Troubling Masculinities: Changing Patterns of Violent Masculinities in a Society Emerging from Political Conflict

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Troubling Masculinities: Changing Patterns of Violent Masculinities in a Society Emerging

from Political Conflict
Fidelma Ashe and Ken Harland
Men’s dominance of the political and military dimensions of the Northern Ireland conflict

has meant that the story of the conflict has generally been a story about men. Ethno nationalist

antagonism reinforced men’s roles as protectors and defenders of ethno national

groups and shaped violent expressions of masculinities. Due to the primacy of

ethno-nationalist frameworks of analysis in research on the conflict, the relationships

between gender and men’s violence have been under-theorized. This article employs the

framework of Critical Studies of Men and Masculinities to examine these relationships

and also explores the changing patterns of men’s violence in Northern Ireland.

During the early years of second wave feminism the constitution of men’s gendered identities

remained concealed in gender analysis. The newly emerging and radical feminist

movements of the 1960s recognized that, historically, men had been the subjects of social

and political inquiry and many feminists at that time wanted to place women at the forefront

of analysis. Feminism’s core analytical focus on femininity resulted in the equation of gender

analysis with studies of women; men remained genderless, the norm and the standard

by which the identities of women were evaluated. However, by the 1980s gender studies

had started to examine men as a gendered category, giving rise to new directions in feminist

research that culminated in an explosion of academic interest in men and masculinities in

the 1990s. Since then, masculinity or masculinities, “that previously untraversed frontier”

in feminist analysis, has become “gold rush territory.”1

While in other geopolitical contexts it seemed like “everyman and his dog”2waswriting

about masculinities during this period, in Northern Ireland masculinities remain uncharted

territory in political analysis. The reasons for this lack of interest are paradoxically both

simple and complex, and we consider them in the early part of this article. The article then

engages in an exploration of the analytical and political value of addressing the category

of masculinities in political research on Northern Ireland. Turning the analytical lens to a

core concern of mainstream analysis it draws out the value of assessing the relationships

between masculinities and changing patterns of violence in the region since the onset of

the Troubles in 1969.
Masculinities and Mainstream Analysis

The global upsurge in academic discourses around masculinities from the 1980s was

generated by a range of social, cultural, and political changes that led to claims that

traditional forms of normative masculinities were being eroded by new social conditions.3

Social changes that weakened traditional models of gender identities fuelled interrogations

of masculinities in other geopolitical contexts and in Western Europe and North America

in particular.4 Even when feminists sent out “mixed messages” about the ability of men to

engage critically with their gender identities, social changes generated what was largely a

deconstruction of masculinities by male academics and writers.5
As the next section reveals, Northern Ireland was not immune to the effects of the social

changes that fuelled men’s engagement with masculinities elsewhere. However, the onset

of the Troubles reinforced traditional forms of masculinities and created conditions that

preserved men’s power in both public and private arenas; the fortification of men’s power

tended to marginalize feminism both culturally and politically.6 However, the dynamics of

the conflict, explored in more detail in later sections, do not explain fully why mainstream

analysis in the region has paid so little attention to studies of masculinities. Theoretical and

institutional frameworks have also played a role.7

In other contexts the increasing influence of post-structuralism from the 1970s created

affinities between mainstream political theory and feminism. The deconstruction of subjectivity,

the critique of traditional theories of power and the “cultural turn” were common

to both scholarly traditions. Referring to the North American context, Newton writes that

by the late 1980s “male authored ‘postmodern’ theories of knowledge, identity, and power

had brought male colleagues closer theoretically to their feminist colleagues.”8 Yet, despite

the institutional integration of critical gendered analysis into the academy and the growth

of explorations of masculinities, feminism remained on the borders of mainstream analysis

even in contexts such as Scandinavia and North America where it is more firmly established

both educationally and politically. Yet, in general, social and intellectual change combined

to increase feminism’s influence within the academy from the 1980s, which helped frame

gender as an integral aspect of discussions of democracy, identity, difference, and justice.9

The influence of contemporary political theory on formulations of human subjectivity

was a key theoretical development that supported the integration of gender identities

into more traditional areas of political analysis.10 The human subject has increasingly

been understood “as being constructed and continuously reconstructed out of a variety

of competing discourses.”11 Subsequently, identities become framed as products of narratives

and practices. This understanding of identities often draws on post-structuralism’s

re-conceptualizations of power as operating through multiple modalities such as ethnicity,

gender, class, and sexuality, thereby increasing the space for the integration of gender into

understandings of identities.12 Most scholarship in the region has not been influenced by

the “cultural turn” and ethnic blocs tend to be viewed as concrete political entities that limit

the space for gendered analysis to emerge.13 Analyses of the conflict have concentrated

on ethnicity for obvious reasons and have generally focused on the strategies and political

agendas of ethnic groups as opposed to ethno-gendered groups.

