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Cycles of Political Violence A Comparative Historical Political-Sociology Analysis of Italy and Northern Ireland

Final Report Summary - POLITICAL VIOLENCE (Cycles of Political Violence A Comparative Historical Political-Sociology Analysis of Italy and Northern Ireland)

Project context and objectives

As part of a larger comparative project on political violence in multiple countries on both sides of the Atlantic, this research has analysed the causes of the emergence, development and decline of political violence.

Work performed

More often than not, social scientists treat political violence as if it is detached from surrounding instances of political action, and they consequently see outbreaks of violence as signs of structural strain, material deprivation or individual pathologies. By contrast, this research project has argued that political violence is embedded in a complex web of socio-political relations, involving multiple actors, such as political and social institutions, elites and pressure groups, counter-movements, political parties and the mass media. The importance of this argument is that by stressing a strategic, interactive and contextual reading of political violence, it avoids the over-deterministic, static and organisation-centric explanations of much of the literature. At the empirical level, this project has systematically examined and compared two distinct cases of political violence: the 'socio-revolutionary' violence of the Red Brigades in the period from the mid-1960s to the late 1980s and the 'ethno-nationalist' violence of the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) in the period from the mid-1960s to the late 1990s. The in-depth comparative studies that do exist compare only those violent organisations that have similar ideologies and political purposes. Comparative research on cases where the nature of the demands behind the violence is different has been seen as unfeasible. Ultimately, this is rooted in an unspoken assumption underpinning much of the literature and the broader public debate, namely that factors relating to a specific ideology offer a sufficient explanation of political violence, its particular cruelty, intransigence and persistence.

Main results

In contrast to the dominant paradigm, therefore, my comparative design has focused on cases that, on the face of it, are dissimilar: the ethno-nationalist Provisional IRA and the socio-revolutionary Red Brigades. This has allowed the comparison to move beyond a simplistic focus on ideology in order to identify those cross-case mechanisms and processes that conditioned the cycles of political violence in Italy and Northern Ireland. The project expanded the source base for the study of political violence by presenting and analysing a series of new interviews with former armed militants.