Transforming Earth and Fire
New Narratives of Identity and Place in the Northern Ireland Peace Process
By Dr Lia Dong Shimada
Submitted in accordance with the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy, University College London, 2010
This thesis explores the cultural geographies of peacebuilding through a study of Belfast, Northern Ireland. I investigate the connections between transformations of contested landscapes, shifting meanings of place, and new narratives of identity and belonging emerging through the Northern Ireland peace process.
The aims of my research serve two theoretical objectives: first, to examine how transformations of contested cultural landscapes provoke new perceptions of place and geographic scale; and second, to examine how these transformations shape the expression, creation and negotiation of identity in societies emerging from violent conflict. For this project, I have developed a collaborative, qualitative methodological approach that combines semi-structured interviews and participant observation. I ground my research in case studies of two contested landscapes, both of which bear symbolic and material weight from Northern Ireland’s thirty-year civil war.
The first case study explores republican cultural identities in relation to Divis Mountain, the highest point in Belfast, as it transitions from a British military base to a public recreational resource.
The second case study focuses on peacetime transformations of the contentious 11th Night bonfire tradition and their implications for shifting expressions of loyalist cultural identity. Crucially, I cross-cut these case studies with a third strand of inquiry that explores transformations of contested landscapes in relation to identities and ideas of belonging among Northern Ireland’s growing minority ethnic populations. I position this project as a challenge to existing models of analysis for Northern Ireland. By opening the dominant Protestant-Catholic binary to explore the less-studied perspectives of ethnic minorities, I highlight the diversity of cultural identities emerging in post-ceasefire Belfast. I argue that practice in and scholarship on Northern Ireland must expand beyond traditional, binary conceptualizations of sectarian conflict to acknowledge how diverse relationships, identities and communities are vital to the process of building peace.