Additionally, the inequalities, antagonisms, and violence constituted through gendered

relationships have not been viewed as core concerns for political analysis by the mainstream.

In the context of Northern Ireland political research has coded a range of identities as core or

peripheral sites of analysis. Moreover, the institutional power-sharing framework reinforced

the marginal location of gender politics in the political realm. The peace Agreement14 in

1998 was framed around elite negotiations and bargaining that reinforced the continued

importance of the political standpoints, strategies, and struggles of ethno-nationalist communities.

Rather than creating the conditions for a model of devolved government based

around heterogeneity and diversity that recognizes the political standpoints of a range of

marginalized groups including women, the Agreement reinforced the political power of

ethnic blocs.15

While feminists have continued to try to push issues such as the political underrepresentation

of women on to mainstream agendas and have highlighted the continuing

occlusion of gender in analysis, which has prompted some mainstream scholars to scrutinize

the political and communal positioning of women, studies of masculinities remain the

preserve of a small number of feminist theorists. For some mainstream theorists masculinities

are not relevant. Even against the background of the perceived “failures” of militarism

in the region, masculinities have remained outside of the boundaries of critical analysis. In

contrast, the end of the Vietnam War provoked intense reflection on American manhood.16

Masculinity did not cause the conflict, but as illustrated below it has been an integral

aspect of its contours.17 Twenty years on from the paramilitary cease-fires that opened space

for the development of processes of demilitarization, interrogations of the interactions

between particular constitutions of masculinities and the ethnic conflict have not been

sufficiently developed or integrated into the broader analysis of the conflict or conflict

transformational processes in the region. In the absence of thorough academic scrutiny,

masculinities have become framed through sensationalized journalistic accounts of the

hyper-masculinity of high profile paramilitaries such as Johnny Adair.18 Feminism provides

much more than a reductionist theory of patriarchy to analysts mapping the intersectionality

of identities in contexts of ethnic antagonism. We utilize the framework of Critical Studies

of Men and Masculinities to illustrate how masculinities were an element in “formations of

violence” during the conflict and conflict transformational periods.19 This framework views

identities as socially constituted, multi-faceted and open to reconstitution. Illuminating

masculinities as elements in the conflict, and identifying how certain models of masculinities

engender a range of power-effects frames masculinities as an important area of concern in

the analysis of Northern Ireland’s conflict and conflict transformational process.

Critical Studies of Masculinities

The framework of critical studies of men and masculinities (CSMM) was originally set

out by Jeff Hearn and David Morgan to provide a theoretical agenda to guide analytical

work across a range of studies of men.20 CSMM was designed to consolidate and extend

feminism’s critical focus onto the terrain of masculinities21 by theorizing masculinities as

historical, context dependent, shifting, and multi-faceted identities.22 From this perspective,

men’s gender identities, or their masculinities, are constituted through social discourses

and practices; they are not biologically determined.23 Subsequently, the constitution of

masculinities depends on the particular constructions of men’s gendered identities that

become dominant or normative within specific societies, groups, and contexts. Moreover,

reflecting the influence of the work of Raewyn Connell, CSMM understands masculinities

as intersectional identities shaped not only by gender but also by factors such as ethnicity,

social class, sexuality, age, and disability.24
The complexity of the cultural constitution of masculinities means that what constitutes

normative masculinities is constantly shifting and open to reconfiguration through social

change. Moreover, the intersectionality of masculinities results in relationships of power

and subordination between groups of men.25 Most of the critical literature in the area

recognizes that while men as a group benefit from the social organization of gender,

particular groups of men are located in socially subordinated positions due to, for example,

their ethnicity or social class.26 Subsequently, analysts have struggled to define the core

ideals of masculinities with some scholars suggesting that the category should be kept open

and undefined.27
Despite the slippery nature of the concept scholars have identified a range of features

that have tended to be associated with normative masculinities in contemporary Western

societies. Independence, autonomy, superiority, dominance over others, heterosexuality, and

aggression or violence are strongly identified with the achievement of normative models

of masculinities. Unsurprisingly, the issue of men’s violence has been of particular interest

to scholars working in the area of domestic violence,28 but scholars working in the areas of

nationalism and international relations have also engaged with the relationships between the

ideals of normative masculinities and men’s involvement in violent nationalist conflicts.29

These studies have illustrated how the ideals of normative manhood have served nationalist

struggles by forming part of the discursive narrative that, to borrow from Althusserian

terminology, “hails” or “calls” men to protect and fight for the nation.30 Nagel comments

that: “terms like honour, patriotism, cowardice, and duty are hard to distinguish as either

nationalist or masculinist, since they seem so thoroughly tied both to the nation and to


