ And – rather casually – he goes on to say that ‘such group action’ of exclusion ‘may provoke a corresponding reaction on the part of those against whom it is directed.’ (Weber, 1978: 342) However, Weber did not develop the concept of ‘corresponding reactions’ as systematically and as generally as his notion of closure. The idea therefore remained unexplored in Weber’s writings and it was some time before it was revisited by scholars.

Frank Parkin (1972; 1979) and Raymond Murphy (1988) were foremost in developing Weber’s original ideas and this led to a general analysis of all kinds of relations of dominance in which ‘corresponding reactions’ on the part of excluded groups play a significant role. Inclusion and exclusion are thought of as a socio-political process in which two reciprocal collective strategies are involved: closure and usurpation, ‘both being means for mobilizing power in order to enhance or defend a group’s share of rewards or resources.’ (Murphy, 1988: 10) Closure refers to all social action which serves the monopolisation of societal chances, privileges and resources, while usurpation strategies are directed at the reduction of the share of resources claimed by dominant groups and the questioning of their privileges. Excluded groups normally have to rely on forms of ‘solidaristic’ amalgamations which can take different forms.

According to Murphy (1988: 77) there is first ‘inclusionary’ usurpation, which can be described as a ‘reformist’ strategy orientated at the inclusion of an excluded group within the present social order, while ‘revolutionary’ usurpation ‘makes a direct attempt to change the structure of positions in society and in some cases to change the structure of nation states’. In an extension of Murphy’s original thought I suggest we consider not only conflicts between groups but also reflect on the fact that strategies of closure and usurpation often characterise intra-group conflicts. Especially strategic issues in usurpationary struggles have often been dealt with by applying exclusionary measures within the usurping group. Examples for this include the marginalisation of ‘revisionary’ groups such as Trotskyists and Anarchists by Soviet-oriented Communist parties.

From the standpoint of closure theory, the idea of a simple and trouble-free accomplishment of the interests of dominant groups must be rejected as long as counter strategies of excluded groups are not systematically considered. Closure and usurpation are rather seen as reciprocal strategies, which in combination constitute a conflict, the outcomes of which is open in principle. Possible conflict outcomes, in which the dialectics of closure and usurpation are temporarily balanced, seem to include the three following forms: first, an excluding group can push through its interests without concessions to the excluded, sometimes in a repressive way, e.g. by making use of the state monopoly of violence. Here, the relations of dominance remain unchanged (as in China during the student movement of 1989); secondly, the usurping group can manage to carry out a revolution and to abolish the ancien regime. Examples include the storming of the Bastille of 1789 and of the Winter Palace 1917 in Russia, and, as history shows, following the revolutionary strategy the previous usurpers run the risk of becoming an excluding group itself in the ‘new society’; and finally, the area of conflict between excluding and usurping groups can be expressed in a third type of outcome, which was, in my view, not adequately considered by Parkin and Murphy.

Social resources and benefits, which were appropriated through the furthering of a collective strategy, do not always and under all circumstances coincide with corresponding losses of the counterpart, but can also turn into win-win constellations to the benefit of both sides. In these cases, settlements of the conflict are typically negotiated that can take the form of an institutionalised compromise, expressing the interests of both groups in some way. Such kinds of agreements often emerge through the mediation of third actors or parties and/or the shift onto another level of action, so that the interests of the actors of the old conflict change while new actors and interest groups emerge. Conversely, existing agreements between interest groups can become unbalanced and might well be cancelled from one part. An example for this include the post-war class compromise in setting up an universal welfare state, which was later partly cancelled by governments and employers’ organisations.

