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Ireland: The value of foreign and security policy quirk

4 Apr

The war on Ukraine has left Ireland’s foreign and security policy looking exposed. While Ireland has been strong in its condemnation of Russian aggression, and has accepted a good number of Ukrainian refugees, the European security response has left Ireland looking lonely. Finland and Sweden have applied to join NATO (Finland joins today!), and European states have sent large amounts of weaponry, but Ireland has traditionally had an ambiguous neutrality policy that means it has not joined military alliances. Nor does it send weaponry abroad. Debates on Ireland’s security stance are now becoming more pronounced with some arguing that Ireland needs to step up, take its own defence more seriously, and align militarily with its European allies. Public opinion, however, is still firmly supportive of the tradition stance of ambiguous neutrality and military non-alignment. The Government has announced that it will undertake a review.

Let’s take a step back and tease out a three strands of this. The first is ‘neutrality’. Ireland has never been neutral and indeed the former foreign minister said that Ireland was not neutral in relation to Ukraine: it condemns Russian aggression wholeheartedly. Ireland was quietly pro-Allied in WWII and anti-communist in the Cold War. Debates on Irish ‘neutrality’ are misplaced. Rather than neutral, Ireland is militarily non-aligned. It is not a member of NATO, and for historical reasons has been shy about joining a military organisation in which the UK play a prominent role. Its armed forces are not geared up for offensive action or anything other than small-scale operations.

Indeed, the organisation and posture of the armed forces is a second strand worth teasing out. The Army, Naval Service and Air Corps are small and under-funded. They struggle to recruit. Over the past week, two Russian ships have been acting suspiciously off the Irish coast. The Irish Naval Service has been unable to put any ships to sea this week because of crew shortages. It is a shocking indictment of decade after decade of under-funding, mainly in relation to pay. Government after government has been unwilling to pay members of the armed forces a salary that would tempt a young tech-savvy population to forgo the high earnings found in IT or construction. The posture of the armed forces is also uniquely Irish. The Air Corps and Naval Service are essentially fisheries protection and search and rescue units. The Army is hugely oriented towards United Nations peacekeeping, and has a justifiably proud record in this regard. All three wings do other things, of course, but the organisation is simply not set up for offensive warfare or interoperability beyond UN peacekeeping. The country also is also very vulnerable to cyber attacks, with the health service IT system being paralysed in 2021.

There is no doubt that Ireland is a free-rider on NATO, and benefits from its geography on Europe’s western periphery. There is a lobby that calls for Ireland to step up its defence capability and purchase weapons systems that would genuinely allow it to defend itself. The cost would be enormous. NATO recommends that its member states spend 2% of GDP on defence. Ireland spends 0.26%. It is simply not at the races. It is very unlikely that a public that is content with the status quo would stomach a significant increase in defence spending. It is worth remembering that Ireland suffers a very real housing crisis. It is the number one political issue. Ireland that has failed comprehensively to address a basic human need: shelter. There is a political commitment to spend more on defence, but a radical increase seems politically unlikely.

And this brings us to the third strand: Ireland security and foreign policy posture. The State is a full and enthusiastic member of the European Union (and many of its security protocols). It is culturally Atlanticist in its outlook, and has a reasonably good record on overseas development and humanitarianism (more could always be done). Ireland has one crucial characteristic that gives it a foreign and security policy edge. For want of a better word, let’s call it ‘quirk’. Ireland does not fit with the NATO herd. The country has a history of what many believe to be ‘neutrality’ but really is military non-alignment. It had a proud tradition of speaking out on nuclear weapons (of which it has none) and on injustice (of which it has a fair degree of experience). That tradition of speaking out has largely been lost, and is a real missed opportunity. By not being a member of NATO, Ireland has flex, the ability to speak out, to be a go-between, to float ideas, and be creative. It does not use this flex (an under-valued weapon for good) nearly often enough. Ireland has a cultural value that operates far beyond its GDP or whatever conventional weaponry it can muster. For some reason, (let’s call it the Riverdance-effect) a lot of people like Ireland. In any review of security and foreign policy, this quirk or flex needs to be a centre-piece. This ability to mediate, to scope out, to be different, to not be armed to the teeth and to not have a ‘military wing’ in government is a real strength.

