Open Access Journal

ISSN: 2183-2803

Article | Open Access

Remedying Horizontal Inequality: The Changing Impact of Reform in Northern Ireland

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Abstract:  Northern Ireland is a case that lets us explore how people respond when deep‐set horizontal inequality is substantively reduced. This article focusses on the reform of horizontal inequality in the cultural sphere and argues that it is likely to be contentious because units and measures are directly related to conflicting constructs of group identity, meaning, and value, and intertwined with conflict over state legitimacy. Northern Ireland shows when and how this becomes politically problematic. The article traces an uneven but largely successful process of economic and political reform, followed by a reversal in the second decade of the 21st century, when unionist unease with cultural equality was reframed into political opposition which at times threatened the stability of the settlement itself. The backlash came when it did because of a confluence of processes: a particularly inappropriate presentation of cultural equality, at a time when the momentum of the peace process was coming to an end, and other opportunities, in particular for the Protestant working class, were closing. The case suggests the need to develop a conception of cultural (in)equality that is attuned to the asymmetric and contested constructions of “groupness” well before backlash occurs.

Keywords:  backlash; cultural inequality; group asymmetry; Northern Ireland


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© Jennifer Todd. This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license (, which permits any use, distribution, and reproduction of the work without further permission provided the original author(s) and source are credited.