Consumer Culture and European Integration At the Northern Irish Border

ABSTRACT - National and international economic policies in the European Community are attempting to achieve new levels of economic integration as the EC approaches a common market without frontiers. Ethnographic research in consumer culture at the Northern Irish border between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland suggests that such policies may result in disintegration between communities with shared culture on both sides of the border. This essay discusses the behavior of cross-border shoppers in the wider contexts of Irish culture, and it reviews some theoretical and methodological issues of concern to analysts of consumer and marketing behavior in the expanding social system of the EC.


Thomas M. Wilson (1993) ,"Consumer Culture and European Integration At the Northern Irish Border", in E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 1, eds. W. Fred Van Raaij and Gary J. Bamossy, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 293-299.

European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 1, 1993      Pages 293-299


Thomas M. Wilson, The Queen's University of Belfast, U.K.


National and international economic policies in the European Community are attempting to achieve new levels of economic integration as the EC approaches a common market without frontiers. Ethnographic research in consumer culture at the Northern Irish border between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland suggests that such policies may result in disintegration between communities with shared culture on both sides of the border. This essay discusses the behavior of cross-border shoppers in the wider contexts of Irish culture, and it reviews some theoretical and methodological issues of concern to analysts of consumer and marketing behavior in the expanding social system of the EC.

Consumer culture is one of the key factors which draws ethnic groups and nations together. Consumerism, here defined as those aspects of modern culture which entail the behavior of buying, selling, marketing, bartering, and smuggling (among many other aspects of production and exchange), is an elemental thread in the total fabric of culture which ties people of two or more nations to each other. One arena wherein consumer culture is a mainstay of both local and international communication is that of the international border. And nowhere are the international and national contexts of borders more significant today than in the Europe of the European Community (EC), which by the beginning of 1993 may create a socioeconomic system of twelve nations without internal customs borders, a so-called "Europe without frontiers".

The creation of a true common market through the successful completion of the EC's "1992 project" will not see the end of international borders, nor will it necessarily make those borders any less significant culturally, either for the people living at those borders or for their nations overall. It will certainly change economic relations across international borders, relations which in Europe have historically been partly defined by the very nature of local culture, including many traditions, values, and beliefs which are shared by communities which have faced each other across international boundaries for hundreds of years. The possible creation of a "supra-nation" of the EC, which has led many politicians, journalists, and academics to raise yet again questions on the future of the nation state itself, will alter the structure of cross-border cultures, but will do so in many ways which remain undocumented in the social science of EC integration. Simply put, the 1992 project is going ahead at such a furious pace that academic interest in the impact that economic integration will have on local communities throughout the EC is minimal. Perhaps more significantly, the potential impact which economic change at international borders might have on other aspects of culture, including many codes of communication inherent in many commercial relationships which have thrived across borders, has been relatively ignored.

The following essay addresses these issues by presenting an overview of the role of some aspects of consumer culture in the promotion of cultural and national integration between communities across an international border, that between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland. It suggests that the processes of EC integration, which include the harmonization of taxes and the removal of customs barriers, in combination with national economic trends and the resultant government policies, will alter cross-border consumer relations to such a degree that it will result in less cross-border shopping and may cause the disintegration of aspects of local border culture. This, in turn, will have effects on the strategies each nation pursues in its efforts to redefine consumer relations at the borders, among communities who have often had long standing commercial relationships. This essay's conclusions include some suggestions for the role of the anthropological analysis of consumer culture within the wider concerns of consumer research.


The achievements and failures of EC integration after 1992 will perhaps be most evident at its internal international boundaries, among people and communities who face each other across what have variously been seen to be arbitrary, imposed, or traditional demarcations. Social scientists are increasingly investigating the interplay of state formation and nation-building at international borders (see, for example, Sahlins 1989) as part of a deepening awareness of ways in which the structures and metaphors of local community life are in a dialogic relationship with people's notions of nationhood (as in the "imagined" communities of nation and state, Anderson 1991). These border communities share many aspects of culture but are quite aware of their differences and divergences; all enter into commercial relations with each other. This essay explores economic aspects of culture and community, i.e., the ways that some commercial and exchange relationships often maintain social ties while simultaneously reinforcing or disputing cultural notions of "sameness" and "otherness". The EC 1992 project will affect thousands of border communities whose cultural identities have been shaped in large part by their experience of border interactions, frontier making, and the processes of state formation and nation-building.

