A brief observation on the impact of the Conservative-DUP arrangement on the Northern Ireland peace process.

9 Jun

A Conservative Party-Democratic Unionist Party arrangement brings Northern Ireland’s current political situation into question. At the moment the power-sharing Assembly that was established as a result of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement is suspended. The basic issue is a lack of trust between Sinn Fein and the DUP. Power now rests with the Westminster government (in the shape of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland). So what happens now if the DUP is effectively part of the Government? The ambition of power-sharing lies at the heart of the Good Friday Agreement and the series of institutions that stem from it. Is that ambition now to be set aside by the British Government?

Throughout the peace process, the British and Irish government have held the roles of brokers (albeit interested brokers) in mediating between the parties in Northern Ireland. So if one of the Northern Ireland parties is effectively a member of the British Government that mediation role is jeopardised.

The timeline between the close of polls and the declaration of a new governing arrangement suggests that these issues have not been thought through.


Weeding …. and peace and conflict studies

18 May

Paddy the Dog inspects the heather bed


The heather bed

With less weeds

If you have made it past the title of this blog post then you are a special person. Weeding hardly sets the heart racing. But, in the long summer evenings, I try manage to grab 10 or 15 minutes to weed a heather bed I have been developing in my garden over the past few years (seriously, if you are still reading, you are special). It gives me enormous pleasure, but it also makes me think about the subject I study and how I study it.

With weeds

Here are four thoughts:

Hurrah for mud under your fingernails
The world of work – whether academic study or the administration of connected study and teaching – is full of sophistry. Whether it is the study of international intervention or administrative tasks, there is often a vernacular and a series of postures that are highly artificial and take us away from real world concerns. The language of postcolonialists, the datasets of conflict scientism or the argot of New Public Management mean that we are surrounded by artifice that seems very far removed from real world problems. Weeding, and I guess other apparently mundane tasks like kneeding dough, are good reminders that the ground level exists. It is good to turn up to university meeting with mud under your fingernails – a good reminder that we all have a connection to the soil – even if that is generations ago and even if we go to extraordinary lengths to deny it.

The tough fecundity of the margin

The thing about weeds – unless you use some sort of Agent Orange-type toxic weed-killer – is that they often come back. Obviously you try to take out the roots, although that is not always possible. The weeds are a great reminder of what Iain Sinclair calls ‘the tough fecundity of the margin’ and remind me of the persistence of individuals, communities, identities and ideas against immense odds. Obviously I am not saying that particular groups or individuals are weeds (!) – merely a reminder that communities and ideas often persist in the face violence and discrimination. Weeds that I was sure I had gotten rid of can reappear and multiply. Weeds are ‘inventive’ and ‘resourceful’ in the sense that their roots can be a long distance from any obvious manifestation of the weed in terms of the stem and flower. Often weeds will be rhizomes, with complex root structures underground. Deluze and Guattari have written extensively on the rhizome as a metaphor for multiple sites of authority and initiative. Basically, weeding can make you think about politics as a network.

The local matters
Weeding makes you pay attention to detail – to the hyper or nano-local. Miss a root and the weed will come back. Forget to look under a bush, and a host of weeds might be lurking there, ready to come back next spring. The point is that weeding is not just about taking out the great big thistles and nettles. It is also about taking out the small weeds. That requires going over parts of the garden inch by inch, picking out sometimes tiny weeds. It is a good reminder that the local and context matters in relation to international intervention and local and national responses to that intervention.

One man’s weed is another man’s flower

Of course there are good arguments about whether one should be weeding in the first place. Gardening, after all, is a supremely colonial exercise in which we are imposing a particular type of order on territory. This order depends on a set of aesthetics that prioritise one form of beauty over others. What is striking is that some weeds are quite beautiful. All of this is good for reflecting on international intervention and how, in the name of peace, order or stability, it seeks to impose systems of governance and authority on others. Of course, these prescribed systems often have to compromise when they meet local and national circumstances, expectations and even resistance. All of this brings us to a world of mimicry, hybridity and the need to see intervention as long-term processes involving multiple actors. It also explains why my heather bed is not a complete weed free zone (in fact, it is often quite overgrown with weeds). I have resigned myself to managing the weeds but not eradicating them completely – that would take too much time.

And if you have made it to the end of this blog post then you are extraordinary.

New article – email me (roger.macginty@manchester.ac.uk) if you would like a pdf copy

27 Apr

Róisín Read & Roger Mac Ginty (2017): The Temporal Dimension in Accounts of Violent Conflict: A Case Study from Darfur, Journal of Intervention and Statebuilding,


This article explores the notion of time in relation to the recording of peace and conflict. In particular the article is interested in how concepts of time (linear, seasonal, vague, precise, etc.) shape the narrative of events – giving them an apparent order. A close look at the mechanics of how accounts of conflict are compiled and presented, and how time is represented within them, reveals an ambiguity and social construction of the temporal dimension in accounts of conflict. This article draws on two data sets on violence in Darfur – one quantitative, one qualitative – to investigate how time is represented, focusing on how ‘events’ are captured and produce real-time actionable data, and how the data sets cope with narratives of chronic insecurity.

Follow that car!