The next point Parkin (1979: 95 ff.) makes is that strategies of closure and usurpation are not chosen arbitrarily. He stresses – in this case against Weber – that such strategies are normally preceded by legal definitions of subordination by the state: ‘In all known instances where racial, religious, linguistic, or sex characteristics have been seized upon for closure purposes the group in question has already at some time been defined as legally inferior by the state. Ethnic subordination, to take the commonest case, has normally occurred as a result of territorial conquest or the forced migration of populations creating a subcategory of second-class citizens within the nation-state.’ Parkin shows that the main example of exclusion within the working class occurs when groups singled out for exclusion by the labour movement of the culturally dominant group are typically those ‘that already suffer the disabilities of marginal political status, and whose own organizing and defensive capacities are seriously diminished.’ (Parkin, 1979: 96)

While Parkin correctly stresses the crucial role of the state in facilitating exclusionary practices on disadvantaged social groups, he fails to discuss the impact for closure strategies in cases where the state ceases to define target groups for exclusion or reverses a previous definition. It may be hypothesised that if the state withdraws its previous practice of providing a context for exclusion, the excluding group has its position weakened and this, in turn, may cause it to reappraise its strategies. In the absence of a context of exclusion provided by the state, dominant groups can choose to go along two roads in order to maintain their resources. First, since strategies of open discrimination and exclusion of minorities become less effective, dominant groups can change the modus vivendi of their domination towards indirect and latent forms of following their interests by excluding other groups. Secondly, the likelihood of an arrangement with the usurping groups in the sense of the one described above increases. This hypothesis will be discussed in relation to the development in Northern Ireland. However, first I would like to consider and develop Jürgen Mackert’s idea that at the heart of processes of social closure lies the disputed access to citizenship (Mackert, 1998). I argue that, on the one hand, citizenship rights are an important research object for closure theorists and researchers in the field of stratification in general and, on the other hand, that the explanatory power of closure theory gains with the incorporation of issues raised in the debate on citizenship.

The Development of Citizenship Rights as Disputed Resources of Strategies of Closure and Usurpation

Thomas H. Marshall (1977) argues in his classic essay on ‘Citizenship and Social Class’ that for an adequate notion of citizenship it is necessary to subdivide it into the civil, the political and the social element. The civil element considers the basic individual freedoms, such as the liberty of person and the freedom of speech. The political element includes the right to participate in the political process. The practice of this right normally requires corresponding institutions, such as parliament and local administration. Marshall thought that civil and political citizenship remained incomplete without a social element by which he largely referred to socio-economic welfare. The extension of citizenship in general is tied to the commitment of the capitalist economy to bring about social justice – and, according to Marshall, this was to be ensured through a corresponding set of institutions such as the welfare state.

Marshall was perfectly aware of the fact that social achievements such as an encompassing welfare state did not just appear out of the blue, but were hard-won in sometimes rough social struggles. As the Post-war period has been above all characterised by the building of the welfare state, which Marshall saw as capable of regulating capitalism and avoiding its worst anomalies, it is understandable that he saw the working class to be the crucial collective agent in terms of pushing through elements of social citizenship. The conflict in goals between a formally rational capitalist economy and the value of universal citizenship was acknowledged by Marshall (1981), but he was probably influenced too much by the Zeitgeist of the Post-war-class-compromise to consider systematically the possibility of a one-sided cancelation of this particular regulation of capitalism. But, as Ruth Lister (1997: 35) rightly objects, citizenship standards that have once been achieved are ‘not static but always open to reinterpretation and renegotiation.’ This was precisely the case towards the end of the 1970s when neoconservative governments started to take back some of the welfare state elements from ‘above’ at a time when the working class movement turned out to be not strong enough to defend them.

Against this background, it would appear that Marshall’s concept of the extension of citizenship is too static. Furthermore, the close link he suggests between this development and the practice of the working class seems questionable. Pointing at the relative late introduction of female suffrage, feminists argued that the extension of political rights proceeds in anything but an automatic and linear manner. In addition, women are in practice prevented from exercising their social rights, because it is they who in the first place are responsible for looking after children and caring for elderly and ill people (Jones and Wallace, 1992). Drawing on his experiences in Australia and the US, Bryan S. Turner (1993) drew the attention of sociologists towards ethnic conflicts. He shows that such conflicts can be as important, and sometimes crucial, for the debate about civil, political, and social standards of citizenship as class and gender. It follows from these criticisms that the extension of citizenship rights does not proceed in linear and spontaneous forms and that social theory should seek for a way of incorporating this fact.