In some senses border culture has had a very short history in Northern Ireland, dating from the creation of a partitioned "state" in the early 1920s when the independent Irish Free State and the province of Northern Ireland (which elected to remain in the United Kingdom) were created. In other ways Irish people see Border culture as being thousands of years old, dating to mythic times when the tribes of Ulster raided south and west into the traditional provinces of Leinster and Connacht. But for the purposes of analyzing the role of Border consumer culture, it is clear that the last forty years have been the most formative, as both the Republic of Ireland (RI) and Northern Ireland (NI) have undergone the twin processes of economic development and cultural modernization, leading to the creation and strengthening of such things as a universal commercial economy, a growing middle class, and the harmonization of both popular and consumer culture, in lare part through the media of radio and television.

Continued contact between communities on either side of the Border after the division of Ireland three generations ago was to be expected, but the amount of such communication is a bit surprising given the initial causes of the break-up itself. Diverging political philosophies, sectarianism, and the role of revolutionary armed forces all helped to reinforce state partition. This was not without dissenting opinions. In the 1920s fully a third of NI's population were Roman Catholic and nationalist, and they ostensibly wished to remain in the Free State. In "the South" (the RI is known as such in NI) a civil war was fought over the issue of the treaty with Britain which partitioned the country. Since then, in fact, strong forces have militated against continued cultural (i.e., economic, political, and social) ties between people on either side of the Border. These forces have also been determining ones in making consumer culture the vital link it has become between Ireland North and South, and which is now threatened by the processes of international integration and economic restructuring in both the UK and the RI.

People on either side of the Border share many elements of national culture such as common language (English), history (including the common experiences of colonialism, colonization, and nation building, among many others), and religious tradition (including many forms of Christianity), but these are often disputed as communities in both the North and South of Ireland define and redefine those aspects of their cultures which reinforce their political and national philosophies. Yet there are many other components of their political, economic, and social lives which are so distinct that there has clearly been a process of divergent cultural formation since the 1920s between RI and NI communities, a process mitigated by their commercial relations, especially their consumer relationships at the Border.

To some observers the two Irelands differ most of all in their political cultures. This is surprising to many people who see these two nations as so similar. Both countries are parliamentary democracies and members of the EC since 1973. Their governments are allies in the war on terrorism, and they are seeking to find a mutually agreeable solution to the present "Troubles" in NI, principally through the intergovernmental institutions set up under the stipulations of the Anglo-Irish agreement of 1987. But cordiality and cooperation at the governmental and diplomatic levels often obscure some deep-seated national tensions, based in great part on past perceptions of oppression and liberation. As a result, the relationship between the governments has not always been a fond one. In the modern era alone, the UK was outraged by Ireland's neutrality during World War II; this neutrality's anti-British overtones carried over to the Falklands crisis, when Ireland refused to support the UK in the EC. In 1969 when British troops entered NI to protect citizens from sectarian crimes, the Irish army began to mass at the Border, as if to invade the province in order to protect Catholics. Since then the British have often criticized the Irish government for being soft on terrorism.

In Ireland, political ideologies underlie many of the differences between the communities of North and South. Both Unionism (the wish to remain part of the United Kingdom) and Republicanism (the wish to be united with the Republic of Ireland) are ideologies which make integration of NI and RI difficult if not impossible. Within NI, the majority of the population (approximately 60%) are Protestant and nominally Unionist [The association of Protestants with Unionism, and Catholics with Nationalism, is broad strokes social science at best. In the current political and security situation, in which loyalties and emotions are intensified because of the perceived violences of the other side(s), it is impossible to gauge electoral support. Based on political movements before 1969, however, and on my field research in NI, I conclude that there is a very high correlation between religion and political ideology, which is not necessarily connected to sectarianism or terrorism.]. They see this political union as a reflection of their cultural and national traditions in both Ireland and Britain. Simply put, they have always been both Irish and British, and they intend to stay this way. On the other hand, the NI minority are Catholics, and many of them subscribe to a nationalist ideology. In the overall Irish context, this implies that they want some form of political union with the RI, a union which generations of Irish politicians have suggested reflects their common traditions. This national heritage is perceived to predate the English invasion, and it has been tempered by years of conquest and colonization by "the foreigner", which among Catholics in NI may mean their Protestant and Unionist neighbors.

Religion also plays a factor in the separation of Ireland into distinct communities. In the South a common stereotype of Northerners is that of hard-working, thrifty, and Church-dominated Protestants, whereas Southerners are often perceived as clergy-ridden, Rome-directed, lazy Catholics. Although these are stereotypes, they reflect an essential fact of Ireland. Religion is seen to be a core feature of national heritage and trajectory, and it has consistently been a factor of divergence, a definition of who is the "other" in the development of Irish life. This is not to say that all the followers of these Christian religions cannot live in harmony together, but many would rather not try. This form of sectarianism cannot be divorced from the appreciation by all concerned that a united Ireland would not only bring problems of religious intolerance, but those of political integration, the promise of continued terrorism, and the mating of two severely underdeveloped economies, each dependent on external subsidies.

