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Letter to Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Karen Bradley MP

26 Jul

Dear Karen,

I hope you do not mind me intruding on the parliamentary recess and offering the unasked-for advice that follows. But, you see, I think you do need some advice related to your day job as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. Remember that? The day job?

As you know, the devolved Assembly that was established under the 1998 Good Friday Agreement has not been sitting for over 18 months. It is your job to getting it back to work – and thus to get one of the major world achievements of the 1990s – a comprehensive peace accord in Northern Ireland – back on track. It is a difficult task and let’s face it, the principal political parties that you have to work with – the Democratic Unionists and Sinn Féin – have very different aims and absolutely loathe one another. And then there is your own political party: it’s is at war with itself over Brexit. So you could be forgiven for pulling the bedcovers over your eyes on a Monday morning and thinking ‘I don’t want to go into the office today’. Believe me, sometimes I have the same feelings about Manchester.

Anyway, I hope you don’t mind if I observe that since taking over as Northern Ireland Secretary of State you don’t seem to have had much impact. Admittedly, you have a tough task but the impression of many observers is that you could try a bit harder with the day job. I read something the other day that compared your dedication to the job unfavourably with that of your predecessor, James Brokenshire. That must have hurt. To call his tenure as undistinguished would be unkind to the undistinguished.

Here’s my unasked for advice … it comes in two parts. The first part is a bit blunt but sometimes things need to be said in a straightforward manner. The second bit is somewhat more nuanced. So here comes the blunt bit: In order to do your job it might actually help if you spent a little bit of time in Northern Ireland. We all know it isn’t your dream job, but you said yes to it and are happy to accept the frills (and cash) that go with it. Your attendance in Northern Ireland is something akin to David Davis’ attendance in Brussels when he was in charge of the Brexit negotiations. If we were talking about school attendance then, at this point, social workers would be involved. Is it really up to another adult to tell you that in order to do your job you have to be prepared to travel to Northern Ireland and show a bit of effort?

The second bit of advice on getting the devolved Assembly up and running is to think about harnessing people power. If you talked to people in Northern Ireland – that is real people outside of your protected bubble – you would know that they are utterly fed up with what they see as a political class who are not terribly interested in getting the Assembly up and running. Democratic Unionist and Sinn Féin antipathy for one another outweighs any perceived advantages they see in cutting a deal. This is facilitated – in part – by direct rule that means most public services function more or less as normal. This is where your opportunity is. There are a few pinch points: budgets and decisions delayed because of the stasis at Stormont. People care about frontline public services. Dinner table conversations revolve around hospital appointments, school places and the he pothole on the road just by the Centra. There is space for a campaigning Secretary of State to build on public resentment and turn it into something positive. There is a golden opportunity to hold a series of public meetings all across Northern Ireland that would highlight the delays and how the inability to put the powersharing deal back together again is having a real impact on everyday life. You are the one with the data to know where the pinch points are and where they will be. You are the one with other data – polling and intelligence – that could make this work. You could turn this into a mass movement that would not necessarily have to rely on a Northern Ireland civil society that is – well – a bit tired. It would require energy, charisma and commitment. It is not unkind to say that those qualities have not been evident in your first months in the job, but you could surprise us.

What I am suggesting is a summer road show. It would get you out of the security bubble (honestly, no one is going to hurt you – especially if you tell people that you want to make life better). It would give you an opportunity to get people on your side. Fundamentally, it would scare the main political parties if they could see that they were being outflanked from the ground up. You could work on a rhetoric that elected politicians should do their job, that public services are at risk, that public services will decline if politicians don’t get their act together. The nature of power-sharing means that parties from opposing groups do not have to like one another – but they do have to work together. These are simple messages that could be repeated night after night in a series of town hall meetings. It would be truly non-partisan as it would be shaming the Democratic Unionist and Sinn Féin. They will try to bang the ethno-nationalist drum about culture war, but if you stick to the theme of public services there is a real chance of having an effect.

