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Flying flags of fear: The role of fear in the process of political transition


by Brandon Hamber


Paper presented at the Risk, Complex Crises & Social Futures Conference
Amman, Jordan, 11-13 October 2003


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Pictures of flags taken in Northern Ireland

Palestinian flag BelfastIsraeli flag Belfast

Abstract

As tension mounts during the build up to the Orange Marching season in the summer each year in Northern Ireland the streets of many of its cities and towns are festooned with flags. The proliferation of Union Jacks, Irish Tricolours, Ulster flags, and paramilitary flags that adorn the streets symbolise loyalty and are sectarian markers of territory. In July 2002, however, something unusual happened. As if from nowhere, Republicans started hoisting the Palestinian flag alongside their Irish Tricolours, and in neighbouring Loyalist areas the Israeli flag fluttered happily alongside the Union Jack and paramilitaries flags. It is difficult to analyse the reasons for this. The essay posits some reasons for this by mainly focusing on the concept of 'fear'.

The essay outlines some unfolding ideas about fear, risk and social change, and their application to the process of political transition. It is about diverse forms of symbolism, as well as the confluence and divergence of micro (individual) and macro (political) ways of dealing with and thinking about the legacy of political violence. The essay analyses the role of fear in the political transition process, a subject seldom dealt with in the academic literature. The frame of analysis I use is a new lens of examination and application for my unfolding work on political transitions, particularly from a psychosocial perspective. To this end, the essay presents a range of ideas and theoretical contemplations, which will hopefully open further academic space within political transition processes and debates in the transitional justice literature for exploring the concept of fear.

The essay draws on my experience of the peace processes in Northern Ireland and South Africa. It begins by positing some thoughts on the strange phenomenon of the flying of Israeli flags in Belfast as highlighted by the quoted at the beginning of the essay. It outlines briefly how the concept of fear (and risk) is generally dealt with in the psychological and sociological literature. Thereafter, it argues that fear and its use is an unrecognised variable operating within the popular discourses surrounding political negotiations and processes such as truth commissions. The way the concept of fear-like the suffering of victims of political violence-is politicised and depoliticised is tackled. The essay then concludes by trying to apply some of the ideas presented to the South Africa and Northern Ireland contexts, and particularly to approaches to political risk-taking.


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