While masculinities in contexts of nationalist conflict are constituted through these

broad ideological themes, the complexity of masculinities means that a localized analysis

of their constitution provides greater insight in to the relationships between masculinity and

political violence within particular geopolitical contexts. The following section exposes the

specific configurations of masculinities, class and nationalism that produced patterns of

violent behaviour by groups of men during the conflict in Northern Ireland. In a changing

political culture characterized by processes of de-militarization the narratives and practices

of violent masculinities will reconfigure, and we map these changes in later sections,

paying particular attention to young men. However, the framework of CSMM reminds

researchers that studies of men and masculinities can inadvertently occlude women and

wider networks of gender inequality from the analysis. The occlusion of women in analyses

of men reflects an approach that has become known as men’s studies; a framework that has

been heavily criticized for failing to place the analyses of masculinities within the broader

context of the historical relationships of gender.32 Such an approach would be particularly

regressive in the Northern Ireland context given that gender inequality and power have been

under-theorized. A critical analysis of masculinities directly informed by feminist concerns

can provide a point of engagement that opens a broader analysis of gender focusing on

the reproduction of gender inequities through the constitution of both masculinities and

Moreover, as the analysis of the changing patterns of men’s violence in Northern Ireland

develops, it will become clear that certain models of masculinities have a range of negative

effects on men. However, these costs occur in broader networks of gender oppression and

the narratives that emerge around the costs of violent masculinities have implications for

wider discussions of gender inequality. Therefore, we pay close attention to the effects of

violent nationalist masculinities on women’s positioning in both the conflict and conflict

transformational period.
Masculinities and the Troubles

Understanding the dominant models of masculinities within particular societies is an important

starting point for engaging with masculinities and political violence. Prior to the period

of the Troubles, normative gender roles in Northern Ireland were generally reflective of

those in other industrialized Western societies.33 The dominant construction of masculinity

revolved around the core idea that developing a normative masculinity required the

achievement of the protector/provider role. Traditionally, the role of protector/provider underpinned men’s dominance in both the workplace and the family.34 Conversely, normative

femininity was achieved through the roles of wife and mother.35

Middle-class men achieved the protector/provider role mainly through the professions

and business ventures. Up until the 1960s heavy industries such as shipbuilding, which

tended to be located in protestant working-class areas, provided a family wage and enabled

working-class protestant men to secure breadwinner status within the family. Catholic men

tended to be employed in the lower end of the job market. Catholics were employed predominantly

in unskilled and lower-paying jobs, such as clothing manufacture and textiles.36

The number of foreign multinational companies in Northern Ireland rose from 7 in 1958

to 27 in 1968 generating many new manufacturing jobs37 filled by both Protestant and

Catholic workers.38
From the 1970s, the Northern Ireland economy had begun to reflect more general

economic trends in industrialized societies, including a decline in the heavy engineering

industries that provided employment for working-class men. Declining heavy industries in

Northern Ireland were replaced by service industries and a large public sector. By the 1990s,

the combined effects of the neoliberalism and globalization had reshaped the social and

economic contours of most European and North American countries, including Northern

Ireland. The conflict shaped the effects of these broader economic trends. Political murders,

sectarian assassinations, car-bombings, petrol bombings, and the actions of paramilitary

groups created “a defender” mentality in the working-class communities that bore the

brunt of the violence and were also blighted by high levels of unemployment. Moreover,

the conflict created costs for companies operating in Northern Ireland and many shifted

production to other countries. However, the “peace dividend.” which was delivered mainly

in the form of European funds meant inward investment returned. For example, between

1995 and 1999 €400 million of European funding supported 13,000 projects in Northern

Ireland that focussed on job creation, social inclusion, urban and rural regeneration, and

cross-border co-operation.39 Economic investment in the region led to a period of sustained

economic growth and large-scale redevelopment40 including the £400 million Victoria

Square retail development in Belfast City Centre and more recently the Titanic Quarter

Scheme costing over £1 billion. However, the impact of broader economic restructuring on

working-class men’s ability to secure their traditional breadwinner role was reflected in the

new forms of employment created. Of the 52,320 jobs created during the “peace dividend

years, 1995-2000, more than half were part-time and generally low paid.”41

In other geographical contexts the decline of traditional male working-class jobs, the

impact of feminism and increased consumerism had generated interrogations of masculinities

and adaptations by some men to the new social conditions.42 Much of the literature in

the 1990s and 2000s suggested that masculinities in late capitalist societies were in a period

of crisis or transition, which at times resulted in erroneous claims by some commentators

that power was being redistributed from men to women.43 Moreover, ideas that the traditional

male role actually harmed men were popularized by academics, pressure groups and

the media during this period.44

The political conflict in Northern Ireland smothered these kinds of debates, and while

a few men’s groups did emerge in that context, they had little impact on gender politics. In

a society that was emerging from a conflict where a patchwork of mural representations of

hard men covered urban spaces,45 claims that contemporary feminism had rendered men

the “disposable sex” were unlikely to gain political momentum. Similarly, notions that

women’s social advances had given them legal advantages over men were less likely to

be taken seriously in a society that has no female high court judges.46 Also, as Stephen

