The construction of collective identity in Northern Ireland in relation to minority ethnic and immigrant populations

  • Elizabeth McKeever

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


Ethnic minority and immigrant populations in Northern Ireland have been regularly subjected to discrimination, intimidation and attacks. The UK and international media have represented the region’s post-conflict ‘dual majority’ as racist inheritors of sectarian bigotry. The current research investigated how forms of collective, or in-group, identities are constructed in relation to the presence of ethnicized or immigrant populations, through the discourse analysis of media and text-based material from Northern Ireland.

This constructivist perspective considered how social groups are formed in discourse and focused on the productive potential of language. The theoretical framework connected the social psychology paradigms of Social Identity Theory and forms of Discourse Analysis. The ‘collective’ identity was conceptualized as dynamic and formed in language to serve rhetorical goals. Media and community-circulated texts were regarded as have a role in promoting and sustaining identity within understood systems of meaning in a culture.

The literature review discussed the collective identity in Northern Ireland in relation to ethno-political division, and to research approaches towards ethnic minority and immigrant groups. The Contact Hypothesis has explained relations between Catholic and Protestant groupings, but this was viewed as less appropriate to addressing apathy and violence against ethnic minority communities. Alternatively, language-in-use is a social process by which groups decide who belongs, who meets with approval, who is subject to discrimination and violence, and who is made visible in media discourse.

The initial study considered a propaganda leaflet urging for the removal of the Chinese community in an area of Belfast. Violent racist discourse was legitimized and constructed as a virtuous response to their presence. The second study moved the focus of study towards opinion in the Northern Ireland regional press, which condemned the intimidation and attacks on the Roma community in Belfast. The analysis demonstrated that language was used strategically to manage blame, deflect responsibility from the in-group and to critique institutions. This discourse appropriated the needs of ethnic minority groups to in-group political ends. The third study considered events following racist speech against the Muslim community in a church sermon broadcast from Belfast. The analysis examined how the discourses of two Northern Ireland Assembly members, First Minister, Peter Robinson, and Anna Lo, MLA and ethnic minority representative, worked to construct collective identity following the sermon. The First Minister defended racist speech. By contrast, Lo constructed an appeal to a wider collective who would want to disclaim racism. These discourses emphasize the difficulties in working towards an inclusive form of civic identity in Northern Ireland.

The concluding discussion identified effects of racist discourse, emphasised the stereotyping, appropriation and quieting of ethnic minorities, and evidenced lack of institutional accountability. Thus, academics working in the field of inter-ethnic relations in Northern Ireland should focus upon research that will investigate and facilitate the mobilization of social action. Academic work that identifies patterns of discourse which potentially disadvantages ethnic minority groupings and challenges constructions of racism may lead to the creation of possibilities for social change.
Date of AwardJul 2017
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Queen's University Belfast
SupervisorLesley Storey (Supervisor)

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