Northern Ireland has long been an industrial zone, famous in the British Isles for such things as the production of linen and shipbuilding. In the modern era it has had free and fair access to the industrial and manufactured goods of the rest of the UK. In fact, since WWII (when neutral Ireland had more food available), there has been little or no reason for most Northerners to trade south, i.e., consumers seldom went south of the Border for goods, and few Northern manufacturers could either rely on the South for their main customers or compete with other British companies for the Irish market. Although there has always been a smuggling trade across the Border, principally in agricultural products (which increased in the EC years), there has been very little commercial incentive for most Ulster people to travel into the RI. On the other hand, southerners have increasingly sought to buy consumer goods in NI, thereby maintaining contact between the North and the South in the face of, against the massive odds suggested by, the barriers of political traditions, sectarianism, and terrorism. In fact, in the 1980s, after years of civil strife, more people from the RI journeyed north than ever before. This astounding development, which became the most important form of communication between the communities other than through the media, which tended to create the stereotype of a North rife with gunmen who will never give up violence, began to become a socioeconomic problem for the Irish government. But it was a problem which was difficult to solve, for every year the numbers of Irish citizens who shopped across the Border increased. By the late 1980s, the Irish government was willing to incur the wrath of its own people, Northern shopkeepers and politicians, and the EC itself, in order to stem the tide of informed and determined consumers leaving its jurisdiction.


There has never been any official ban on Irish people from either side crossing the Border. In fact, there has always been an open border between NI and RI, subject to varying degrees of security, immigration, and customs checks. Irish citizens, in fact, enjoyed many of the benefits of British citizenship long before EC membership. The Northern Irish still have the right to claim Irish citizenship and carry an Irish passport. But beyond the rights offered by each government there are also many other cultural factors which maintain ties between the Irish communities, and which tend to reinforce some of their notions of cross-Border cultural cohesion.

Political ties persist between NI nationalists and political parties and interest groups in the RI, some of which are illegal activities in both countries. Many families are tied to each other through various relations of blood and marriage. Although such networks have decreased since the 1920s, in part because of fewer opportunities for young people to meet and court because of the reasons discussed above, they have not ceased altogether. Farmers especially continue to meet and marry across the Border, but usually not across religions. Church organizations also encourage transborder contact. The Roman Catholic Diocese of Armagh, for example, which encompasses much of NI, also extends south into the RI. When the Pope visited Ireland in 1979 and celebrated Mass in each of the four provinces, he conducted his Ulster service in Louth, which is on the southern side of the Border but is also part of Armagh's jurisdiction. This knowledge of common identity in church and religious circles, especially among Catholics, is reinforced by the national organization of Gaelic Irish sports. The Gaelic Athletic Association is the national body which oversees the local administration of gaelic football, hurling, and camogie, which in both Irelands is considered by many to be synonymous with nationalism and the right of Gaelic and Catholic Ireland to rule themselves. Thus, Northern Catholics often play gaelic football, while Protestants often specialized in soccer and rugby. In the 1991 All-Ireland Gaelic Football championship match, County Down (NI) beat County Meath (RI) for the national cup, which came as a surprise to most and a disaster to some. Although Southerners appreciate that for the sake of sport they are part of a united Ireland, they also do not expect much from Northerners' supporters and play.

Thus, a number of factors seem to keep some of Ireland integrated. But the vast majority of people in the South whom I have interviewed or among whom I have conducted field research [I conducted doctoral field research in cultural anthropology in County Meath (RI) from 1977 to 1979. Since then I returned there in ten summers for varying lengths of time. In 1990 I began field research at the Northern Irish Border in the towns of Newry, County Down (NI), and Dundalk, County Louth (RI), on the potential impact of EC 1992 on cross-Border economy and society.] concede that in principle they have nothing against Northerners, but, in fact, they do not want a united Ireland. Others would like a united island, but not at the expense of dealing with the IRA or UFF (Nationalist and Unionist terrorists, respectively), or of coping with the burden of a failing Northern economy, now dependent on Westminster for survival. The fact is that a great many people in the South do not go to NI for any reason. Some have never gone. I have lived for years in a town just thirty-five miles from the Border, where it is common to hear people discuss the few times they have ever visited the North, if at all. Among those who have visited, or who visit NI regularly, their reasons for going usually break down into three categories: business (i.e., professionals, salespeople, merchants), marriages (usually for the ceremonies), and shopping (in which every family has or knows someone who has gone on a shopping trip).

