Lee Smithey, Associate Professor of Sociology at Swarthmore College, Pennsylvania, spoke at the Irish School of Ecumenics on ‘No More Them and Us or An Alternative Ulster?’ on 17 May as part of Community Relations Week. The theme of this year’s Community Relations Week was ‘No More Them and Us.’
Much of Smithey’s talk was based on his recent book, Unionists, Loyalists and Conflict Transformation in Northern Ireland, which has recently been awarded the 2012 Donald Murphy Book Prize for Distinguished First Book by the American Conference for Irish Studies. It is an impressive scholarly work, based on interviews with 67 people between 2005-2007, including ex-combatants, politicians, clergy, loyal orders, Ulster Scots, muralists and more.
Smithey’s talk encompassed academic theoretical as well as the results of his ethnographic research in Northern Ireland over many years. Theoretically, he demonstrated how small, incremental changes in identities are possible, building on ‘soft constructivist’ approaches to identity. Then, he demonstrated how such changes have taken place in unionist and loyalist communities, focusing on what he calls ‘mitigating’ changes in the content of wall murals and Orange Order commemorations. He also discussed the tensions between idealism and pragmatism, emphasising how people negotiate these tensions in their efforts to simultaneously maintain and change their identities.
Ultimately, Smithey argued that unionists and loyalists are, slowly but surely, changing. He claimed that these changes are so significant, in the broad sweep of history on this island, that they can be considered an important aspect of moving Northern Ireland from an uneasy coexistence to a shared future.