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Building Bridges: Out of Conflict and toward Political Stability

Jennifer White
University of Georgia
Jennifer White
University of Georgia
Open Panel

Abstract

The prevalence of intrastate conflict has arisen not only in transitional states, but also in a number of industrialized democracies, often as a result of conflicting interests among different groups within the polity, especially among ethnic groups. These conflicts gain a political, and hence, institutional dimension, and political elites as well as the population are compelled to attempt to address societal differences through political institutions – a matter that gains urgency when these differences degenerate into violence or threaten to undermine the integrity of the state itself. My research employs a qualitative, historical institutionalist approach, comparing two cases from 1970-2000 within advanced industrial democracies that have divided populations: Northern Ireland in the United Kingdom and the Walloon and Flemish regions in Belgium. In each case, a degree of autonomy exists for the sub-state populations, and attempts have been made by each state to broker agreements intended to mitigate intergroup conflict and to strengthen political stability. While granting all communities a place at the table to negotiate agreement facilitates cooperation at one level – the elite level – it offers no guarantees that such cooperation and agreement will transmit to those whom the elite represent. I find that the mechanisms of consociationalism tend to fall short of or overshoot their intended goal, failing to effect political stability, or, worse, exacerbating intergroup conflict as an unintended consequence. By combining consociational mechanisms with institutional provisions of social inclusion, however, the threat of intergroup conflict can be reduced by changing the mode of identity that each group employs as well as closing the gap between political elites and their constituents. I find evidence of this approach and concomitant success in the Northern Ireland case, as contrasted with continuing centrifugal forces in Belgium. Social stability, therefore, creates fertile ground for political stability. With the increasing levels of immigration within many advanced democracies, these findings have critical implications for states that seek ways to build social and political cohesion.