One area largely overlooked in the scholarship of relations between the two Irelands at the Border, is that of consumerism and the lure, at different times and in different places, to shop cross-Border. To date, the key economic study has been conducted by an Irish semi-state body (Fitzgerald et al 1988). By the mid-1980s the Irish government was experiencing a loss of revenue so severe that it began planning measures designed to stop cross-Border shopping. This in effect created more barriers to the cultural communication and integration it is ostensibly there to achieve (most major RI parties are committed in principle to a united Ireland). These measures contravened many aspects of traditional border culture, including relatively free access to the shopping and commercial centers at the northern side of the Border which, for many people in the South, had been their market towns before partition.

At a number of key Border towns, the "tradition" of welcoming shoppers from across the Border has been a crucial feature of the development of the towns themselves, and of the relationships between towns across the divide. This tradition, as self-serving as many commercial relations are, intensified after both countries joined the EC, especially so when Ireland joinded the European Monetary System in 1979 while the UK stayed out. But tradition is no match for national politicians faced with a massive loss of revenue through the loss of Value Added Tax (VAT) and excise duties on goods purchased in NI, nor can tradition sustain those retailers in Southern towns who are losing their customers to better prices in the North. In fact, the issue of cross-Border shopping was deemed to be so crucial to the well-being of the coffers of the RI exchequer, that the RI government challenged EC law and were taken to the European Court of Justice because of it.

At the end of March, 1987, the Irish Minister for Finance made virtually all items except food taxable on one-day shopping trips to the North. From that day on, anyone out of the RI for less than 48 hours would no longer be able to claim any tax-free allowances for goods either bought duty-free or in shops. Before that date, shoppers out of the country on day trips were allowed to bring in goods to the value of IR,252 tax free, as long as no single item cost more than IR,52 (this total figure took into account limits on cigarettes, spirits, wine, and beer). Allowances continued, however, for travellers who left the RI jurisdiction for more than 48 hours (at the same value of IR,252, with a limit of IR,52 an item, which in itself was an allowed derogation from EC rules). The responsibility to prove length of visit to the North was the consumer's. This practice continues to the present although the day trip limits have changed. Although the Irish government boldly contended in 1987 that this move to curb cross-Border shopping was legal and in agreement with EC directives, the EC immediately began to review the Irish moves, a process which eventually made Ireland modify, but not remove, its cross-Border restrictions.

Many of the reasons for the government's actions were clear. By 1987 it was losing as much as IR,20 million a year in VAT and excise duties. The state was losing to the North anywhere from IR,150 to 300 million a year in the value of consumers' purchases (estimates based on 1986, Fitzgerald 1988:78). This sum represented at least 2% of national personal consumers' expenditure. The RI is, after all, highly dependent on indirect taxation. In 1986, 15.6% of its GDP derived from VAT and excise duties, more than a third of it from taxes on beer, wine, spirits, petrol, and tobacco (Fitzgerald et al 1988).

Not surprisingly, the government was responding to persistent and forceful demands from constituents and interest groups, especially the retailers along the southern side of the Border. Up to 1987 it was Border communities like Dundalk which had to bear the brunt of the trade imbalance (Shaw 1987b: 10). This imbalance existed from 1980, during which RI Border retailers suffered severe "reductions in employment and profitability" (Fitzgerald et al 1988: 2). And while both southern merchants and the government lost receipts, there was a corresponding increase in revenue for the UK, thereby enabling it to limit its own VAT and excise duties. This, in turn, made the price for northern consumer goods that much lower than those in the South. But Irish consumers, many of them from the same communities and families as the retailers who were suffering and going under (the many abandoned petrol stations on the southern side of the Border are testament), were not concerned with helping the Irish-British balance of payments, nor were they concerned with the welfare of their neighbors to the North. In a time of high prices, rising unemployment, and the perceived loss of some EC structural funds, they wanted cheaper goods wherever and whenever they could be found. Low prices, and not political sympathies, were keeping people on both sides of the Border in touch.

NI's retailers took the RI's 1987 Budget proposals as a shock. For years they had feared cutbacks in the South's VAT on the items most in demand in the North: drink, petrol, and household goods and appliances. The new restrictions not only jeopardized the total sales of goods in the North C assuming that the RI could implement and enforce a 48 hour rule along the entire border C but the North had begun to develop its communities on the assumption of continued Southern retail trade. For example, Marks and Spencers was at the time building a large shopping mall just outside of Belfast, on the main Dublin road, which would attract consumers away from the Border retailers. At the time it was estimated that in Belfast, an hour's drive from the Border, 30% of all trade came from outside the city, with Southern consumers' trade conservatively estimated at IR,15 million (Shaw 1987a: 15). And in one of the towns surest to be hardest hit by these developments, Newry, on the main Dublin-Belfast road and the field site which is the ethnographic basis for much of this essay, business leaders decried the motives of the Irish Finance Minister as "unlawful and hypocritical". They accused the minister of "hypocrisy in promoting closer co-operation between North and South while making trade and travel more difficult" (Shaw 1987b: 10).