Every so often, Ireland serves on the UN Security Council and congratulates itself on doing “a grand job”. Certainly it is keen and proud. But it does not use these opportunities nearly often enough to speak truth to power, to innovate, to provide work-arounds for seemingly intractable international problems. This is a missed opportunity and a defence review that does not include a wider foreign policy review would be another one.

All communities – even communities of states – need that charismatic individual that can act as a go-between, serve as an example, and show that being different is useful. We can get too hung up on a word – like ‘neutrality’. More important is an active stance that is outward-looking, pro-peace, able to weather shocks, and useful to the international community. Another NATO member – cookie-cutter style paying its dues, in hock to arms manufacturers, and in alliance with states with truly dreadful human rights records like Turkey – is not in the interests of Ireland, Europe or the wider international community. What would be useful is a debate that values Ireland’s difference, and neutral spaces that allow for alternatives, questions and reflection.

There is no doubting that – internationally – we are in a 1930s moment. The rules-based international order is crumbling, capital is more mobile and volatile than ever, populist leaders are on the rise, a climate crisis is on-going, Russia has a clear European destabilisation strategy, and a China-US confrontation looks increasingly likely. There is the possibility that we are one accident away from a tipping point. This is precisely the moment when we need a non-aligned movement with independent actors who can be peace entrepreneurs. NATO might be the right choice for some European countries, but that does not mean it is the right choice for all European countries.

This is not to say that Ireland should not spend more on defence (especially on pay and cyber-security). It is, however, a way of saying that quirk and flex have value. When everyone else is a horse, be a unicorn.


The univeral riposte to the “So what?” question

24 Feb

If I had a pound for every time I have given a talk and it has been met with the “So what?” question then I would be a hundredaire – at least. Usually, the “So What?” question is well-intentioned; audience members want to know how your research is original and what contribution it makes to the literature. Often we’re not clear enough on the original contribution – we’re too caught up in the weeds and detail of our research. We blast people with data but don’t take time to provide a rationale of why we think something is important. Occasionally, the questioner wants to show everyone that they are the smartest person in the room (and thereby the most insecure). They’re male, sit in the front row, and ask the first question. But generally, the “So what?” question is completely legitimate. If we are going to present our research we should – at least – indicate why we think it is significant

But often my research is not terribly original. In the entire world of the social sciences and the multiple disciplines that it entails, do many of us really come up with truly original ideas, arguments and results? Humans have been around for a long time and have been dealing with challenges – intellectual and practical – from the start. Do we really think that many of us are having thoughts that others have not had before? Sure, in my research I will come up with field data that is unique, but in the wider picture it is unlikely that I will make a breakthrough into a new paradigm. This is especially the case as many of us work in siloes, unaware that those in cognate disciplines have been working on a subject that interests us. Perhaps they have a different approach or use a different terminology – but it is essentially the same problem. I have often strayed into literature in Sociology or Anthropology only to find that there are library shelves bulging with works on the topic that I had thought was original in my particular corner of Peace and Conflict Studies.

And now I have come up with a universal riposte to the “So what?” question? And it runs along the lines of “You might be familiar with the work on X but it is new to me”. We cannot be expected to know everything (or indeed remember that we once read something). This is very much an intellectual journey, with lots of discoveries along the way, and if someone is frustrated that you do not know what they already know then … well … surely that’s their problem.

Present at the creation: Ireland, Northern Ireland and a new social contract

8 Oct

Wouldn’t be great if we could be present at the creation of the social contract? Let’s face it, most of us are inhabitants of states that have long traditions of institutions that are structured and operate in particular ways. Although we might get to vote every few years, we are inheritors of the system and don’t really get a chance to have a say on some of the fundamentals of how we are governed. We can vote to change the government but in most cases those governments do not engage in root and branch change. There are exceptions, of course, with coups and revolutions but very often the institutions of state remain the same. The software may have an update but we are stuck with (sometimes) ancient hardware.

But let’s engage in a little fantasy … what if we could contribute to a new social contract? What if we could ask fundamental questions about how we are to be governed, the purpose of government, and how the structures of power can be updated when – inevitability – they become outdated? Forging a new social contract would – in theory at least – provide an opportunity to think through relations between society and government, about how resources should be shared, and how relations between people are to be managed – an especially important factor in societies that might suffer major cleavages in relation to identity. A new social contract might foreground ideas and practices on how conflicts are to be managed and resolved, on how minorities are to be included and respected, and how institutions can be responsive. Indeed, Erin McCandless and colleagues have contributed to very exciting work on how social contracts can help with transitions towards peace.

