Human Rights as War by Other Means: Peace Politics in Northern Ireland

Human Rights as War by Other Means: Peace Politics in Northern Ireland

Human Rights as War by Other Means: Peace Politics in Northern Ireland

Human Rights as War by Other Means: Peace Politics in Northern Ireland


Following the 1998 peace agreement in Northern Ireland, political violence has dramatically declined and the region has been promoted as a model for peacemaking. Human rights discourse has played an ongoing role in the process but not simply as the means to promote peace. The language can also become a weapon as it is appropriated and adapted by different interest groups to pursue social, economic, and political objectives. Indeed, as violence still periodically breaks out and some ethnocommunal and class-based divisions have deepened, it is clear that the progression from human rights violations to human rights protections is neither inevitable nor smooth.

Human Rights as War by Other Means traces the use of rights discourse in Northern Ireland's politics from the local civil rights campaigns of the 1960s to present-day activism for truth recovery and LGBT equality. Combining firsthand ethnographic reportage with historical research, Jennifer Curtis analyzes how rights discourse came to permeate grassroots politics and activism, how it transformed those politics, and how rights discourse was in turn transformed. This ethnographic history foregrounds the stories of ordinary people in Northern Ireland who embraced different rights politics and laws to conduct, conclude, and, in some ways, continue the conflict--a complex portrait that challenges the dominant postconflict narrative of political and social abuses vanquished by a collective commitment to human rights. As Curtis demonstrates, failure to critique the appropriation of rights discourse in the peace process perpetuates perilous conditions for a fragile peace and generates flawed prescriptions for other conflicts.


I saw, in fact, history being written not in terms of what
happened but of what ought to have happened according
to various “party lines.”

—George Orwell, “Looking Back
on the Spanish Civil War”

“We have peace,” declared “Séamus,” a taxi driver in national west Belfast. “And they can have their culture, or whatever they want to call it, as long as it’s not in my face. And I can have mine, and I hope I’m not in their face.” Séamus was explaining to me his attitude toward loyalists and the new, separate peace in Northern Ireland in May 2010, while he showed me around the West Belfast Taxi Association’s new taxi terminal in Belfast city center. The spacious new terminal, its outer walls decorated with murals from Irish legends, serves as a sort of bus station for what are locally called black taxis. Black taxi services began in the 1970s as a grassroots initiative to provide transportation in areas where widespread violence restricted buses’ regular operation. Of course, then, the taxis—one of the radical cooperatives of the period—were illegal and unlicensed. Enterprising activists drove used London hackney cabs up and down main arteries to the west of the city, charging passengers a shilling per journey.

More than a decade after the Good Friday Agreement (GFA), black taxis are legitimate. The Northern Ireland minister for regional development appeared at the new terminal’s opening in 2010. The association serves the area of nationalist west Belfast. In addition to providing cheap, reliable transportation, the association offers historical tours, nicknamed “terror tours,”

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