And, the people that probably matter to you most – the chatterati in London and political/media elite – would take note. Look at Gavin Williamson and Michael Gove – not particularly likeable people but they have gained a reputation for being passionate about their brief (Williamson) and having mastered the detail and being full of initiative (Gove).

Or you could stay in London, visit Northern Ireland very occasionally, and give the impression that you couldn’t care less.

Yours truly,

The anthropology of dog-walking

12 Jul

The anthropology of dog-walking

I am not an anthropologist, but I want to be one when I grow up. There has been a noticeable ‘turn’ towards anthropological methods in the study of peace and conflict, and international relations more generally, over the past decade or so. It coincides with a lending and borrowing of concepts and methods from sociology and feminism too as peace and conflict scholars have moved beyond looking at institutions and combatants to take a whole-of-society approach to their subject.

While anthropologists are rightfully suspicious of those who claim to use ‘ethnography’ without training and a deep grounding in the literature, many have been generous in encouraging peace and conflict scholars to use ‘ethnographically-influenced’ methods in their research. I would like to showcase the anthropology of the dog-walk, or how walking a dog (or dogs) allows you to see sides of a community that you ordinarily would not. I have been a dog owner for about 12 years – first for Paddy a loveable but scheming chocolate Labrador and now Ted and Bess, black and chocolate Labradors. In York, then St Andrews, and now in rural southern Scotland I have walked these dogs three or four times a day around villages, along lanes and across beaches.

Walking along familiar routes, often at reasonably set times of the day, allows you to engage in and with a community in different ways. I have never used my dog-walking for research purposes (most of my research is overseas) but it has encouraged me to think about research processes and the value of ‘slow research’ – or repeated and close-level engagement with the same site. Here are four advantages of research observation by walking a dog (or dogs):

Firstly, you get to meet people and speak with them. I lived – dog-less – in York for about five years. In that time I really only knew academic colleagues. They were completely unrepresentative of the city. None of us came from York, listened to the local radio station, or read the local paper. It was a very insular life. Very often I would give the dog his lunchtime walk in a large park near my house. Other dog walkers would gather and we would spend a few minutes chatting while the dogs played and sniffed each other. This was a very different York: van drivers, care-givers, single mums. It was working class and unvarnished with a good deal of xenophobia but also an honesty and lack of sophistry that I hugely appreciated. The dog-network allowed me to see a side to York that campus life excluded. I heard about the issues that affected people and how they saw their own city. That pattern of being able to meet so-called ordinary people – through the technique of walking a dog – has been replicated everywhere else I have lived.

Secondly, you notice the small things. I usually walk the dogs at set times: first thing in the morning, lunchtime, teatime and last thing at night. Three of these walks will be 30 minutes plus (usually longer) and the bedtime one is usually 10 minutes. There are a limited number of places that one can walk nearby so I will often walk the same routes several times a week. And it is here that you notice things. In particular, you notice the small things: a car parked in an unusual position, a new garden decoration, a freshly painted fence. All of this probably is of negligible social significance, but it does allow you to piece together a picture of a community: who is well networked, who never has visitors, who is more prosperous, who is house-proud, who doesn’t give a damn? Although it is simply walking around with your eyes open, I like to think that it is the amalgamation of multiple data points that gives you a comprehensive picture of a community.

Thirdly, it gives you an excuse to go places that ordinarily you would not go. Acquire a dog and a lead and immediately you are empowered to walk up lanes, around the margins of fields, and places that it would be odd to go if you did not have a dog in tow. You can see views of the locality that you otherwise would not. Particularly in rural areas, the topography explains much of the political economy and the built environment: who had access to the good land, who had the water, why does the road take that odd turn? A dog allows you to be noisy – to walk to that hilltop to get the view and to go behind those farm buildings and find the water-source that explains why the community was built there.

Fourthly, you move (reasonably) slowly. The pace of research (or at least the expectation that we publish often and have impact) seems to be increasing. Walking a dog allows you time-out. That’s good for thinking time and our mental health. But it allows us to make ‘slow observations’ – to see something, to study it, to hazard a guess why it is like that. I often pass things that puzzle me (why has the farmer dumped that there, why are there so many cars at that house, why is that place busier than usual today?). By slowly ambling past – because the dogs have found something interesting to sniff – you can usually get the answer.