I would argue that the rather particularistic and non-simultaneous forms of accomplishing citizenship rights can be addressed adequately from a closure theory perspective. Looked at from this angle, an historically given standard of citizenship rights appears at the same time as a result and a requirement of strategies of closure and usurpation in different societal fields. The corresponding social struggles are not simply reduced to the conflict of capital and labour, but also include other relationships of dominance such as the ones built on gender and ethnic affilitation. A too static picture is avoided through the emphasis of the dynamic character of the relations between excluding and usurping groups. As it is in the interest of both parties to maximise its respective share of resources, if necessary against the resistance of the opposite group, we should rather start from the hypothesis of a delicate and fragile balance of the closure relationship, whereby the withdrawal of a once achieved level of citizenship rights is always an option.


Both the class conflict in capitalist society and the antagonism of nobles vs. commoners are special cases of closure relationships because they are located in the process of production of wealth. Here the welfare of the capitalists/nobles depends directly on the effort of the working class/commoners in the work process, while in the cases of patriarchy and ethnic conflicts, located at the level of distribution of wealth, the welfare of men/ruling ethnic groups are due to the exclusion of women/ruled ethnic groups from access to certain societal positions and resources, but not to their efforts in the work process. The former cases should therefore continued to be called ‘exploitation’, because ruling groups need the exploited for their own well-being, while in the latter cases of non-exploitative closure ruling groups would keep their level of welfare and their resources even if the excluded groups disappeared.3 An adequate notion of the extension of citizenship rights and indeed of stratification in contemporary capitalist society calls for a reconciliation of Marxist and Weberian perspectives rather than their treatment as antipodes. Academic frontlines of the 1970s, when Parkin launched his usurpatory attack on traditional Marxist class theorists, should be overcome.

The suggested perspective considers the fact that the extension of citizenship rights proceeds by fits and starts than in a smoothly linear way, and that we are faced with the simultaneous existence of disputed terrains and conflicts of excluding and usurping groups.4 Not only does this not exclude, in certain historical circumstances, the possibility of a temporal dominance of one relationship of closure over others. At the level of empirical analyses of concrete societies, this will frequently be the case. Taken by and large, Marshall’s division of periods is correct in dating the extension of civil rights to the eighteenth century, political rights to the nineteenth, and social rights to the twentieth century. However, in the twentieth century the accomplishment of both civil and political rights was still an issue, although it did not mould the mainstream of social change. The working class’s usurpational gains against the bourgeois class did not automically lead to an improvement of the social situations of women and to the up until then dominated ethnic groups, even though it doubtless contributed to the development of a civil society, which itself facilitated corresponding social struggles. Political and social citizenship rights for women and non-mainstream ethnic groups had to be achieved by independent civil movements. This organisational autonomy was not least necessary because trade unions and socialist parties, for example, were in many countries dominated by males and whites.

With regards to the extension of citizenship rights, it follows from these examples that it would be advisable to conceptualise each closure relationship as separate cases. This is because the parties, resources and stakes vary from field to field and cannot be reduced to a single logic. For example the intellectual capital necessary to progress in the academic field is of a different kind from the requirements needed to make it to the top of a private enterprise firm (Bourdieu, 1977; 1986). Looked at from this angle, the usefulness of Parkin’s concept of ‘dual closure’ (1979: 89 ff.) becomes obvious: to talk of ‘dual’ or ‘multiple’ closure means to consider the possibility that social groups, who are dominant in one field, are excluded in others. As we shall see this is of particular importance in the Northern Irish context.