Northern Border shopkeepers had depended on lower prices in order to maintain cross-Border consumer interest. In 1986, for example, there was a 30% difference in the price of spirits. In Newry, the first town one enters in the North on the main road to Belfast from Dublin, and the fourth most important shopping destination (in terms of volume of sales, Fitzgerald 1988: 41) in the province, cross-Border culture had come to be defined in terms of frequent and regular visits from people in the Dundalk area, the town and environs ten miles south across the Border. Both towns have populations over 20,000 and are used to being in a "twin-like" relationship with each other. Throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s, however, most visitors went North instead of the reverse. In fact, in 1986, when almost IR,300 million was spent by southerners in the province, only IR,7 million was spent by northerners in the RI. Most people from the South who visited Newry shopped for the "staples" of alcohol, beer, wine, tobacco, petrol, and household appliances (such as TVs, VCRs, washers, dryers). These last items, consumer durables, were always over the import tax free limit, so that the 1987 restriction did not modify the illegal nature of their importation into the South, usually on one of the many unapproved roads. But the savings might be worth the risk: in 1986, a 22" TV cost IR,356 in NI, and IR,540 in the RI (Fitzgerald 1988: 80).

Newry retailers recall that throughout the early part of the decade it was not uncommon to have busloads of shoppers arrive from as far away as Cork, at the southern tip of Ireland and a full eight hour round trip away, unload for a frenzied few hours of shopping, eating and drinking, and depart with shopping bags full of cigarettes, spirits, beer, and a few toys as wee gifts. [This analysis is based on interviews conducted in 1990-1991 with Newry merchants, import/export agents, and local government officers.] The registrations of those cars which were filling the town's parking lots to overflowing were from everywhere in the South, but most were from Border counties. The perceptions of local people in Newry as to the reasons for these many visitors correspond to those of people in Dundalk. [I have conducted approximately fifty open-ended and informal interviews regarding this subject in Newry and Dundalk, among the same groups of people identified in footnote 3.] The vast majority of people I interviewed said it was a push-pull process of lower prices in Newry, as well as greater variety. Newry is of course convenient to Dundalk, and on weekends a trip North served as a day out (although most southerners I interviewed said that they would never have gone to the North if it had not been for the shopping). The security emergency was a problem mentioned by many, especially in the South, but it did not prove to be a barrier.


The short-term effects of the 48 hour rule in Newry were almost devastating. The Irish government lived up to its promise of enforcing the new rules, and their efforts put a virtual stop to cross-Border bus trips and most long-distance automobile visits (largely through the media publicity that there would be more cross-Border customs checks, most of which were never implemented). Not surprisingly, however, southerners continued to travel North for petrol, beer, and spirits, but their visits became quicker and more purposeful. In fact, there was such a consistent demand for petrol that a "village" literally sprang up five miles from Dundalk. At the geographic point in the North closest to Dundalk, an enterprising local received planning permission for petrol pumps. Within five years there were two large petrol stations, two shops, and a fast food restaurant at the site, all in response to the demand for petrol which ran at almost a third cheaper than in the RI. Spirits, beer, and wine sales plummeted in Newry, as they became the favorite targets of customs agents once the cross-Border trade in durables all but ceased by 1989.

But the Irish government's policies were not without fault or detractors. In June, 1990, the European Court of Justice ruled that the 48 hour restrictions violated EC law. Consumer groups brought legal actions as far as the High Court of Ireland. From July, 1990, the Irish government entered into negotiations with the EC Commission for an acceptable derogation from EC law. They had good reason to believe that they would get agreement among the EC finance ministers. Other EC countries were in similar situations, in which there was a severe loss of revenue and damage to national retailing because of cross-border shopping (e.g., in Denmark and Belgium). While these negotiations proceeded, however, the Irish continued to enforce their travel restrictions.

In March 1991, a deal was struck, and the Irish announced the new "24 hour" rule, which would be in effect until the end of the year. Minor modifications were also to apply from July for those out of the jurisdiction for more than 24 hours. The new rule required travellers out of the country for less than 24 hours to limit their tax free allowance to IR,84, with a single item limit of IR,65 and a limit on tobacco (200 grams), spirits (one bottle), wine (2.5 litres), and beer (12 litres). Shoppers out of the jurisdiction for a longer period would be allowed, from July onward, to bring in goods worth IR,462 duty free. No item could be worth more than IR,73, however. In effect, this meant that Irish travellers, unlike their EC colleagues, would not be able to purchase substantial items such as TV sets (Flynn 1991: 1). For the economies of towns like Newry it was significant to have the beer limit raised. The changes overall represented an increase of more than 50% in the travellers' allowances, but the individual item limit made the Irish rules much more stringent than elsewhere in the EC, even at those EC borders where derogations have also been allowed. In most EC countries, travellers' limits were also the equivalent of IR,462 but shoppers can spend their full allowance on any one item. As of last year, only Greece and Denmark had also imposed single item limits, of IR,300 (Flynn 1991:1).

