Social Movements, Structural Violence, and Conflict Transformation in Northern Ireland: The Role of Loyalist Paramilitaries

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Abstract

This article analyzes how social movements and collective actors can affect political and social transformation in a structurally violent society using the case study of Northern Ireland. We focus, in particular, on the crucial role played by collective actors within the loyalist community (those who want to maintain Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom) in bringing about social and political transformation in a society blighted by direct, cultural, and structural violence both during the conflict and subsequent peace process. Drawing on data obtained through in-depth interviews with loyalist activists (including former paramilitaries), the article demonstrates the role and impact of loyalists and loyalism in Northern Ireland’s transition. We identify 5 conflict transformation challenges addressed by loyalist actors in a structurally violent society: de-mythologizing the conflict; stopping direct violence; resisting pressure to maintain the use of violence; development of robust activist identity; and the measurement of progress through reference to the parallel conflict transformation journey of their former republican enemies. The Northern Ireland case demonstrates the necessity for holistic conflict transformation strategies that attempt to stop not only direct attacks but also the cultural and structural violence that underpins and legitimize them. In so doing, the article contributes to a broader understanding of how and why paramilitary campaigns are brought to an end.

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