Closure and Usurpation in Northern Ireland

Irish history is associated with deep historical roots of closure and usurpation leading to, among other things, emigration and the Irish diaspora. Any solution of the Northern Ireland conflict is difficult due to the duration and the severity of conflicts over monopolisation of all kinds of societal resources. Having outlined the closure notion of the extension of citizenship, however, we can now move on to examine the recent historical development leading to the Northern Ireland Peace Agreement in these terms. I shall argue that, on the one hand, recent history of Northern Ireland can be understood as a sequence of the different scenarios of the closure relationship outlined above: retention of the status quo, revolutionary usurpation, and negotiated settlement; and, on the other hand, that the corresponding struggles between exluding and usurping groups to date have led to the extension of citizenship. The first stage lasted for roughly fifty years, beginning with the foundation of the Northern Irish state in 1921, where closure took the form of an overt Unionist supremacy, which found its political expression in a ‘Protestant Parliament and a Protestant State’.5 The second stage relates to the 1970s and early 1980s and is characterised by an increasing influence of the revolutionary option on the part of the nationalist usurpers. The third stage encompasses developments after the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985 culminating in the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, which is presented as an institutional compromise of excluding and usurping groups. Finally, the situation since these agreements are analysed by taking a closer look at closure and usurpation processes within the different camps. The four stages are subsequently examined in turn.

1. Overt Exclusion and Inclusionary Usurpation: 1921 to 1972

Up until the early 1970s Northern Ireland was not fully integrated into either the British or the southern Irish states and little influence was exercised either by Westminster or Dublin on the public policy of the region, leaving Stormont, the Northern Irish parliament, to govern. Protestants dominated this and other institutions and made few efforts to enlist Nationalist support. As Richard Rose (1971) noted, Unionist power was dependent on maintaining the cohesion in the Unionist block, and it was Catholic compliance not Catholic consent that was sought. Caroline Kennedy-Pipe (2001: 26) argues that the minority had therefore little stake in maintaining or contributing to this political system.

The first pillar of Protestant rule was political-legal discrimination through the restriction of the political rights of Catholics in the electoral system (Elliot, 1999). Constituencies were demarcated in such a way that many councils with a Catholic majority were led by Unionists. These councils, in turn, tended to treat Catholics unfairly in the provision of public housing, thereby limiting their social citizenship rights too (Gudgin, 1999). A further element of Unionist predominance was the recruitment practice in the public service, where Catholics were under-represented and practically excluded from the higher ranks (Morrissey, 2001). The police and security apparatus was virtually monopolised by Protestants. Recruitment to the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) resulted in a body, which was over ninety per cent Protestant, and special forces such as the Ulster Special Constabulary served as a Unionist militia (Hillyard, 1997). Finally, in the private sector, Catholics were disadvantaged too. This was due to the fact that most employers were Protestants themselves and either refused to employ Catholics altogether or, if they did, allocated them minor tasks only and in worse employment conditions than Protestants.

The socio-economic consequences of these disadvantages were, on the one hand, higher unemployment rates for Catholics than for Protestants6 , and, on the other hand, an ethnically segmented labour market, in which Protestants tended to occupy the higher ranks and the so-called ‘higher status industries’, while Catholics were found predominantly in the lower classes (Aunger, 1975: 15). Within the same class and the same working context, Protestants, again, had the superior positions, while Catholics were over-represented in the lower status positions.

The particular class position of the Protestant workers is worth noting, because it constitutes a prime example of ‘dual closure’ in the sense described by Parkin (1979: 96). In the then strongholds of Northern Irish industry, shipyards and textiles, a situation was created in which Protestant workers could set the possible gains that might accrue to them if they were to join forces with Catholic workers in making usurpationary demands on the employers against the advantages stemming from the exclusion of Catholics from both skilled and better-paid jobs and political power. The fact that the Protestant workers opted against an alliance and in favour of the continuity of their ethnically grounded privileges, shows that exploitation through wage labour is acceptable by the privileged faction of the working class as long as it is capable of taking advantage through exclusion of others.