I am not suggesting that we all find and dog and bring it on ‘fieldwork’. I can think of multiple reasons why that would be inappropriate and impractical. I am, instead, celebrating the value of walking and keeping you eyes open. None of this uses Nvivo, draws on the corpus of dead French philosophers, or involves the construction of a dataset. It does involve the genius of dogs though.

Where are the peace missiles for Syria?

12 Apr

The toxic-macho exchange of statements and tweets over the dead body of Syria is a dreadful indictment of the failure of global governance. What is particularly disappointing is that the threats of violence (on top of the violence already inflicted by Russia, the US, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Iran and particularly the Syrian regime) are not accompanied by a political or humanitarian campaign. Sometimes violence can be legitimised (if certain ‘just war’ criteria are met). But violence to simply punish or censure without the hope of betterment for the Syrian peoples (plural – there is no homogenous ‘Syrian people’) seems particularly pointless.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if Trump and Putin exchanged competitive tweets and statements ahead of a peace campaign? Trump could boast of ‘smart’ peace. Putin could reply about ‘Russian peace’. Instead, they – and their many proxies – seem to offer nothing except violence. There is no point in blaming the United Nations – it is merely a vassal of state sovereignty and state vetoes.

Should the US, UK and France engage in attacks on Syria it will be worth reading the accompanying statements to see if they say anything about humanitarianism and political initiatives. We seem to be moving towards an era of post-legitimacy in which intervening states invest little energy into the public narration of their reasons for intervention beyond stability and security. Complain all we want about the 2003 invasion of Iraq, but Blair, Bush and their administrations did actually invest heavily in the public justification of their actions. These used the language of human rights and emancipation. Those days seem gone.

The other point worth making is that so successful have been the misinformation and propaganda campaigns by all sides that we – the far away public – have no idea what to believe. Waters have been well and truly muddied. The White Helmets seem either to be heroes or CIA stooges. Qatar seems to be a clever regional actor punching above its weight or the funder of jihadists. There seems to be little space for well-informed journalism that isn’t accused of being in the pocket of an interested party.

In all of this, it is striking that we hear very little from Syrian voices in Syria. My suspicion (and it has to be a suspicion given my comments on the news media) is that most Syrians still in Syria are utterly fatigued by the civil wars. Sustaining such a long series of linked civil wars is surely taking a massive toll and I suspect that most people want it to end. A relatively unexplored factor in the ending of many conflicts and civil wars (think of those in southern Africa and – to some extent – Northern Ireland) is the exhaustion of the participants. One generation feels so exhausted by the conflict that it thinks twice about the continuation of the war. The Russian intervention certainly re-energised the conflict, just at a time when a Mutually Hurting Stalemate (MHS) seemed to be in prospect. The threatened violent intervention by the US and its allies might similarly re-energise the conflict (in a best case scenario it might ‘re-balance’ the conflict, lead to a MHS and an mutual interest in peace but that seems unlikely).

There might – of course – be subterranean negotiations underway. Possibly away from the glare of the tweeting and bombast, calm international and national intermediaries are hashing out a plan that will bring some form of peace to Syria. If there are such initiatives I wish them luck. But I have seen nothing to encourage such optimism.

The Good Friday Agreement – 20 years on

11 Apr

It is easy to be cynical twenty years after the Good Friday Agreement was reached. There has been very limited reconciliation between the two main communities. The power-sharing government collapsed over a year ago and there is little sign of it being restored. The reason for its collapse is that the two main political parties – Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionists – loathe each other with an intensity few outsiders could imagine. Important parts of the Good Friday Agreement – like those on dealing with the past and a consultative role for civil society – have been ignored.

A list of disappointments could go on but the Good Friday Agreement is to be celebrated for one fundamental fact: there are hundreds of people walking around today who otherwise would have lost their lives in violence. Add to this the thousands who would have been incarcerated had things continued, and the thousands who would have been injured, and the human advantage of the Agreement is very clear.

