New article – email me ( 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.

Northern Ireland and the disappearing voters

11 Jan

Northern Ireland faces elections to its power-sharing Assembly. The election was necessitated by the continuing lack of trust between the two main parties – Sinn Fein (mainly Catholic and pro-united Ireland) and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) (mainly Protestant and pro-United Kingdom). Quite simply, the two parties cannot stand each other. The terms of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement means that despite their enmity they are trapped in a perpetual marriage of convenience.

The marriage of convenience became too inconvenient for one of the parties (Sinn Fein) who walked away. They (rightly) accused their partners in government (the DUP) of being too arrogant in their handling of a case of mismanagement of large sums of public money and in their general attitude towards government and governance. But the wider issue is one of trust: trust that the main parties have in each other (near zero) and trust that the public have in these parties (declining).

There is an interesting (and not widely discussed) phenomenon in Northern Ireland: people are losing interest in politics. Northern Ireland was once known for having the highest turnout levels in UK elections. Turnout levels that would have made Saddam Hussein proud were once recorded as the sectarian-nationalist political parties stirred up their support bases. The Fermanagh South Tyrone constituency once recorded a 94 per cent turnout – an instance that presumably had a number near corpses shuffling into the polling booth. But something interesting has been happening – and it is in keeping with other post-peace societies: electoral turnout has been falling. People see no link between voting and change in their material situation.

In 1998, the elections to the new Northern Ireland Assembly experienced a 69.8 per cent turnout. This suggested mobilised communities who took seriously electoral politics (even if they did vote for sectarian-nationalist parties). But fast forward to the last Assembly election (in 2016) and turnout was 54.9 per cent. With fresh elections on the horizon it seems unlikely that turnout will increase markedly. Quite simply, people are disillusioned with electoral politics as they stand.

The terms of the Good Friday Agreement mean that the four main political parties dominate in a permanent oligarchy. In effect, Sinn Fein and the DUP dominate. The other two parties in the power-sharing Executive (the Ulster Unionist Party and the Social Democratic and Labour Party) lack the support and leadership to mount much of an opposition.

What will happen if the new elections go ahead? Even with reduced turnout and therefore declining legitimacy for the democratic process, Sinn Fein and the DUP will continue to be the largest parties and go back into a power-sharing Assembly and Executive. Despite the falling turnout and declining legitimacy, the media and the British and Irish governments will continue to take seriously political parties that have systematically turned people off politics. The system seems broken if a declining pool of voters reinforce the position of two parties who have drained the pool.

Northern Ireland: Time to put the victims groups to bed?

20 Dec

Two former British soldiers, aged in their 60s, are to be prosecuted for the murder of a non-state militant in Belfast in 1972. This follows similar attempts to prosecute former militants and soldiers over ‘historical’ acts of violence in Northern Ireland’s troubles. A significant number of former soldiers and non-state militants have been arrested and questioned over the past four years about decades old offences. In 2013, a 62 year old member of the IRA was charged with a bombing in London that killed four British soldiers. Indeed, in 2014 Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams was arrested in connection with a murder 42 years previously. No charges were brought.

All of these arrests led to howls of protests from supporters who point out the righteousness of the individuals they support. The Sun newspaper called the arrests of the soldiers a ‘bloody outrage’ and ‘witch hunt’ (and, of course, celebrated the arrest of Gerry Adams). The Daily Mail called the soldiers ‘heroes’ and their victim a ‘terrorist’ who would not hesitate to use violence. The reactions are predictable and as though from auto-bot script-writing software. In part the reactions are human and affective – from relatives of victims and those who feel justifiable moral outrage. But much of the reaction is simply politics and is fuelled by entrenched victims groups who are a little too comfortable in their roles.

Northern Ireland can continue along this path of prosecuting pensioners for things they did in their youth until the last of them dies out. Or, it could try reconciliation. The latter path is difficult and would lead many people to feel uncomfortable but the drip-drip prosecutions and constant recrimination is symptomatic of a society that is not at ease with itself and thus maintains the potential for further violence. Despite a major peace accord (the 1998 Good Friday Agreement) there has never been reconciliation: nation-wide, local, legislative, or symbolic. The three major violent actors (the British State, pro-united Ireland militants, and pro-United Kingdom militants – and the communities that support them) have never faced up to their responsibilities on the past – and more importantly – on the present and future.

The powersharing Assembly in Northern Ireland is dominated by two ethno-nationalist parties (the Democratic Unionists and Sinn Fein) who have little interest in reconciliation. It would – after all – put them out of business. They rely on electoral bases that can be mobilised around familiar tropes of victimhood, sectarianism and long-term zero-sum goals. Rare initiatives on reconciliation are kicked into the long grass. The European Union has spent an unfeasible amount of money – almost £2bn in the tiny space of Northern Ireland – on ‘peace and reconciliation’. That money was spent to buy off militants and communities but it was not spent on reconciliation. It was also raided by the British and Irish governments for general budgetary expenses. The British State – which ran death squads and is guilty of mass human rights abuses – is protected by its security establishment which launches howls of protests if anyone mentions its shameful past. Think Ronaldo diving to the ground and clutching his face when a defender looks at him. Lt Col Very-Safe-in-Surrey is rolled out by the newspapers to thunder about what a disgrace it is that honest and decent squaddies (the working classes that the Lt Col cannot abide in his everyday life) are being prosecuted while ‘terrorists’ roam free.

So where can Northern Ireland go from here? There are reports that privately the two main political parties would like to try to put the past them, but the victims groups that they have (in part) created and nurtured are an obstacle to that. The monsters they have created have a life of their own and lazy reporters from Northern Ireland’s newspapers simply hit speed dial to get an instant quote. There is a case for the political parties (and responsible elements of the media) to distance themselves from the victims groups. This is not to under-estimate the real pain and hurt that the families of victims of violence have experienced. But most mourning – in my experience – is conducted among families and friendship circles. Mourning happens around the kitchen table, in the quiet moment when a relative misses the company of a loved one. Mourning and coming to terms with the past does not – again in my experience – come through spokespersons for victims groups, press releases and giving public money to victims groups. It is time – almost a quarter of a century after the militant ceasefires – to put the victims groups to bed.

It is also time for the two main political parties (they run an absolute duopoly thanks to the rules of the powersharing Assembly) to face up to their responsibilities and draw a line under the past. This would involve a pact (this is politics after all) in which representatives of the three violent actors (the British State, the pro-united Ireland militants, and the pro-United Kingdom militants) would release comprehensive statements dealing with their past actions. So the British State must confess to its death squads, sponsorship of loyalist militants, and massive human rights abuses. The Irish Republican Army and the Ulster Defence Association and various other loyalists must acknowledge – in detailed ways – the pain and hurt they have caused through murder, bombing, intimidation and a host of other acts of violence. Otherwise Northern Ireland can sleepwalk into the next few decades by prosecuting pensioners.

It is worth noting that most militants (that is: soldiers, policemen, state militia, and members of non-state militant groups) were in their late teens and twenties when they engaged in violence. They were in large organisations run by older men who gave them orders. Frankly, many were immature and may not hold the views now that they did decades ago. Should we really prosecute adults for what they did as teenagers when they were members of coercive organisations?