In the mid-1960s, a civil rights movement emerged which demanded equal rights and the abolition of Protestant privileges through non-violent means such as marches and sit-ins. Even though many of those involved in the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association were Catholic, the campaign did not press the demand for Irish unification. The slogan ‘British rights for British citizens’ reflects the fact that the campaign was, in the first place, an attempt to improve the life chances of Catholics within the existing state of Northern Ireland – a ‘reformist’ usurpation strategy in the sense of Murphy. The impulse towards revolutionary usurpation was at this stage remarkably low.

Purdie (1990: 143 ff.) describes the Unionist government’s unwillingness to accommodate civil rights demands in a constructive and de-escalating manner. Indeed it reacted belligerently to the emergent demands and thereby contributed greatly to the escalation of the confrontation. After some scenes of the confrontation between the marchers and the RUC had been broadcast on television and outraged world opinion, the British government in Westminster decided to act. First it sent troops to restore law and order7 and then – in 1972 – it abolished the devolved parliament in Stormont.8 However, for the time being, these developments did little to further political and social citizenship. On the contrary, the introduction of internment – the de facto imprisonment of individuals on the mere suspicion of terrorism – which was in the first years almost exclusively practiced against Nationalists, led to a considerable reduction of civil rights. Also, the authorities’ harsh reaction to the civil rights marches did not disappear but intensified with the introduction of ‘direct rule’. Above all the events of the so-called ‘Bloody Sunday’ (1972), when British soldiers shot dead fourteen civil rights marchers in Derry/Londonderry, led not only to further alienation of Catholics from the existing system of law and order but also had far-reaching consequences for the tactics of the usurpers. Whereas the strategy prior to 1972 had been orientated to the reform of the political system and the socio-economic structures of Northern Ireland by way of peaceful and non-violent protests, more Nationalist supporters now began to opt for the revolutionary path and armed struggle. An increasing proportion of the Catholic community started to believe that the political and socio-economic demands of the civil rights’ movement could be realised only in the context of a united Ireland. As a consequence of the hardening of the relations between excluding and usurping groups, a long and ‘dirty’ war between the British army, the Unionist security apparatus and loyalist paramilitary groups, on the one hand, and the paramilitaries of the IRA, on the other hand, ensued.

2. ‘Indirect Discrimination’ and Revolutionary Usurpation: the 1970s and 1980s

In the 1970s and 1980s, the British government had two goals: first, the military defeat of the IRA and, secondly, the granting of limited political and socio-economic reforms designed to advance the legitimacy of the state in the eyes of the Catholic community. The manipulation of constituencies in local elections was abolished in the early 1970s. In addition, a law was passed which made discrimination in employment on grounds of religious or political affiliation illegal (Thorpe, 2001).

However, the abolition of direct discrimination did not automatically lead to more equality. In the private sector, in particular, discrimination often continued through indirect channels. This was the case, when, for example, employees were recruited only from members of a particular club linked with a major church, or when employees were asked to move to a certain region or neighbourhood within Northern Ireland (Lundy, 2001). The discriminating character of such regulations is revealed when considering that most Northern Irish cities and large towns are highly segregated along sectarian lines so that it can be dangerous to move to an area dominated by the ‘other’ community (Poole and Doherty, 1996).

In the course of the 1980s, it became clear that the double-strategy of the British government was not succeeding. The IRA was not forced to surrender, nor was the disadvantaging of the Catholic community much reduced.9 As a consequence, the historically low legitimacy accorded to the London government amongst the Catholic population did not change. Westminster was still often seen as an alien, imperial and hence illegitimate power. Conversely, and of equally importance, the revolutionary strategy of the armed struggle had not delivered the hoped for results either. Not only had the IRA failed to expel the British from Northern Ireland but also the legitimacy of armed politics was being increasingly undermined because of the IRA’s intransigent stance, its involvement in plain criminality and the enormous and growing list of innocent victims.

