Ethnicity, Culture, and Globalization: Exploring the Memorandum of Understanding Between Newfoundland and Labrador and Ireland

Lay Summary 

The often invoked connection between Newfoundland and Ireland was given official status in 1996 (and reaffirmed in 1999 and 2004) by a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the governments of the Republic of Ireland and Newfoundland and Labrador. It outlined co-operation in the areas of technology transfer, business joint ventures, research and development, cooperative training activities and academic interchange, cultural events and industries and environmental management/environmental industries." The 2004 reaffirmation of the MOU placed greater emphasis on culture, heritage, and marine/ocean technologies.

There are two features of the MOU between Newfoundland and Labrador and Ireland that merit examination. First, over its 13-year history, the MOU has developed an institutional apparatus. In 1996, the Irish Business Partnership (IBP) was established in Newfoundland and Labrador, followed by the 2001 establishment of the Irish Newfoundland Partnership (INP) in Ireland. Both are semi-public institutional bodies designed to promote economic, cultural, and educational ties between the province and Ireland. The IBP and INP have been allotted substantial annual budgets to carry out their activities, approximately $300,000 and €300,000 respectively. Second, the perceived cultural and ethnic connection between the two places has been used to legitimate the existence of the MOU and the programmes and initiatives of the IBP and INP.

This essay explores how the MOU, and the IBP and INP, which are its institutional embodiment, have drawn on and shaped different aspects and perceptions of the relationship between the people of Newfoundland and Ireland. Deeply embedded in these institutions are notions of ethnicity, culture, and globalization that tend to make the adoption of the MOU seem natural. I approach the work carried out by the IBP and INP as an example of how policy attempts to codify social norms and values and to promote both implicit and explicit models of society. However, policy itself needs to be conceptualized as the product of various interrelated social, historical, political, economic, and ecological processes that exist in time and space if we are to understand how it is used, both intentionally and unintentionally, as an instrument to organize contemporary societies.

The paper first explores Newfoundland's contested cultural heritage through examining census data on English and Irish ethnicity in light of the IBP and INP's claims that there is something distinctively Irish about Newfoundland. This discussion creates an opening to problematize how we use and understand the term ethnicity. The second section takes this process further by considering how ethnicity exists as both a "category of practice" and a "category of analysis." This important distinction needs to be delineated to allow us to grasp how connections between Newfoundland and Ireland are legitimated. Next, I focus on IBP and INP policy itself, likening the discourse surrounding the perceived intrinsic connection between Newfoundland and Ireland to a narrative that is regularly evoked to explain this relationship. "Policy," as a narrative, plays an integral role in legitimating the MOU and shaping social subjects. This section highlights how the issues surrounding ethnicity raised in the previous two sections play into these policy narratives. The fourth section draws on the idea of indexicality, arguing that the IBP and INP's policy discourse is structured around indexical relationships that make the connections that are actively being sought between Newfoundland and Ireland appear organic. The final section suggests that the IBP and INP's policy discourse is embedded within notions of globalization. By examining the role that ethnicity and culture play in our economy, this section analyzes the language used in IBP and INP policy to reveal how notions of globalization are important to making the MOU seem natural.

Published in: Newfoundland and Labrador Studies, 24, 1 (Spring 2009): 25-53

St. John's
Newfoundland and Labrador
Business development
International Business
Regional Development
Industry Sectors 
Provincial and Territorial Public Administration
Scientific Research and Development Services
Start date 
1 Jan 2009