Of course, discussions on a new social contract might do none of those things (it might be a very retrograde social contract!), yet it seems that the process of discussing a social contract could be a very useful site of exchange and engagement. Certainly such discussions could point to the dysfunctions of the current ways of doing things, but – more positively – they could provide spaces for thinking about how things could be done differently. These discussions could be a site of innovation, learning from other countries, and grappling with searching questions about the purpose and extent of government.

There is a tiny (I stress the tiny) opportunity for discussions on a social contract in Ireland, particularly in relation to Northern Ireland and how it might fit into, and contribute to, a changed Ireland. Let me provide a little context … There has been an uptick in talk about a new, united or shared Ireland. Some of that talk is the result of deliberate strategies by individuals and groups who have an agenda to promote. And some of it is the result of circumstances; census figures showing that Northern Ireland no longer has a Protestant majority, and the obvious dysfunction of Northern Ireland with its non-functioning Assembly and lack of elite reconciliation. It is also worth noting that Sinn Féin – whose primary goal is Irish unification – is set to be Ireland’s largest political party both north and south of the border.

The talk about constitutional change gives a sense that a genie is out of the bottle and is unlikely to go back in. Northern Ireland Secretaries of State (they come and go with dizzying frequency) is now regularly asked about ‘border poll’ or that clause in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that says that the British Government must call a referendum on Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom if it looks like a majority of its voters want to leave the UK. Five years ago, that question was not posed. Now Secretaries of State are likely to be ambushed with the question in every second interview.

There is a certain predictability to some of the manoeuvres around a new or shared Ireland, but there is some nuance too. The predictability comes from the flag-waving fraternities that are unbowed in their pursuit of a united Ireland or the maintenance of the United Kingdom. The nuance is identifiable in that a good number of those whose goal is Irish unity are using the language of a ‘shared’ or ‘new’ Ireland or a ‘shared island’ and avoiding the term ‘united Ireland’ – a term that scares many unionists.

But the most interesting aspect of all of this is the groundwork and policy scoping on what a shared island might look like in terms of policy. So, if Ireland was to have a new constitutional basis with some form of all-island government what would this mean for pensions, welfare, regulatory bodies and trade? In other words, rather than focusing on hard constitutional issues or touchpaper issues like flags or anthems, what would a new constitutional order mean for the “boring” issues? There has been excellent work in this regard by the ARINS project whereby academic and policy experts have sought to think through the policy implications of a shared island. This groundwork is priceless and we know from the Scottish independence and Brexit referendum campaigns that a lack of properly research information allowed for the void to be filled by misinformation of the project fear type. Such groundwork, if disseminated beyond the usual academic suspects, also has the potential to help demystify what a shared island might mean for everyday life. It might even – and there are tiny signs that this is happening – encourage unionists to actually make a case for the continuation of the Union.

But most of all, these initiatives have the potential to allow inhabitants on the island of Ireland to think beyond flags, anthems and abstract notions of Irishness and Britishness and instead think like citizen-consumers. They might be encouraged to ask: What system of government will deliver the best healthcare? What tax regime would be best for my business? Which school system would be best for my kids? Wouldn’t it be great – and HUGE FUN – to be present at the creation of the social contract?

My Tory leadership speech

14 Jul

I want to be honest with you. Rather than have a speech filled with boosterish nonsense, I want to talk honestly about the challenges the UK faces and how it should face them. That is the job of a prospective Prime Minister. It would be much easier to wrap myself in the flag, talk about past glories, and launch a culture war offensive. But flags, past glories and a culture war won’t help NHS waiting lists, address the skills shortage, or the mental health crisis.

If we look at most economic and social global indicators then then UK is going in the wrong direction. Not only are living standards declining, but so is life expectancy (and have been doing so since before COVID). British people are getting poorer, economic productivity compares poorly with competitors, and relations with our neighbours need a reset. It is the job of a Prime Minister to protect people and if people are living shorter and – often less happy – lives, then the Prime Minister, Government, and all sensible political parties need to rise to the challenge. An honest Prime Minister would address these challenges and have difficult conversations about “managing decline” and – hopefully – about how to chart a course out of decline.