3. The Peace Agreement as an Institutional Compromise Between Excluding and Usurping Groups

The failure of the hardliners on both sides to deliver facilitated a move towards a non-violent solution based on mutual respect. Moderate voices from both camps argued that if it was not possible to deal simultaneously with both the constitutional status of Northern Ireland and the issue of citizenship rights, perhaps there was a possibility of proceeding on one terrain while postponing the other. Opinion makers from both communities perceived that there was a possibility of making progress with regards to reforms of the political system and the promotion of social inclusion by decoupling these issues – at least temporarily – from the dispute concerning the constitutional future of Northern Ireland.


Essentially, this compromise was reached through the mediation of third parties and the shifting of the conflict onto an international level. The internationalisation of the conflict began with the British-Irish consultations leading to the Anglo-Irish agreement of 1985. For the first time, the UK recognised the Republic of Ireland as a negotiating party in Northern Irish issues, and, conversely, the Dublin government explicitly condemned violence as a means for accomplishing political goals. By documenting their good will and their mutual respect, both sides paved the way for further negotiations towards a peaceful settlement. The involvement of US-President Bill Clinton, who helped Sinn Fein (the political wing of the IRA) to participate in the peace talks10 , pointed in the same direction. Important further steps were Downing Street’s declaration that Britain had ‘no selfish strategic interest in Northern Ireland’ followed by the first IRA ceasefire (1994) and the election of Tony Blair, who – among other conciliatory measures – approved a second inquiry into the events of ‘Bloody Sunday’.

4. The Danger of Falling Back: Closure and Usurpation Within the Camps

My last remarks refer to internal conflicts within both the unionist and nationalist camps. Unionist hegemony was traditionally based on internal unity which allowed it (for example in the case of Sunningdale) to undermine previous attempts by London and Dublin to reach a settlement with the Nationalists. It was this convergence of Dublin and London which had in the first place forced the Northern Ireland parties into dialogue (Arthur, 2000). Unionists had tried to bring down the Anglo-Irish agreement, because it suggested that the ‘Troubles’ were the business of both Dublin and London. They still saw the Dublin government as a foreign power which should have no say in the future of Northern Ireland. Their protests included sustained demonstrations and boycotts of public bodies and were supported by all Unionist factions.

However, with the failure of this campaign a schism emerged within Unionism between the traditionalists – mainly, but not only, Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) – who continue to oppose any kind of reconciliation with Nationalists, and the modernisers of David Trimble’s faction within the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP). For the latter it became clear that abstention from the political process could hardly serve Unionist interests. In a new approach to defending the union through negotiations, the UUP secured the provision that the Peace Agreement ‘contains a formal and explicit reiteration of British sovereignity’ (Bew, 2001: 41). Simultaneously, two controversial articles in the constitution of the Republic of Ireland, which claimed Northern Ireland as part of the national territory of the Republic of Ireland and claimed jurisdiction over the whole of that territory, were deleted as a result of a referendum in the Republic. Unionists have the guarantee that Northern Ireland remains part of the UK as long as the population in Northern Ireland agree, and the constitution of the Republic of Ireland no longer contains a clause disputing this status.

A majority, albeit narrow, of Unionists therefore supported the agreement. Since then, however, the position of its opponents have improved due to continuing illegal IRA activities and a decomissioning process deemed to be too slow by Unionists. Since the pro-agreement wing within Unionism is constantly under the pressure of being able to demonstrate some kind of progress, whilst the oppositional traditionalists benefits from problems in implementing the Good Friday Agreement, therein lies a serious trap for the peace process.

On the Nationalist side it took moderates such as John Hume, the then leader of the Social Democratic Labour Party (SDLP) who was supported by Dublin and the Clinton administration, a great deal of time and energy to convince Sinn Fein leaders that the British interest in setting up negotiations was real and not merely motivated by strategic considerations. A majority within Republicanism, in the end, accepted and shared the assumption that the putative gains in socio-political inclusion would outweigh the concessions involved in confirming the current constitutional status of Northern Ireland. Gains on the inclusion front are first the setting-up of the new Police Service of Northern Ireland, which introduced a rigid 50/50 quota system. This recruitment practice favours Catholics and should therefore increase the legitimacy of the state amongst Nationalists in the future11 ; and secondly, the de-centralisation of the administration to facilitate cross-border bodies, which introduces an ‘All-Irish’ dimension.

