ESRC Small Grant: The Politics of Island Regions: A Framework for Comparative Research

  • Hepburn, Eve (Principal Investigator)

Project Details


Islands have developed some of the most innovative forms of sovereignty in the world. Being typically small and insular, islands such as Åland, Prince Edward Island (PEI) and Sardinia have repeatedly rejected outright independence in favour of developing unique status arrangements with larger state or supranational bodies. Yet rather than representing an oddity in the world political order, islands are in fact illustrative of the creative governance arrangements that many states have adopted to accommodate diversity. The experience of small islands offers important lessons for states such as the United Kingdom, Italy and Spain, which are undergoing processes of 'asymmetrical' spatial rescaling.

This pilot project will map the politics of island regions in Åland, PEI and Sardinia, in order to lay the empirical and theoretical foundations for a large-scale research project on island politics. The main research question is:

How do island regions negotiate their autonomy within larger political structures?

The project focuses on five independent variables that determine the degree of island 'autonomy'. Hepburn will undertake field research in each case, including the collection of empirical data and interviews with party and government officials, in order to develop and test several hypotheses on island-state relations.

Key findings

The primary findings confirmed the general hypothesis that islands are abandoning independence in favour of pursuing distinct forms of autonomy within states. In none of the cases examined is there a huge appetite for independence; rather, island political actors have sought to obtain specific (economic) concessions from states in return for their continuing membership. Islands also enjoy some degree of ‘protection’ from states from supranational regulations (EU/NAFTA). However, when states have failed to ‘represent’ island interests in these organisations, this has led to dissatisfaction and increased demands for autonomy.
Ouputs: Hepburn (2012) ‘Recrafting Sovereignty’; and Baldacchino & Hepburn (2013) Independence Movements in Subnational Island Jurisdictions.
More specific findings may be grouped under the hypotheses tested in this project:
(1) Distinctiveness of the party system
The party system has an important role to play in determining autonomy demands, whereby a separate/distinctive island party system reduces island ‘integration’ with mainland politics and may lend itself to stronger demands for autonomy, especially where a strong nationalist party exists. Separate party systems also disrupt island-state intergovernmental relations, leading to tensions and increased autonomy demands.
Output: Hepburn (forthcoming) ‘Forging autonomy in a unitary state’.
(2) Strength of identity and cultural distinctiveness
Demands for autonomy are bolstered by a strong island cultural (especially linguistic) identity. However, identity in itself is not a necessary or sufficient factor for demanding increased autonomy, especially where cultural distinctiveness is adequately recognised and accommodated by the state.
Output: Hepburn (forthcoming—2013) ‘Democrazia in Sardegna e in Scozia’.
(3) Economic Resources
Economic interests play a large role in determining island autonomy, whereby islands with low levels of economic resources are less likely to seek independence. Financial incentives are also used by states as a means of ‘accommodating’ island autonomy demands.
Output: Baldacchino & Hepburn (2012) ‘A Different Appetite for Sovereignty?’.
(4) Geographical peripherality and aspects relating to ‘islandness’
Factors associated with ‘islandness’ – such as geographical proximity and transport links – were found to be less important in determining autonomy demands. The island’s distance from the centropole does not affect its relation to it; more important is the distinctiveness (political, cultural, economic) of the island in relation to the state.
Output: Hepburn (forthcoming) ‘Claims for island independence in an integrating Europe’.
(5) External relations with supranational bodies
Islands have been both advantaged and disadvantaged by engagement in supranational organisations. While supranational integration may be viewed as an opportunity for islands to develop a stronger international voice, without the trappings of a larger state they are peripheral to the decision-making. As a result, islands have had to focus on improving representation within state delegations to supranational organisations (EU/NAFTA).
Output: Hepburn & Elias (2011) ‘Dissent on the Periphery?’
(6) State territorial management
A key benefit of remaining part of a state is financial, whereby islands often receive special economic concessions in return for their ‘loyalty’. However, when these benefits/funds are seen to decline, this often provides impetus for stronger autonomy demands.
Output: Hepburn (2013—forthcoming) ‘The Accommodation of Island Autonomies in Multinational States’.
Effective start/end date1/02/1031/10/12


  • ESRC: £100,791.00


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