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Nationalism and Northern Ireland: a rejoinder to Ian McBride on ‘ethnicity and conflict’

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The concept of “Ethnicity” continues to enjoy some currency in the historical and social science literature. However, the cogency of the idea remains disputed. First coming to prominence in the 1980s, the term is often used to depict the character of social relations in the context of nationalist conflicts over sovereignty. The case of Northern Ireland presents a paradigmatic example. This article is a rejoinder to Ian McBride’s contention that my scepticism about the notion lacks justification. In response, I show that, in the context of so-called ethnic conflict over the state, “ethnicity” in effect means nationality. I further claim that the nation state is a successor to the dynastic state: it refers to a state that belongs to its people or nation. In clarifying the meaning of this arrangement, the article brings out the extent to which a nation is a juridical rather than empirical category. More specifically, it derives from the notion of corporate personality in law. For this reason, its retrospective integrity is a matter of fabrication, depending on the fiction of ancestral continuity. At the same time, its future-oriented cohesiveness means that it must be invested with a unifying will. I conclude that the legitimacy of a nation state rests on its democratic will, whose coherence is expressed in the action of its government.



Ethnicity, conflict, nationalism, democracy, Northern Ireland

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History of European Ideas

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Informa UK Limited