However, within Sinn Fein, the gap between the supporters and the opponents of the agreement (who prefer to continue with the armed struggle and resist negotiations with the previous enemy) is far from overcome. A common working basis, according to which the IRA could continue to exist but meant it had to call off military action, especially against the British Army and state institutions, allowed Sinn Fein to join the government. But, meanwhile, this modus vivendi is no longer valid due to the departure of Unionists from the government and the subsequent suspension of devolution. The pro-agreement camp around Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness will therefore no longer be able to avoid an inner-party dispute, in which they will have to convince their opponents of a total commitment to democratic means including the speedy completion of decommissioning and the disbandment of the IRA as a paramilitary organisation.


In this paper, I have discussed recent developments of the Northern Ireland conflict in the light of the closure notion of citizenship. The theoretical gain of this discussion is first of all the avoidance of a too static, linear and one-dimensional notion of the process of extending citizenship rights, which appears to limit the scope of Marshall’s original approach. Parkin’s and Murphy’s approach is generally oriented at the multi-dimensionality of power and closure relationships. The analysis of very different aspects of inequality such as gender, social class and ethnic groups can be carried out in one and the same theoretical terms of reference. Further more, closure theory highlights the dynamic character of the clash of interest between excluding and usurping groups. The balance of a relationship of closure, as it appears in a historical moment, is always unstable, insofar as both parties struggle to push through their interests – if necessary against the resistance of the counterpart. In contrast to Marshall’s linear concept of the extension of civil, political and social citizenship rights, predictions of the outcome of an historically given closure relationship are hardly possible. Both the improvements but also the deterioration of a once achieved level of citizenship rights are always realistic options.

The application of this concept to Northern Ireland resulted in the sub-division of its recent history into different stages. Each of these stages are characterised through specific constellations of Nationalist and Unionist strategies of closure and usurpation, corresponding to the three forms of possible conflict outcomes that were developed in the earlier theoretical discussion: A retention of the status quo and the privileges of Unionism through overt exclusion of Catholics from political and social citizenship rights characterised the situation until the early 1970s. The usurpation strategy the opposition applied was ‘inclusionary’ (Murphy, 1988) in that it aimed at reforming the existent political structures of Northern Ireland and at enhancing social coherence, without demanding Irish unity at the same time. The 1970s and early 1980s brought, on the one hand, progress in the area of political citizenship rights (for example, the abolition of gerrymandering), but, on the other hand, the social position of Catholics especially in employment deteriorated, while their civil rights were actually further reduced through the practice of internment. The period was generally characterised through a hardening on both fronts and the increasing influence of a ‘revolutionary’ usurpationary strategy within the nationalist camp. Both the British army and the IRA believed they could defeat each other. Conflict resolution seemed to be possible only in the context of maximum demands: no progress in terms of social cohesion without a unification of Ireland on the part of the usurpers; no thoroughgoing reforms of the relations of dominance in the Northern Irish state without unconditional surrender to the excluding group. Finally, looked at from the angle of a closure notion of the extension of citizenship rights, the process leading to the Good Friday Agreement appears to be an institutional compromise between the interests of both Unionists and Nationalists, who re-adopted an inclusionary approach. This settlement was made possible through the mediation of a third group of actors in Westminster, Dublin and Washington, through which the original conflict was shifted onto an international level. The compromise amounts an agreement to decouple the issue of the institutional affiliation of Northern Ireland from matters of citizenship. While Northern Ireland remains to be a part of the United Kingdom for the forseeable future, measures were taken that are likely to further political and social citizenship rights of Catholics.