Certainly the backslapping by celebrity politicians is grating. But is worth recognising that a number of politicians took risks to make the Belfast Agreement happen. Tony Blair – a man whose stock is low because of the Iraq debacle – invested enormous political capital into the Northern Ireland peace process. He did not have to do this. Bill Clinton made things happen. He cajoled, persuaded, enticed and quite possibly bullied. It worked. Bertie Ahern used the gift of the gab. George Mitchell had the patience of an army of saints. And lots of other politicians, civil servants and civil society played their part too. It worked.

Commentary on the failings of the Good Friday Agreement could go on forever. But many lives have been saved. Many more have been improved. For that we should be grateful.

Shared space and civility in Belfast

4 Apr

A plug for a great article in the Journal of Peacebuilding and Development by HCRI Manchester PhD student Eric Lepp. Based on really innovative field work, the article looks at how space is, and might be, shared in a deeply divided society.

The abstract is below and I am sure Eric would send you a pdf copy if you emailed him: eric.lepp@manchester.ac.uk

In Northern Ireland the Good Friday Agreement brought with it top-down political and social approaches to construct and increase intergroup contact and shared spaces in an effort to reconcile divided Nationalist and Unionist communities. In the period following the peace agreement, the Belfast Giants ice hockey team was established, and its games have become one of the most attended spectator activities in Belfast, trending away from the tribalism, single-space, single-class, and single-gender dynamics of modern sport in Northern Ireland. This article utilises the setting of the Scottish and Southern Energy (SSE) Arena, home of the Giants, to demonstrate normalisation of interactions occurring between supporters who are willing to purchase a ticket beside someone to whom they are politically opposed. This sport and its supporters choose to enjoy the experience of the hockey game, rather than be caught in the politicised attachment of meaning expected of shared space, offering a challenge to the reconciliation-centric assumptions in post-peace agreement Belfast.

Things I learned from reading the newspaper today (and thus a reason to celebrate good newspapers and good journalism while we still have them):

1 Apr

– Remmington – the gunmaker – has filed for bankruptcy in the US.
– The technology company Huawei spent $13.8bn on research and development last year.
– North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un has had seven defence ministers in the past six years.
– Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan was a semi-professional footballer.
– There are now 50 Lebanese wine producers – at the beginning of the century there were 14.
– The summer population of Antarctica is about 10,000 and falls to 1,000 in winter.
– The wife of a former minister in Putin’s government spent £160,000 to play a tennis match with Boris Johnson.
– The Conservative Party has received £3m from Russian sources since 2010.
– For every 10 tonnes of fuel on a Jumbo jet, three tonnes are burned just to carry it.

Skripal poisoning: Time for an information arbiter?

15 Mar

One of the most notable aspects of the Sergei and Yulia Skripal poisoning case is that hard information is restricted to a very small group of professionals and elites. The list of people who know what actually happened is small. Most of these people probably only know part of the story. The exact identity of the chemical involved, for example, will be privy only to a small group of scientists with the skills and equipment to conduct an analysis. They will know that part of the story but probably not much else. Similarly the police and intelligence services, and some in the media, will know part of the story. A small circle of political figures might try to piece together the available evidence but their information is imperfect.

A near constant thread through many conflict, and the decision-making processes that lead to and maintain conflicts, is imperfect knowledge. Much conflict is based on miscommunication and poor signalling. The ‘security dilemma’ (or the vicious circle of security precautions that spark security precautions by the other side) is based on a misreading of signals. There are strong pre-existing biases between Russia and the UK (and Russian has ‘form’ on this issue through the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko) so the misreading of signals is likely to expect the worst from the other side. Moreover, as we know many actors work hard to engage in disinformation (‘fake news’ is by no means a new phenomena).

What seems to be missing from all of this is an information arbiter – a neutral body that can look at evidence and adjudicate on what happened and who might be responsible. At the moment information is held, withheld and sought by interested parties who are necessarily political. Moreover, this issue has turned into one of national bravado – with the UK under pressure to look tough and Russia compelled to deny responsibility but – at the same time – remind the world that it is a sovereign nation that won’t be pushed around. The domestic ‘predicaments’ of both governments are important here too. Russia has an election and the UK … well … anything that helps Theresa May look tough (or even competent) in the Brexit morass is a bonus.