20 Apr

This is a recording of a webinar I gave for the Design, Monitoring and Evaluation for Peacebuilding INGO in April 2017. I talk about using material objects – in this case the 4x4s used by humanitarians, governments or militias in Darfur – as a way of understanding conflict. There is a 15 minute talk and about 30 minutes of me trying to answer some very erudite questions.

The talk is based on a study funded by the ESRC entitled “Making Peacekeeping Data Work for the International Community”. Details can be found here.

Policy déjà vu – all over again

5 Apr

It might be a function of my advancing years, but I have noticed a set of policy-driven debates coming around again. These were debates that occupied scholars and policy-makers twenty years ago and they are now back again. Here are a few examples:

Example 1:
The UN and World Bank has commissioned a major piece of work on preventing violent conflict.

This is a very laudable exercise, but it comes 20 years after a major Report by the Carnegie Corporation of New York entitled Preventing Violent Conflict. The Carnegie Report made quite a splash as it convened leading experts from the then fledgling field of peace and conflict studies and was extraordinarily timely. This was a decade dominated by mass violence in the former Yugoslavia, and central and west Africa.

Example 2:
The United States Institute of Peace has launched a small grant competition (perhaps its last if Donald Trump gets his way) that is interested in comparative lessons from peace processes.

Again this is very laudable, but there is also a sense that it is covering ground that has been well trod before. The peace processes and transitions of the mid and late 1990s sparked a blossoming of scholarship comparing peace processes, much of which was focused on lessons learned. Here the literature from John Darby, Chester Crocker, Pamela Aall and many others comes to mind.

Example 3:
DFID (the UK’s Department for International Development) seems to be using the phrase ‘what works?’ in a lot of its programmes and projects. This was mandated by central government some years ago and seems to have been mainstreamed into everything they do. Again, this is worthwhile question especially given the pressures to show value for money. But the ‘what works?’ question has been with us for a long time.

What might explain this revisiting of research and policy agendas that were well covered twenty years ago? A number of explanations come to mind and the most convincing explanation probably lies in a combination of the explanations.

A first explanation relates to a lack of institutional memory in organisations. Many organisations have taken steps to enhance their institutional learning. Yet, institutional learning is not quite the same as institutional knowledge retention. It would be fair to ask if many of those working in organisations like the UN or World Bank have knowledge of the earlier literature.

There is also the cult of the new, whereby there is a bias towards more recent publications. Certainly this is well proven in academia whereby authors tend to cite newer material.

A third explanation is that the context – especially the international context – has changed in the two decades + since the mid-1990s. Configurations and stances of international organisations have changed considerably since a time when international leaders and policymakers were coming to terms with the post-Cold War world.

A final explanation might be that some problems are indeed intractable and elude answers. In social scientific terms, these are deemed ‘wicked problems’. Every so often someone becomes emboldened enough to attempt to answer them and so starts another round of research.

The most telling aspect of the ‘new’ research agendas will be if they come up with answers that are radically different from research that was conducted twenty years ago.

Some very brief thoughts on Martin McGuinness

21 Mar

This appeared in the ‘news’ section of the University of Manchester website

The myth of Johan Galtung as the “Father” of Peace Studies

12 Jan

Everywhere I look, I see Johan Galtung proclaimed as the founder of Peace and Conflict Studies. Sometimes he is proclaimed as ‘a’ founder but often it is ‘the’ founder. It is on the back of multiple books and on flyers for upcoming lectures. There is even a book (co-authored by Galtung himself) entitled Johan Galtung:Pioneer of Peace Research . Indeed, it contains a chapter – also co-authored by Galtung – called ‘Johan Galtung – the Father of Peace Studies’.


There is no doubting that Johan Galtung has been a significant figure in peace and conflict studies. But to proclaim him as the founder of the sub-discipline risks offending many scholars and activists who preceded him. It also speaks of an ego that – frankly – seems out of keeping with the epistemology and positionality that I associate with peace studies.

It is worth digging deeper into the history of peace studies and recognising that it has a long lineage that precedes him. If we take peace studies to be the systematic study of the conditions for, and character of, peace then Louis Fry Richardson was working on this during WWII. Richardson – a polymath – used his mathematical skills to model the precipitants of war and peace. Kenneth Boulding was publishing academic works on peace a decade before Galtung’s first publications. We could go back even further and mention the founding of the first chair in International Relations at the University of Aberystwyth in 1919, JM Keynes’ The Economic Consequences of Peace, and first peace studies undergraduate module in Manchester University in the US (sadly not my own institution, the University of Manchester in the UK) in 1948.

Even the concepts of positive and negative peace, perhaps the concepts most closely associated with Galtung, were explored well before his formulation became public. Quincy Wright and Fred Cottrell explored the issue in a 1954 publication. Galtung’s work on this came 10 years later.

Peace and conflict studies has many founders. It is difficult to think of it emerging as a sub-discipline without the work of Galtung, but I can’t be the only person who thinks this ‘Father of the discipline’ title as verging on the offensive to all of those other scholars and activists that preceded him. . Indeed, apart from being somewhat creepy and misogynist , the ‘Father of the discipline’ label suggests that sets of ideas can have a single author. I am quite sure that this is not the case. Ideas are social – they develop through conversation, exchange and working with (and sometimes against) others. Individuals might develop sets of ideas in a particular direction, but can an individual be the “Father” – that is the progenitor – of an idea. I think it unlikely.