NORTHERN IRELAND: Coping with a post-conflict society

Northern Ireland is a country grappling with the challenges befitting a post-conflict society. After more than 10 years of relative peace since the signing of the Belfast 'Good Friday' Agreement in 1998, issues of identity, reconciliation and residual ethnic divides are rife.

But the country's two leading universities - Queen's University Belfast and the University of Ulster - have taken an active role in the rehabilitation of the community at a policy as well as at a grassroots level.

"The role of the university in a deeply divided society is complex and evolves as conflict changes, especially when peace is ostensibly obtained," said Professor Brandon Hamber, Director of the International Conflict Research Institute, INCORE, at Ulster University, in his speech at the annual Association of Commonwealth Universities conference in Cape Town last week.

Hamber spoke during a session dedicated to discussing the part universities have played in post-conflict societies. He said the way tertiary institutions dealt with transformation was varied and depended on the nature of the conflict and its aftermath.

"For some universities, maintaining the status quo might be a functional way to build peace," said Hamber. "But in other contexts, there is a need to undermine it and rebuild it."

Both Queen's and UU had felt the devastating effects of the Northern Ireland conflict. Staff and students were killed and violence had erupted on both campuses. The universities are now contributing to the national peace process in a number of different ways.

Through research, they have helped influence public policy. Access Research Knowledge, a joint collaboration between the two universities, is an online resource containing social and political information on Northern Ireland, with a special section on conflict whose collection of social attitude data has fed into policy for the past 10 years.

"It's been very influential in shaping various government policies," said Hamber.

The Ulster University also houses INCORE, a centre that delves into the causes and consequences of the conflict. The centre is helping shape EU funding criteria for Northern Ireland.

Another initiative is Conflict Archive on the Internet (CAIN), the world's largest web repository on the Northern Ireland conflict. Not to be outdone, the law school at Queen's is currently undertaking an ambitious two-year project analysing the country's budget, with the aim to advance socio-economic rights of disadvantaged groups.

The institutions have also played a role through education and teaching, as well as creating and influencing a cadre of leadership in their graduates. The MA in peace and conflict studies at Ulster has produced more than 500 graduates from 80 different countries.

The two universities have exceeded their access targets but it remains a challenge to make them accessible to the most marginalised of society. Financial constraints make it difficult to provide the necessary support structures for under-privileged students.

Yet Hamber said it was vital Queen's and the UU continued to cast the net wide. The incentive? A conflict-free society.

"What we know is if your society has an income per head of under $500, there is a 15% chance your country will be in conflict within five years," said Hamber. "Under $5,000 and that statistic falls to 1%."

The universities have been directly involved in peace building and conflict transformation initiatives. INCORE participated in peace negotiations and its staff worked on the ground with former combatants and victims to help foster reconciliation and explore justice in a real world sense.

But direct intervention work is not always rewarded by the academic system, which is geared towards research and teaching. Much is therefore done quietly. A new shift in the UK system to include some level of impact may change that but there is debate on what percentage that will be.

"There's a strong lobby that it should be as small as possible," said Hamber. "But this can undermine young academics and students who want to engage in more intervention work."

The institutions have also seen a significant amount of international engagement over the years. In 2008, the Mitchell Conference at Queen's brought together political leaders, academics, lawyers and community workers to consider how the Northern Ireland conflict could contribute to the global debate on conflict resolution.

At Ulster, the Tip O'Neill chair in peace studies has resulted in 40 study visits over the past five years, drawing such luminaries as Bill Clinton, Kader Asmal and Kofi Annan.

"The more these individuals start to come back and forth, the more it creates a creative horizon where people start to feel their societies could be different," said Hamber.

A key debate governing the two universities in a post-conflict environment is the notion of the university as a neutral workplace versus a place of cultural expression.

"This is particularly unique to the Northern Ireland context," said Hamber. "To be very general, half the population has one understanding of our historical context and the other half a different understanding."

The universities have skewed towards neutrality and workspaces have tried to be treated as impartial. At Queen's, there was a widespread debate about the national anthem. A large number of the student body protested against singing God Save the Queen, so the university decided to forgo an anthem completely.

At the following school assembly, students in favour of the anthem whipped out tape recorders and at various intervals blasted the anthem at high volume.

Hamber said now that Queen's and Ulster had gathered such a plethora of knowledge on the subject of conflict transformation, they were looking to use this knowledge to benefit others.

INCORE staff had worked in countries such as Liberia, Sierra Leone and Cambodia, and had advised political parties and civil society in Sri Lanka, South Africa and the Middle East.

"There is a reciprocal process that needs to be developed when one society benefits," said Hamber. "How can Northern Ireland give back?"