The lack of an information arbiter – perhaps some truly independent international and transnational body that has full cooperation from governments – means that what we see is a speculation bonanza. I have lost count of the number of radio interviews I have heard from people who don’t know what happened. Instead most of them recycle bias and assumptions.

There might be good reason why some authorities don’t want to share information (it may prejudice a trial or jeopardise informants) but that would not prevent an information arbiter that works on the basis of confidentiality. At the moment we have one government’s word against that or another. And we are left to fill in the blanks with our biases rather than evidence.

Fox News and the permanent election

28 Dec

It is not enough to rail against Trump’s America. It is better to understand it, or to try to understand it. As an analytical tool, I cannot recommend highly enough a daily look at Fox News. Three tropes shine through from my daily browsing and they tell us a lot about what brought Trump to power – and his prospects for re-election.

The first trope is that there is a sense of a permanent campaign by Trump, Republicans and the American Right. Rather than portraying Trump as a governing incumbent, he is depicted as an outsider, with his back to the wall. Central to this permanent electioneering (a campaign mightily endorsed by Fox) is a strategy to keep former President Obama and former Secretary of State Clinton in the news. On many days, Obama and Clinton are the top news story on Fox, and they are rarely out of the top three news stories. They are never portrayed in a flattering way and the photo editors must work hard to find such poor pictures of their subjects. The strategy, one presumes, is to give the impression that Obama and Clinton are still in power and Trump is an outsider fighting the good fight from beyond Washington. The sense of a permanent campaign is aided by the US political system in which there are multiple elections (primaries and multi-party elections). Yet even local elections receive national prominence.

A second trope that is a permanent fixture on the Fox News website can be described as ‘culture war’. In particular this takes the form of “outrage” at a perceived chipping away at mainstream American values (for mainstream American values read: “white nominally Christian values”). Much of the outrage is, presumably, manufactured by editors and sub-editors as it would seem difficult to maintain such a level of outrage over the longer term. One of the bogeymen (and women) of the culture war are academics – usually those in the humanities who are portrayed as being disrespectful and un-American. In UK terms, US academics are guilty of “political correctness gone mad”. Thus, we have stories like ‘Professor claims “jingle bells” is rooted in racism’ or opinion pieces (by a “Conservative Patriot” columnist ) decrying a college course on “Queering God”.

The third trope in the Fox news cycle is unwavering support for the US military and ‘law enforcement’. Indeed, a number of tricky news issues (most notably structural racism in the US as manifested police killings and victimisation of African Americans) are often reported through a national security/law and order lens. So, for example, rather than reporting an issue in terms of race and racism, it might be reported in terms of endangering police officers.

The effect of this management (indeed manufacture) of the news is that it does much to set the tone for political debates. Opponents are classified and categorised. This terms such as ‘liberals’, ‘the left’, and ‘Dems’ are used in relation to a very wide range of individuals and groups – many of which would not necessarily identify with those labels.

Having regularly read the Fox News website for a number of years, it would seem as though the news is funneled into ready-made silos that keep alive particular narratives. It is not a case of events making the news. Rather, essentially nationalist, conservative and neo-liberal narratives use events as a cladding. A particularly worrying effect of the Fox News approach (and doubtless the approaches of other news outlets that are stridently ideological) is that there is very little room for dissent and debate. A real world of equivocation and ambivalence is morphed into a world of black and white and straight lines. A perusal of the comments on Fox News stories is often a frightening experience given the level of invective used against perceived opponents. Many of the comments are overtly racist and sectarian and apparently un-moderated by the news site.

These comments on Fox News hardly amount to a scientific analysis. It is worth noting that all media contains bias and that fox News is not alone on the right. But it is by far the most popular US news channel. It is also very profitable.

So Trump for 2020? Yep.