It is not all doom and gloom though. There are some things that the UK is good at. Parts of the fintech, biotech and financial sectors are in good health. And developing these sectors – and other parts of the knowledge economy – is the route out of decline. A new B&M stores opening on your high street is not the route to prosperity. That way lies a low pay, low skills economy. We need to develop a joined-up educational-industrial-knowledge economy strategy that integrates training and education with the tech revolution. That will mean spending on education and training, standing up to corporations that have no social worth, and actually having a long-term strategy.

We also need to talk about Europe. Brexit has not been a success. We are not going to rejoin the European Union. There is not an appetite for that among many in the UK – and across Europe. But we do need to recalibrate our relations. Europe is a massive economy on our doorstep and we need proper neighbourly relations. Picking fights with Brussels will not bring jobs and investment to the UK. Having a high-skill, open economy, with predictable rule-making will.

And wider relations with the world need a reset. The UK needs to recognise that the big geostrategic trend of our time is the shift of power to the East. China has risen and we need to deal with that. It is likely to invade Taiwan in the next few years. Obviously the UK – nor indeed the US – is going to risk going toe-to-toe with China. So we need to come to terms with a powerful China – engage with it, stand up to it, and make a case for human rights and democracy. The UK has immense cultural power and it can mobilise that much more effectively. It also has a strong record in overseas development and we make sure we continue to be a world leader in that.

We also need to talk about the United Kingdom – England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. We need to recognise that not everyone wants to remain part of the UK. While some might want a united Ireland and an independent Scotland and Wales, others will not. But we need to have a mature conversation about this, and investigate innovative and flexible constitutional mechanisms that might be able to satisfy competing demands. Trying to shape the future rather than hanging onto the past might lead to a win-win situation. And the conversation between those with competing demands and identities need not be confrontational. Maybe it could be educative, and involve innovation and cultural exchange.

So these are all the things I would say to you if was honest. Instead, I will drone on about cutting taxes (when we can’t afford it), locking up more criminals (when we already do so), chucking good money after bad at a woefully inefficient armed forces, and putting words like “great” or “world leading” in front of the mediocre. Vote for me to be the next Tory leader and your next Prime Minister.

Accent-ism and UK universities

21 Nov

Fiona Hill’s excellent autobiography, There is nothing here for you here: Finding opportunity in the 21st century, has got me thinking about accent-ism and British universities. Dr Hill has had a stellar career: a PhD from Harvard, positions at a series of US think-tanks, has served in senior roles on the US National Security Council, and has worked with three US presidents. What is remarkable is that she comes from very straitened circumstances in the north east of England. Her book devotes considerable space to issues of class and gender (and some attention to race in relation to the US).

She tells – movingly – of a humiliating experience at an Oxford entrance interview, of being dismissed as a ‘common northerner’ by a fellow student at St Andrews, and of the very real constraints that poverty placed on her education choices and route. She also tells of acts of kindness, luck and good advice that helped her along the way. Also coming through the book is the sheer hard work and determination that – over the long haul – beat the social immobility traps that shape British society.

One thing that comes across in the book is how she was self-conscious of her north east accent as it signalled that she was an outsider and somehow did not belong in particular higher education settings. This got me thinking about my own experiences at British universities and what it’s like to have a regional accent. I can only speak from personal experience of the universities that I have worked at on this island – Lancaster, York, St Andrews, Manchester and Durham – and my professional networks. In all of these places (with the possible exception of Manchester) I have been struck by the absence of regional accents among academic staff. The most common accent among academic staff – born on the island of Britain – is accent-less English. It tends not to be the posh received pronunciation of past decades, but a modern iteration of it. In a few cases I have worked with ‘mockneys’ – middle class academics with a faux working class twang (I suspect it was adopted during their school years to avoid bullying). But, in general, the main accent among UK-born academics is no accent or a very suppressed regional accent.

There are a number of reasons for the absence of regional accents. Academics from “the regions” (and I can see how problematic that term can be) often stay close to home. There is also the need to be understood – in teaching, supervision and communication with colleagues. As a result, those with strong regional accents might try to ‘flatten’ their accent simply to be understood. A long time living away from one’s place of origin (and daily interaction in and with that accent) will usually bring a flattening of accents.