Whitehead points out, one of the problems with crisis of masculinities discourses is that

the claim of crisis “speaks of masculinity in the singular; usually white heterosexual and

ethno-centric.”47 As indicated above, due to the political contours of the society men

involved in political research continued to focus both intellectually and in some cases

emotionally on ethnicity. However, as later sections illustrate, the issue of the costs of

men’s traditional identities as community defenders would emerge again during the period

of conflict transformation, but it would be cast within an ethno-nationalist framework of

analysis that contained it within the boundaries of the conflict and shrank the space for

dialogue around masculinities. In effect, the Troubles supported certain aspects of the

traditional models of masculinity. While the traditional provider/protector role was being

challenged and gendered roles in the workplace were undergoing significant changes,

the conflict operated to fortify aspects of men’s power in communal and formal political


Masculinities, Defense, and Violence

The political conflict reinforced dimensions of traditional models of masculinities at both

concrete and representational levels.During and after the Troubles, politics remained largely

the terrain of men.49 The figure of Ian Paisley most clearly expressed the ideals of ethno nationalist masculinity during the conflict. Lysaght notes Paisley utilized a rhetoric which is

“highly attuned to the masculinity of defence.”50 The positioning of men as defenders at the

level of politics was reflected at the communal level in the ideal of men as defenders of the

community. Ghetto warfare in the spatially segregated, urban, working-class communities

characterized the Troubles. Men’s localized violence in “defense” of community spaces

reaffirmed their traditional roles in working-class areas. Women participated in all levels

of the conflict, but their activities were often hidden and tended to be overshadowed by

the spectacles of violence perpetrated by the “men of violence.” Throughout the conflict

women became framed as representing the vulnerability of the community that required

male protection from the “enemy.”51 When women transgressed traditional gender roles

and engaged directly in physical force violence, through involvement in the paramilitary

organizations that were overwhelmingly male and working-class, women’s involvement in

paramilitary activities was viewed differently to men’s.52 Female combatants were often

treated with suspicion or unease.53 Men’s involvement in violence was viewed as normative,

women’s was non-normative.54 Narratives of sexual difference preserved the gendered

naturalness of male violence vis-`a-vis their female counterparts.
The state security forces were also predominantly male, and in the case of the Ulster

Defence Regiment and the Royal Ulster Constabulary predominantly Protestant. Yet while

defense, militarism, and political violence were primarily male arenas, the construction of

militarized and violent masculinities shifted during the period of the conflict. Real men’s

bodies were the instruments for violence in the form of bombings and shootings. However,

the figure of the gunman was only one expression of violent masculinities. The spectacle of

the emaciated bodies of the hunger strikers exposed the fluidity of militarized masculinities

and demonstrated how the bodies of men and the ideals of masculinity, bravery, sacrifice

and stoicism could be deployed through the practices of suffering and martyrdom to expose

the cruelty and corruption of the enemy.55 Women were not permitted to join the hunger

strike as it was felt that the community would not be able to accept the death of a woman.56

The ultimate sacrifice for the nation was coded male in the very public political struggles

surrounding the hunger strike.
Regardless of these shifts in the deployment of the male body during the Troubles,

with the exclusion of a few notable women, the story of conflict and political violence

in Northern Ireland has been a story about men, and it shaped patterns of male violence

and reinforced men’s power. The tactical advantages to controlling communities combined

with a policing vacuum produced a system of informal policing. Young men in

particular were often targeted for engaging in anti-social behavior.57 Rioting was often

harnessed to the national cause, while individualistic anti-social behavior was punished.

Young men’s socialization in local cultures that valorized men’s violence operated as a

resource for the wider ethnic community—a first line of defense especially at times of

deep communal conflict. Those young men whose anti-social tendencies and violence became

deployed for personal gain, for example for the thrills of joyriding, were violently

policed through informal justice and exiling.58 One outcome of the targeting of young men

was that young men in marginalized communities reported being concerned about their

personal safety on a daily basis and confused about issues surrounding law and order and

However, the masculinities that have been constituted through the local conditions

generated by the conflict were difficult to discipline and even the paramilitaries could not

contain young men’s anti-social behavior within the boundaries of communal or nationalist

struggles as they challenged their control by defying the threat of punishment.60 While

young men were located in challenging contexts a number of cross-cutting identities and

contextual factors moderate the attraction of violence to specific groups of men, which

explains why many men did not engage in violent expressions of nationalist conflict in

Northern Ireland. Adult men and women worked on the ground to try to mediate the

effects of the social conditions on young people particularly in areas most affected by and

susceptible to conflict.

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