Parity of Esteem: A Conceptual Approach to the Northern Ireland Conflict

By Ruohomaki, Jyrki | Alternatives: Global, Local, Political, April-June 2010 | Go to article overview

Parity of Esteem: A Conceptual Approach to the Northern Ireland Conflict


Ruohomaki, Jyrki, Alternatives: Global, Local, Political


This article applies a method of conceptual analysis to understand peace processes in a divided society. Through the analysis of the concept of parity of esteem, this article examines some neglected dimensions of conflict studies, including politicizations contestations and politicking involving key concepts in peace processes and conflict resolution. The analysis focuses specifically on politics in Northern Ireland, but it also seeks to inform a more general understanding of the dynamics of peace processes and conflict reconciliation. Keywords: Northern Ireland, conflict resolution, rhetoric, parity of esteem, peace process

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This article discusses the Northern Ireland peace process through an analysis of the conceptual contestations over the vocabulary of the peace process and, more specifically, through an analysis of conceptual struggles around the concept of parity of esteem. Rather than searching for a dictionary meaning for this concept, I will look at the kinds of political intention that can be identified in the mutually conflicting attempts to define the concept of the parity of esteem in the Northern Ireland context. I am thus interested in how the concept of the parity of esteem has been used as a move in an argument, not in what the meaning of the concept could be.

The timespan of the analysis covers debate about the parity of esteem from its introduction into the Irish context in the early 1990s to the Belfast Agreement of 1998. This latter date can be taken to mark the closure of this particular debate; the use of the concept has since lost its role as a normative tool in conflict resolution and as a concept in daily political struggles, partly for reasons I will examine in the article. Although the article addresses the conflict in Northern Ireland in particular, I hope that this approach can also contribute to a broader understanding of the challenges facing practices of conflict resolution in divided societies.

Although conceptual struggles can be considered to be an important part of peace processes and conflict resolution, they have rarely been studied. The power of a political concept is seldom as clearly visible as it is in the case of the parity of esteem. The content given to this particular concept influenced political decisions and discussions from the Protestant parades to the debates about the constitutional status of Northern Ireland. As with any political concept, attempts to define the concept of a parity of esteem are firmly anchored in the political context of its time. I will interpret these attempts to contest and define the concept as examples of political action through words by contextualizing the Northern Irish politics of the time.

The normative use of the parity-of-esteem concept in Northern Ireland's peace process is grounded in the assumption that there are two mutually exclusive and hostile political cultures in Northern Ireland, and that those cultures must be accommodated. These two cultures are Northern Irish unionism and the Northern Irish strand of Irish nationalism. Parity of esteem was seen as a helpful concept to accommodate both of these cultures peacefully. Simon Thompson, who is one of the academic advocates of the concept, defines the idea behind its use to be a commonsense assumption that the two distinctive cultures should be acknowledged in any future political settlements in the region. (1) In practice this means that the application of a parity of esteem should show in the institutional setting of Northern Ireland. Thompson sees the concept as useful in "a political project of cultural engineering" set to create two moderate political blocs, which are able to function in one political system. (2)

The concept of parity of esteem expresses the idea of striving for acknowledgment and recognition. One can nevertheless ask whether the assumptions sustaining this thinking are viable. Can the Northern Irish conflict in particular be framed in such a way, and would we not lose some of the analytical power that could be reached through a more refined reading of the conflict? …

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