But I think class plays a major role in this too. As I understand it – and this comes out very well in Fiona Hill’s book – the English class system (and it seems more pronounced in England than elsewhere in the UK) is about legitimately fitting in at ‘the right level’. Dr Hill’s book records numerous incidences of middle class people thinking “What is she doing here?” when she opens her mouth and speaks with a regional accent. In universities – which serve as mechanisms for the reproduction of the middle class – this “What is s/he doing here?” mentality is the backdrop to a lot of interactions and calculations.

It is very probably at play in hiring processes where, as we know, unconscious bias is often at work. If you sound ‘right’ then people can concentrate on what you’re saying. If you sound different … well that’s an additional piece of baggage to go along with the understanding. Perhaps there is some conscious bias going on too, wherein regional accents are equated with being ‘thick’ or an outsider who does not belong. In all of this it is difficult to get away from class – a subject many English people (if I can generalise) are experts on, but often find uncomfortable to acknowledge. I am not sure that the nomenclature around the ‘widening participation agenda’ (schemes to encourage communities and groups who traditionally have not gone to university) is helpful. Why can’t we just call this ‘class’ (as well as ‘race’)?

I am conscious of my regional accent. It is very often the only one in the room. I have had quite a few experiences where I very clearly did not ‘fit’ – and a few humiliating job interviews early in my career where the principal form of communication from the interview panel was a sneer. Although, as a full-time, male professor I cannot claim to have done badly. And the accent-ism that I notice must be nothing compared to the very many academics in UK universities who do not have English as a first language. Nor am I seeking to compare accent-ism – at least in my case – with the racism and gender discrimination that is plain to see across the sector. There are also lots of regional accents to hear in the universities in Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland (with the exception of St Andrews).

Yet accent-ism is worthy of discussion. It is wrapped up – as Dr Hill suggests – in imposter syndrome, as well as feelings of belonging, and the subtle structural factors that shape UK academia.

Two thoughts on Austin Currie

18 Nov

Austin Currie died earlier in November and his passing has – rightly – been marked by respectful obituaries and a funeral attended by many of what might be called the Irish political establishment. Currie was a leader of the Northern Ireland civil rights movement and then had a prominent political career as a founding member of the Social Democratic and Labour Party, a minister in the Northern Ireland parliament (before its collapse), and a member of the parliament in the Republic of Ireland. It was a very full political life, with lots of highs and lows.

Two thoughts struck me when thinking about his life and passing. The first is the inconsistency of many (political) lives, and the second is that so much energy is taken up at the intra-group level. Let me explain those two thoughts.

There is no doubting Austin Currie’s extraordinary bravery in the civil rights movement in the late 1960s. Inspired by events in the United States, he and others took direct action to expose the shocking levels of anti-Catholic discrimination prevalent in Northern Ireland. Perhaps his most famous piece of direction action was engaging in a squat or sit-in in a council house that had been awarded to an 18 year old Protestant women while 260 people – many of them Catholic families – were on a waiting list. All of the houses in that particular development – in Caledon, Co. Tyrone – went to Protestants. Currie and his fellow squatters showed immense bravery. It was a time when the police force showed little compunction in using violence against Catholics, and Currie and many other civil rights protestors were often assaulted by the police as they protested and marched in support of very basic rights.

But fast forward two decades and Currie moved south, based himself in Dublin, and stood for election for Fine Gael – one of the two main political parties in the Republic of Ireland. Even on a good day, a committee of experts would be hard pressed to know what Fine Gael stands for – other than keeping themselves in power and thereby perpetuating social injustice. It is – and was – a conservative political party. Over the decades, its prominent members made little effort to understand Catholics in Northern Ireland let alone deal with their plight. No one can blame Currie for moving south. He and his family were regular targets of violence and intimidation. The sheer constancy of the threats must have been exhausting. But to join Fine Gael – a party firmly in the rear-guard of just about every rights movement – serves as a good reminder that many people are inconsistent in their beliefs.

Certainly many people are consistent. Bernadette McAliskey – to mention a contemporary of Currie – has been consistent in her support for rights and minorities over many decades. But many people change over time. Support for causes may be an ‘age and stage’ thing. For many people, career, life, family and health may mean that they are only politically active for a short period of time. Staying the course takes a special type of commitment (or a lack of choice). A common expectation is to believe that political leaders – especially strident ones – will stay consistent over time. But to do so often incurs costs or requires very significant energy.