When these new rules were announced, the Finance Minister predicted that there would be no return to large-scale cross-Border shopping. Field research in Newry supports this assertion, but this is largely due to changes in the UK economy. Nonetheless, these new restrictions have been modified slightly in the last year. For 1992, the 24 hour rule allows the purchase of goods worth up to IR,135, with no single item worth more than IR,85. The "over" 24 hour rule is now IR,460 per person, with the item limit at IR,115. This includes a limit of 30 litres of beer. These modifications help to sustain a modest cross-Border trade in Newry, but the Irish Finance Minister was right. The boom years of the 1980s have not returned to Newry. It has taken the town years to recover from the shock of the 1987 restrictions. By 1991 its retailers had just begun adapting to the changed demands of their customers from both sides of the Border, when the dual forces of inflation and the new budget of the UK dealt them a seriousCsome merchants say fatalCblow.


As suggested above, the culture of consumerism is vital to cross-Border relations between the towns of Newry and Dundalk. Over the last ten years Newry has become a market center for people on both sides of the international boundary. During this time a number of patterns have emerged in local consumer culture, especially in regard to cross-Border shopping. These patterns are in the type and amount of goods sold, methods of display and advertizing, the organization and location of shops, and the behavior of shoppers from the South.

Before the 1987 restrictions the most profitable single items sold to consumers form the RI were durable appliances. Prices in Newry in the mid-1980s ran 20 to 30% below those of ten miles away in the South. Although the purchase of those goods was always liable to duty, very few people were caught and prosecuted by Irish customs. Thus demand for household appliances (from vacuum cleaners to dishwashers) and leisure appliances (radios, TVs, and VCRs were the most popular) rose steadily. This was met in Newry by an influx of British chain stores (e.g.Texas Stores) who set up warehouse style centers at the fringe of the town, complete with their own carparks. Town center retailers campaigned for and achieved the creation of a town pedestrian mall shopping zone. Newspaper ads in southern newspapers drew consumers to these locations simply by advertizing their normal discounted prices. Their goal was to keep the consumer in their town and prevent him/her from going further into the province. No price war was ever needed. Normal UK prices were incentive enough.

Spirits and beer were also marketed this way. Supermarkets built large warehouse style off licenses, either next to or behind their sites, or off-site near other areas of consumer interest. A number of petrol stations also opened off licenses, for the sale of wine, beer, and spirits. Word of mouth and ads in southern provincial Border papers were enough to draw their customers. Spirits were up to a third cheaper than in the South, and beer was often priced at 40% less than in the RI (this takes into consideration currency differentials, which in my experience many southerners at the Border do not consider when they shop). Prices are displayed in sterling, but Irish pounds are always accepted. It is alleged that many northern shopkeepers have bank accounts in the South, which are untaxed and untraced. Clothing, especially women's and children's, and toys were also in great demand in the mid-1980s.

The 1987 Irish laws began to change all of this. One local government officer estimated (personal communication) that Newry has lost hundreds of millions of pounds in gross sales since then. The appliance trade has fallen off most dramatically. The worsening security situation, combined with an increased Customs presence, has choked off many of the roads used by both smugglers and the knowledgeable day shoppers. Food and amenity services have dropped in reply to the decreased demand. Irish shoppers keep to the strict allowances on alcohol and cigarettes; at the main customs checkpoint on the Newry - Dublin road, for example, most Irish registered cars are now stopped when re-entering the country. Even those Irish families who live close to the Border stopped taking day trips. By 1991 the shoppers who were attracted most often to Newry were adult men, who came for petrol, cigarettes, spirits, and beer.

The reasons for this decline in shopping are many, but the most important cause has been the overall rise in British prices, at a time when Irish prices have remained relatively stable. This crystallized when the British budget was announced in 1991. The UK government put the standard VAT rate up 2.5% to 17.5%, in order to help fund the costs of switching from a local to a central taxation system. This was seen by many commentators to be a "gift" to Ireland, which because of the EC 1992 project is committed to lowering its own VAT to within two percentage points of the UK's rate (Taylor 1991). A high UK VAT means less cutting for the Irish government, which it must do in order to harmonize tax rates in the run up to 1993 economic integration. This, of course, means that Irish consumer prices stay high, but that prices are also in line with those of NI. Add this to much higher inflation rates in NI than in the RI, and the effect on prices in places like Newry is marked. When the 1991 modified restrictions were announced, for example, neither head of the Chambers of Commerce of Dundalk or Newry felt it would have much impact on their towns. The latter gentleman felt that the previous six months of inflation had already seen to that (Flynn 1991).