The present situation is also characterised by attempts on the part of hardliners in both camps aimed at withdrawing from the reached compromise. Whether these attempts succeed seems to depend on the extent of unity amongst the supporters of the Peace Agreement, that is, the possibility of an alliance beween both the moderates in the unionist and nationalist camp, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, on the co-ordination of the governments in London and Dublin. Should both governments remain committed in implementing the agreement – including the resumption of the Northern Ireland Assembly – the odds are favourable that the pragmatic forces in both camps will prevail. Furthermore, and not least, the economic interests of Protestant elites are better served in a more peaceful social environment, and a therefore improved image of Northern Ireland abroad, than in a societal climate characterised by distrust, which, on top of everything else, evokes Northern Ireland’s civil war image in the eyes of potential business partners abroad. Sinn Fein too gains, especially its increasing success in elections at all levels, which is particularly due to its gradual turning away from the armed struggle and the championing of democratic means. A return to violence would mean that both camps would lose these advantages again. Since self-interest is often paramount there are some reasons to be confident.


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1. An earlier version of this paper was presented as Habilitationsvortrag (public lecture, prerequisite for German professorship) at Freie Universität Berlin, Fachbereich Politik- und Sozialwissenschaften, November 6th, 2002, under the title: Der nordirische Friedensprozess vor dem Hintergrund der Theorie der sozialen Schließung. I would like to thank my colleagues at the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Ulster, especially Simon Harrison, Joe McCormack, and Kevin O’Brien for valuable comments on earlier drafts of this paper and for their nearly indefinite patience in my coming to grips with Northern Ireland politics. I am also grateful to Sebastian Herkommer, Heiner Ganßmann, Renate Rott, and Bernhard Gläser for their comments on the theoretical part of this paper and their support during the Habilitation examination process.

2. Both ethnic camps, internally divided along the typical dimensions of social inequality (among others class, gender, and age), are further differentiated on the issue of violence in politics. In the Nationalist camp Republicans have supported it in the past, while Nationalists have opposed it. Hence, all Republicans are Nationalists but not all Nationalists are Republicans. On the Protestant side Loyalists have supported violence while Unionists have opposed it. All Loyalists are Unionists but not all Unionists are Loyalists.

3. See for the distinction of exclusion and exploitation Wright, 1994: 40; Herkommer and Koch, 1999: 103; Koch, 2001: 199; and Koch, 2003: 18.

4. Against the background of the debate on environmental and technological risks in late modernity (Beck, 1992), one could argue for the inclusion of ‘ecological rights’ as disputed areas of conflict in Figure 2.

5. Such was the characterisation of the Northern Irish democracy by its first Prime Minister, James Craig, in 1933.

6. According to Lundy (2001: 713), unemployment of Catholic males in 1971 was 17 per cent and of Catholic females it was 7 per cent. In contrast figures for Protestants were 7 per cent and 4 per cent respectively.

7. A move originally welcomed by the Catholic community.

8. The first attempt to return to a devolved government in the Sunningdale Agreement of December 1973 did not turn out to be more than an episode as it lasted only a few months (see for a comparison to the Good Friday Agreement Cox et al., 2000: 290 f.). In one of the few cases in which workers in an advanced capitalist society managed to bring down a government by a general strike, Protestant workers contributed greatly to the collapse of the Northern Ireland parliament. For this fact were not appropriately echoed by theoretical writers at the time, Parkin (1979: 99) heretically speculated that this had ‘something to do with the fact that this long-awaited event was performed for exclusionary ends rather than for the expected usurpation of capital by labour.’

9. Between 1971 (see Footnote 7) and 1987 unemployment among Catholics doubled to 36 per cent for men and 15 per cent for women. Even though unemployment also rose among Protestants – the figures for 1987 are 15 per cent for men and 9 per cent for women – it increased faster among Catholics than among Protestants (Lundy, 2001: 713).

10. Clinton’s active role became obvious in 1994 when Gerry Adams, the leader of Sinn Fein, was granted a visa to visit the US, which was previously denied to him.

11. However, for the time being policing remains to be an issue of dispute insofar as for Republicans the policing reforms do not go far enough. They continue to refuse to join the multi-party Police Board.

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