The second thought relates to intra-group conflict and tension. Austin Currie was consistent in one thing – he did not believe in violence. This brought him into conflict with those in the Catholic-nationalist-republican community who believed in violence and more forceful ways to attain rights and oppose British rule. Many in Currie’s home territory of east Tyrone saw Currie as a sell-out or too respectful of British rule. This was especially the case from the late 1980s onwards when Sinn Fein was in the ascendant. I remember being at a Tyrone senior football game (in Ennis, I think) and the announcer introduced Currie as a “special guest from Tyrone’. He was roundly boo-ed. The key point is that much of Currie’s energy (and this applies to all politicians in deeply-divided societies) was not devoted to inter-group contestation. Instead, it was directed at intra-group debates. Like the constant threats to his life (and that of his family) this must have been wearing. While engagement with “the other side” may not have taken place every day, the micro-geographies of deeply-divided societies means that one usually lives among those of your own identity group. As a result there would have been little escape from the immediacy of consultation or even confrontation with the in-group.

End of two thoughts

Book out 17 June 2021

14 Jun

My Book – Everyday Peace: How so-called ordinary people can disrupt violent conflict – is published by Oxford University Press on 17 June 2021. Details here:

Lots of people helped in the writing of the book and I am very glad to acknowledge them here by reprinting the Acknowledgements from the book:

Completion of this manuscript is about seven years late, a fact not unrelated to having a seven year old daughter, Flora. The book is dedicated to my brother, Manus Mac Ginty, who died much too young. He loved his family, the outdoors, and storytelling. I miss him very much.

Many debts were incurred in writing this book. Alex Bellamy, John Brewer, Nemanja Džuverović, Pamina Firchow, Martha Henry, Laura Mcleod, Eric Lepp, Ben Rampton, Oliver Richmond, Tom Rodwell, and Mandy Turner all read sections of the book or provided help with literature. Conversations with Tatsushi Arai, Christine Bell, Morten Bøås, Roddy Brett, Kris Brown, Christine Cheng, David Ellery, Landon Hancock, Chip Hauss, Sung Yong Lee, Alp Özerdem, Michelle Parlevliet, Jan Pospisil, Gearoid Miller, Sarah Njeri, Stefano Ruzza, Elena Stavrevska, Anthony Wanis St. John, Gëzim Visoka, Birte Vogel, Andrew Williams and Susan Woodward also helped clarify thinking and provided encouragement. At Durham, a ‘Conflict +’ seminar spent an invaluable few hours discussing chapter 6 – thanks are due to Emil Archambault, Olga Demetriou, Elisabeth Kirtslogou, and Nayanika Mookherjee. Alex De Waal provided access to African Union data on security incidents.

Much of the stimulus for this book came from the Everyday Peace Indicators project, and I have been fortunate to work alongside the indefatigable Pamina Firchow for many years. I have been privileged to learn from Everyday Peace Indicators colleagues Peter Dixon, Naomi Levy, Lindsay McClain Opiyo, Jessica Smith, and Zach Tilton. The Carnegie Corporation of New York has provided patient and generous support to the Everyday Peace Indicators project and I am particularly grateful to Aaron Stanley and Stephen Del Rosso. I also acknowledge support from the Economic and Social Research Council in the form of a grant to work on peacekeeping data.

Ideas in the book were honed at papers given at the universities of Amsterdam, the Arctic, Belgrade, Bradford, Bristol, Durham, George Mason, Kent State, King’s College London, Leeds Beckett, Queen Mary, Manitoba, Newcastle, Notre Dame, St. Andrews, Turin, and York. I am grateful for the hospitality and the questions.

I benefited enormously from the encouragement and advice from the editors of the Oxford University Press series ‘Studies in Strategic Peacemaking’ – Scott Appleby, John Paul Lederach and Daniel Philpott, all at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame. At Oxford University Press I am very grateful to David McBride and Holly Mitchell for their guidance. The anonymous reviewers managed to perfect the balance between encouragement and gently pointing out the holes in the argument.

I am also grateful to the community I live in and the distractions it provides. I appointed myself ‘writer in residence’ in the café bus at the Chain Bridge Honey farm. Not a word of this book could have been written without the support of Mrs Mac Ginty. Everyone needs a Mrs Mac Ginty. Thanks are also due to Patrick, Edward and Elisabeth Mac Ginty.