Consumers still travel to Newry from the South. Petrol and beer seem to be the drawing powers, although neither draws customers from very far away from the Border. The price of spirits and cigarettes are now comparable to those of the South, while a consumer only saves about IR60 pence on each gallon of petrol. A fill up might save the average driver IR,6, which Newry merchants do not believe is itself a sufficient incentive to come to their town to shop. So their sales strategies have been reduced to drawing people who live within 10 - 15 miles of the Border, as well as attracting the business traveller or tourist who is on the way to Belfast or Dublin (roadside and shop signs are geared to these potential clients). The price of beer is still extremely competitive, and it is not uncommon for RI residents to ask visitors to the North to bring a case of beer back with them. But the small savings in beer and petrol are often offset in the minds of potential customers by the worsening terrorist problem. Twice in the last year, in fact, IRA bombs have destroyed the security checkpoint outside of Newry which the majority of travellers must pass through on their way into the province. It is difficult for Newry retailers to market their goods to outsiders with the winds of a poor national economy and the negative images of terrorism in their faces.

The impact all of this has had on Newry life is both significant and difficult to detect. Very few Newry people admit liking or wanting great (or, some say, any) numbers of Southerners visiting their town. They usually cite crowds and noise as the most damning reasons. But shopkeepers, restaurant owners, garagemen, and newsagents certainly miss the retail trade, and they, after all, are the economic core of what is now primarily a service town (industries and shipping have in the main been long gone). Seeming indifference to the sociocultural impact of so many visitors to Newry belies some key factors: Newry is primarily a Catholic and nationalist town; the influx of southerners resulted in an increase in the numbers of security forces; the cash income subsidised the Newry community in many ways in what has become a town of many versions of the informal or "black economy". Perhaps their indifference is only a tactic to be used when discussing these matters with a visiting anthropologist or perhaps it reflects their projection of a hardened exterior, a shell designed to protect them from the travails of border life in the midst of "civil war".

The objective realities of Newry at the beginning of this decade are something else again. The economy is suffering. Very few Newry people admitted to me having any regular or sustained face to face contact with their neighbours to the south, although many make a Saturday run across the Border in order to purchase lottery tickets. And whether Border people desire the connection of shopping or not, its absence has resulted in another tear in the fabric of cross-border culture. Without the lure of shopping, few southerners will visit Newry. It, like the rest of Northern Ireland, may become increasingly isolated and alienated from both the UK and the Republic of Ireland, which is certainly not the goal of either government. Nor is it the goal of the EC which is hoping to better integrate its twelve nations (sic) through the Single Internal Market, which will entail the harmonization of VAT and excise taxes. If this process continues, then the comparability of prices between nations, one goal in the free market goals of the EC, may lead to sociocultural breakages across borders. In the Northern Irish case, one relationship which has maintained person to person communication over the last decade has been the mutually agreeable consumer relationship between customer and merchant. There was virtual unanimity on this point, among the people I interviewed from both sides of the border. Common political allegiances and philosophies, shared histories, the wishes of their governments, or even the hopes of their church leaders were all important incentives for neighbours to actively explore their shared culture, which in this case can be shared across an international divide. But the most important incentive to continued contact between people from both sides of the Border seems to be a material one, a fact which many social scientists have chosen to minimize or ignore. The people of the Northern Irish border recognize that the price of retail goods may be a matter of national and EC importance, but to them it is also the lifeblood of cross border cultural communication and integration. Some say that with a delimited consumer relationship, there will be little cross-border contact. To an anthropologist, this suggests that without "consumers" there will be less communication between communities across the borders. This, in turn, is certain to cause changes in these communities' cultural constructions of their symbolic boundaries. The processes of EC integration may, in fact, strengthen the symbolic boundaries between Border towns, creating less of a common culture and more of an international divide.

Thus, ethnographic analysis at the Border suggests that the effects of the national economic policies of the UK and the Republic of Ireland have resulted in a greater parity in prices between Northern and Southern Ireland. Newry town is representative of new processes of cultural disintegration, i.e. fewer people are crossing the border to shop, and are thereby breaking off contact with communities with whom they share a great deal. Unhappily for Ireland, there are few other incentives to maintain this face to face communication. The harmonization policies of the EC should ensure that this effect of prices on consumer relations lasts for quite a while. This may result in greater EC and national economic integration, but may lead to further alienation and cultural disintegration at the Northern Irish Border. At this stage it is difficult to predict the effects of this on the Irish and British peoples.