Brexit and Borders

28 Nov

There is a lot of noise about Brexit and the UK-Irish land border. It is not helped by injudicious comments by grand-standing politicians. Pro-Brexit Labour MP’s Kate Hoey’s Trumpian remark that the Irish government would have to pay for any border wall was probably the most injudicious of all. But if we stand back and take a look at the situation then a few things become clear.

The first is that this will be a hard Brexit. By its very nature the EU is a members’ only club. Forms of associate membership are available but the key dividing line is whether you are a member or not. The act of leaving the club, and of leaving a club whose fundamental aim is the standardisation of rules (and values) across member states, ensures a hard Brexit.

The second point that is emerging from behind the political noise is that the technical negotiations are a long way off finding viable solutions for the border issue. The UK-Ireland land border – like all borders – is a political creation. Crossing the border is an everyday activity for many people who live along the border (they cross to fill the car up with diesel, go to college, go to work, go to see their relatives). Many people cross the border multiple times a day. In order for that to continue to happen a seamless system has to be in place. Such a system will probably rely on technology (perhaps a smart pass system like in toll roads or London’s congestion zone). But the technical details, let along the infrastructure of cameras and the crucial detail of who pays for and polices this) have yet to reach the feasibility study phase. Quite simply a smart pass border relies on smart politicians to mandate very smart technocrats to work on this. So far, the politicians are still grandstanding.

The third point is that Northern Ireland will be different in terms of both the UK and EU contexts. The point is important and matters a great deal to Northern Ireland’s unionists. For them, it is crucial that Northern Ireland remains within the UK and its people have the same protections as everyone else in the UK. This is a bit of a fiction. The 1998 Good Friday Agreement already awarded Northern Ireland special status on top of its place in the UK. Citizens in Northern Ireland have the right to dual citizenship (British, Irish or both), and Northern Ireland’s position in the UK is conditional on people actually wanting it to remain in the UK. The 1998 Agreement authorises a referendum on the constitutional issue.

Whatever the outcome of the EU-Ireland-UK negotiations on the UK-Ireland land border it is clear that Northern Ireland will be different from other EU-non-EU land borders. We have never had a situation in which a member state leaves the EU – a member states that contains many citizens with everyday links across that border. That will require all sorts of deviations from the normal.

It is worth remembering that communities along the border have lived with political boundaries for generations. They have found ways to subvert political borders through everyday activities of trade, love, family and culture. Those ‘subversions’ will continue. At the height of the Troubles, the British military had a chain of watchtowers and checkpoints along the border. They also blew up many roads to make sure that people only crossed the border along designated routes. Communities made their own roads across the border in order to avoid the checkpoints and the hassle. It is a useful reminder that people can be ingenious in finding ways to subvert political boundaries.

A final point is that there are few countries that can match the UK-Irish inter-governmental relationship. Attempts to find a way out of the Troubles from the mid-1980s onwards have meant that generations of civil servants have developed close working relationships. These reached a zenith in the mid to late-1990s and early 2000s as the Good Friday Agreement was being negotiated and bedded down. Many of the key players have retired and a few have died. But there is still a good institutional memory in permanent government to allow imaginative solutions to be found. The political timetable (possible election in Ireland and a precarious UK government) and grandstanding politicians don’t seem to help matters.

Just published. Email me if you would like a pdf copy

4 Oct

Pamina Firchow and Roger Mac Ginty, “Including hard-to-access populations using mobile phone surveys and participatory indicators’ Sociological Methods and Research

Abstract
One of the main obstacles for survey researchers—especially those conducting surveys in difficult contexts such as postconflict areas—is accessing respondents. In order to address this problem, this article draws on an ongoing research project to reflect on the utility of mobile phones to connect with hard-to-access populations in conflict affected, low-income countries. It considers the strengths and weaknesses of a number of different mobile phone survey modes. The article goes a step further and discusses how (potential) survey respondents can be included in the survey design process thereby increasing the relevance of the research to them and hopefully encouraging them to participate. We conclude by considering the issue of “good enough” methodologies, or the need to balance methodological rigor with an understanding of the exigencies of suboptimal research contexts.

Email: roger.macginty@manchester.ac.uk