This is the book I wanted to write and I am grateful for having the opportunity to do so.

The utter inefficiency of universities

12 Apr

Universities have been moving full-pelt along a new public management and neo-liberal track for a few decades now. Yet they are becoming more and more inefficient. The so-called reforms meant to make them more agile are having precisely the opposite effect. Rather than being institutions whose energies are directed towards teaching and research, more and more resources end up feeding the very administrative ‘reforms’ that are meant to make universities more efficient. It is madness and it goes against the most obvious law of economics: that specialisation leads to efficiency.

Adam Smith, of course, hypothesised that workers in a pin factory could be much more efficient if each specialised on a particular task rather than let each worker make  pins from start to finish. Universities (doubtless many of which cover Adam Smith in Economics 101) seem to have overlooked this basic understanding of how to make organisations run efficiently. Let me explain this from the point of view of a research active teacher: I can teach and research. To some extent I am trained to do both, and have racked up a lot of experience. I know how to conduct research and then translate that into journal articles, books, and teaching. In Adam Smith’s view, I am a specialist worker.

But a series of one-off or occasional administrative tasks that interrupt my teaching and research mean that I am not terribly productive. While we might formally have a division of labour, in reality our labour is spread across a range of tasks – many of which we are not trained for, are not terribly interested in, and need to learn from scratch. Tim Hartford had a fascinating column on this in The Financial Times not so long ago: “much modern knowledge work is not specialised at all. Might that explain why we all seem to be working so hard while fretting about getting so little done?”

Academics are asked to perform a series on often one-off (or occasional) tasks that are usually time-consuming and involve coming to grips to with a piece of software that will be used for this one task. It is the epitome of inefficiency, yet the narrative around such activities is usually one of reform, efficiency and productivity. If viewed through a neo-liberal lens it is madness: academic staff (if fortunate enough to be on permanent contracts) are usually paid more than administrative staff. Yet, academic staff are being tasked with more of administrative tasks for which they are untrained, thus diminishing time for teaching and research. The growing number of one-off or occasional administrative tasks make us generalists rather than specialists and thus less productive. For example, on top of teaching and research, I might be tasked with filling out a particular form connected with a hiring process, claiming expenses, or the administration of teaching. Because I rarely fill out these forms, it will take me a long time to complete this task.

The answer is to rebuild the administrative centre of universities. That might sound regressive to those interested in productivity but it is actually in line with Adam Smith’s views on a division of labour and specialism. The gutting of the centralised administrative capacities of universities (remember when universities used to have a Registrar?) led to the devolution of administration (but not control or power) to departments. In many cases, that led to a replication of administrative tasks. Manchester had departmental accountants, school accountants, faculty accountants, and university accountants who would check and recheck each other’s figures and come up with exactly the same figures … before everything was sent off to an external auditor! The vast majority of university administrators I have worked with are highly professional and beyond conscientious. In my view, they should be entrusted with greater responsibilities (and suitably remunerated, of course) and allow university teachers and researchers to get on with what they can do best: teaching and researching. For administrators, their professionalism and productivity is often derived from the expertise they gain by completing the same task (for example, filling out a particular form) on a repeated basis. To ask an academic to do that task once or twice a year, and have that academic spend three times as long doing the task because they don’t know how it is it be done, is simply a waste of resources.

Of course, I could dress all of this very obvious stuff (‘let specialists do specialist labour’) up as management consultancy and charge a day rate of £2,000. I suspect that universities might then listen.

The academic obituary

22 Jan

I have read about half a dozen academic obituaries and tributes over the past few months. One thing that is striking about them is that most of them say nothing – or next to nothing – about the individual beyond a glowing account of their career. It is understandable that an obituary of a public figure concentrates on their professional career. Some academics are public figures. Most of us are private individuals with jobs that sometimes have a semi-public facing role.

An obituary that charts a career and ends with a tart, ‘She is survived by her husband John and her three adult children’ seems to do a disservice to the person. Certainly many academics see their career as a core part of their identity. Often academia is a way of life, shaping where people live and their social circle. But most of us are more than our job – or I would like to think that is the case.