Recent reviews (Sherry 1988a; 1991) have pointed out ways in which the theories and methods of consumer research and socio-cultural anthropology can complement each other for the understanding of macro- and microcultural aspects of consumers' behavior. This essay is intended to bridge some of the gaps between ways of understanding consumer behaviour and consumer culture, in part as an addition to the scholarship of national and EC integration as they occur at international borders in Europe. As such, it seeks to address the issues of consumption in its sociocultural context, including the situational and cultural dimensions of consumer behaviour ( as called for in such works as Belk 1987; Perrin 1988; Newman 1988). By raising the issues of "consumer culture" I seek to avoid the theoretical difficulties which have arisen in such areas as "organizational culture" (as reviewed in Sherry 1988a:71). Consumerism, for the sake of this analysis, is one aspect of larger systems of patterns of behavior and meaning. Consumer culture is not a system in itself. The study of consumer behavior should not be simply the study of what consumers do, no simple feat indeed, but of the roles they and their consumerism play in the context of their overall sociocultural lives. Historical and symbolic analysis must be an essential part of research into marketing and consumer behavior (as, for example, in McCracken 1986, 1988, Sherry 1983, 1986, 1988b). The issue of cultural process, experience and communication are as salient in anthropology as they are in consumer and marketing research (for a view of the latter which speaks to the interdisciplinary issues, see Holbrook and Hirschman 1982). Consumer behavior and relationships are real and objective ones, however, and can and should be the subject of more short- and long term research, by analysts of consumerism and marketing in culture who will conduct studies of local, national, and international patterns of behavior. Cross cultural research is clearly one area where anthropologists and consumer researchers can collaborate productively.

My analysis also adds to the growing literature in anthropology on historical and contemporary case studies of cultural identity and community boundaries in Europe (Cole and Wolf 1974; Herzfeld 1987). There has been an increased interest in the definition and redefinition of the limits of local and national culture in Britain and Ireland (Cohen 1982; Curtin and Wilson 1989), especially as they relate to public policy (Donnan and McFarlane 1989). One difficulty ethnographers are having is in coping with the dimensions of the structure and processes of the European Community itself. Thus there have been few attempts to date either to analyse the impact of the EC on local and national societies, or to investigate ways in which cross-cultural research at the local level might inform the larger debates on international and supranational integration (at least one forthcoming volume intends to address these issues, Wilson and Smith n.d.). Perhaps because of their local and historic focus (which of course leaves them open to charges of "no" focus or "wide angle" focus) anthropologists have often been perceived as creating idiosyncratic portraits of cultural preservation or decline. Perhaps a number of scholarly disciplines should heed the call of radical critics of marketing research (Firat et al 1987,as summarised in Sherry 1981:555).

"Scholars must infuse humanistic values into their work, foster enlightened, seasoned practices, adopt macrosystemic perspectives, use comprehensive causal models, develop holistic and integrative frameworks, and deepen the historical basis of investigation"

This essay cannot hope to answer this ambitious but exemplary call to arms. But it does seek to explore issues of interest to all analysts of consumers in their cultural contexts. It indicates that the theories and methods of consumer research and the anthropology of consumer economics are both compatible and complementary. The goals are certainly similar: to understand consumers' actions within wider fields of behavior. The need for such study is becoming apparent in the expanding sociocultural system of the EC, whose most recent document on consumers relates entirely to consumer policy (European Communities 1991). An integrated approach to consumers throughout the EC is needed, i.e. one that analyzes the systemic aspects of marketing, buying, selling, consuming, bartering, and smuggling, within the competing and overlapping dimensions of local, regional, and national identity. Economic anthropologists and the anthropologists of public policy must be a part of this effort to understand consumer behavior in the "New Europe".


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Sherry, John F., Jr. (1988a), "Marketing and Consumer Behavior: Windows of Opportunity for Anthropology," Journal of the Steward Anthropological Society 16(1): 60-95.

Sherry, John F., Jr. (1988b), "Market Pitching and the Ethnography of Speaking," Advances in Consumer Research, Vol. 15, ed. M. Houston. Provo, UT: Association for Consumer Research, pp. 543-547.

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Taylor, Cliff (1991), " 'Fudge it' budget holds good news for Reynolds," The Irish Times 20 March, p. 13.

Wilson, Thomas M., and M. Estellie Smith, eds. (n.d.), Cultural Change and the New Europe: Perspectives on the European Community, Boulder, CO: Westview Press.



Thomas M. Wilson, The Queen's University of Belfast, U.K.


E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 1 | 1993

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