Settler Nationalism: Ulster Unionism and Postcolonial Theory

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Irish Studies Review


Irish literature and culture, Northern Ireland, postcolonial theory, settler nationalism


Despite the capacity of postcolonial theory to accommodate a wide variety of situations, one area of postcolonial experience still has not received much attention – the experience of non-hegemonic settler colonies, that is settler colonies that did not in the end succeed in dominating native populations politically or culturally. Analysis of the unionist community in Northern Ireland offers a number of refinements to postcolonial theory at the same time that it demonstrates how postcolonial theory can enrich our understanding of non-hegemonic settler populations. While every postcolonial culture, native or settler, is uniquely structured by specific historical circumstances, there are features that many of these cultures share, such as hybridity, estrangement, incommensurability, contradiction, mimicry, miscognition, ambivalence, resistance, and the construction of mythical/historical narratives. The structure of these features, however, differs between native and settler cultures, and it differs in a way that makes one culture the mirror image of the other. This should not be surprising since the same colonial situation produces both native nationalism and settler nationalism, and they are both subject to similar colonial contradictions. Recognising settler nationalism as a legitimate part of postcolonial studies opens up the possibility of exploiting the in-betweenness of settler cultures. Emphasising this in-betweenness, and thus its affinities with native nationalism, suggests that settlers, particularly non-hegemonic settlers, are likely to find more in common with the natives they see themselves in opposition to rather than with the colonisers they identify with.