Perhaps the professional obituaries are a function of a deeper issue – something that might be called ‘the always on syndrome’ or an overly-professional face that some academics maintain at all times. I have noticed, even at major conferences where people might be expected to have some down-time, that many academics stay in professional mode at all times. So a full day of conference panels is followed by drinks and dinner where the only legitimate conversation topics are work-related. Possibly precarity (the need for a permanent post or tenure) encourages this permanently professional persona that some maintain. Perhaps some people feel that there should be a firm distinction between work and private lives and thus it is inappropriate for conversation to stray from work-related matters. Perhaps some people feel – perfectly appropriately – that their personal lives and any of their thoughts and interests beyond work – are their own business. But to remain ‘in character’ all day must be exhausting and is – well – odd.

Over the years, the academics that I have really respected were those who were professionally on top of their game but who could light up a room with the force of personality, who could deploy humour at the right moment in the dullest of conference panels, who could take the time and effort to show an interest in early career colleagues, and who could show empathy when required. Many of them also had non-work passions that could be seen in the classroom or seminar room. This is perhaps best demonstrated by those colleagues who bring baked goods to seminars: nothing lights up a cold Wednesday afternoon meeting than when someone brings in a cinnamon cake to share. But I have also been captivated by academics who gave presentations that reflected their love of gardening, music or horses (to name a few). There was no dumbing down in what they said – it was simply a hook that humanised them and the session.

Maybe the strictly professional obituary and tribute is a function of corporate academia, where the obituary is simply an extension of corporate branding: “We are sorry that Joan has died but don’t forget that our Institution is now 47th in the QS indicators.” I should make clear that there are plenty of humane and personalised academic obituaries that take full account of the individual’s hinterland well-beyond their professional life. And I do know of lots of cases where colleagues have felt truly bereft at the passing of a colleague. I am merely commenting on the half dozen obituaries and tributes that I have read recently that made no allowance for the person having much of a life beyond work.

So if anyone is tempted to write an obituary of me when pass I on: those dull books and articles were not the most important things in my life.

The BBC and Hate Radio

28 Sep

Northern Ireland is a delicate place. Overt violence is largely at an end but division is everywhere. Catholics and Protestants largely live apart, socialise apart, and educate their kids apart. It does not take much to antagonise the more excitable in each community. Just wind them up with a few well-worn phrases and or dog whistle images and sit back and watch them. One wind-up merchant is Stephan Nolan who has a weekday radio programme on BBC Radio Ulster. His phone-in show simply relies on igniting already existing prejudice. It is cheap in the sense that it costs little (apart from Nolan’s very large salary). There are no reports to edit, or ‘talent’ to pay. Just pick a controversial subject and give out the phone number and – hey presto – those with an axe to grind have a venue. On a daily basis cheap shot radio platforms self-appointed community spokespeople and individuals who set up their own NGOs simply to gain attention to themselves and their partisan causes.
Journalist Cahair O’Kane had a wonderful take-down of Nolan, and cheap shot radio, in The Irish News the other week:

“Sammy from the Shankill rings in and is given the airtime to vent his fury at the GAA.
He doesn’t have to be right. He just has to be loud.
And then naturally the other side reacts. Seamy from Andersonstown is on, feeling that he has defend his side.
The same applies the other way around. Unionists take a kicking on the show too, and there are elements of nationalism that can’t wait to get stuck in when it happens.
The appetite for fury is never-ending, and so round and round and round it goes.”

Nolan’s programme is not the original author of division in Northern Ireland. But it perpetuates old divisions and creates new ones. It is radio without social purpose. It does not inform or educate. It is simply entertainment – but entertainment at the cost of perpetuating hatred and division. And here is the thing: the Nolan programme is from the BBC – the national broadcaster funded through near mandatory subscription. This blog post is not a generalised attack on the BBC. The right-wing press has maintained a shrill war on the BBC for decades now. The BBC generally has a social purpose. The key point of the blogpost is to underline that the BBC has responsibilities. These responsibilities are heightened in a deeply-divided society.
The good news is that people are switching off Nolan – listening figures are on a downward trend. Many people have simply had enough of what can be described as hate radio. But the BBC should take a good hard look at itself. It is simply unsustainable in 2020 that the BBC – on a daily basis – sets fire to petrol in the name of ‘journalism’. The BBC wants us to believe – I assume – that they are neutral and are merely reflecting the views of people. But that is not the case. The BBC is not neutral in this. It is a conscious actor in a sectarian space.