QUB Compromise after Conflict Research Project Launches Web Resource on Northern Ireland, South Africa and Sri Lanka

Victims-Survivors‘Compromise after Conflict,’ a five-year research project directed by Prof John Brewer of the Institute for the Study of Conflict Transformation and Social Justice at Queen’s, this week launched a web resource which includes excerpts from interviews of victims and survivors of conflicts in Northern Ireland, South Africa and Sri Lanka.

The website describes the project this way:

This website represents a summary of the five year Compromise After Conflict research project, directed by Professor John D. Brewer, focusing on the concept as experienced in South Africa, Sri Lanka, and Northern Ireland. Research team members were Professor Bernie HayesProfessor Shirley Lal WijesingheDr Francis Teeney,  Dr Katrin DudgeonDr Natascha Mueller-Hirth, and Dr Corinne Caumartin.

The research included interviews with 195 respondents: 80 were in Sri Lanka, 75 in Northern Ireland, and 40 in South Africa.  Transcripts run to over half a million words. The findings have been summarised and the website compiled by Dr Erin Parish,  Dr Gareth Higgins, and Tyler McCabe.

Illustrations reflecting images evoked by respondents in interviews are by Maria Fernanda Osorio Lopez, a 19 year old Colombian artist, from a small town recently rebuilding after decades of conflict. Website design is by Kaysi Holman. The full archive of interview transcripts will eventually be housed in the UK Data Archive.

The research engages with the complexities of the question: Does compromise lead to a just end to war, or just the end?

The interview excerpts are grouped under 14 categories and include examples from all three contexts, as well as some videos and short definitions of the categories:

  • Survival
  • Victims and Survivors
  • Economic Inequality
  • Fear
  • Memory
  • Religion
  • Leadership
  • Fairness
  • Reciprocity
  • Compromise
  • Community
  • Forgiveness
  • Hope
  • Next Generation

There is a further introductory essay by Brewer which grapples with defining compromise. The essay also includes a discussion of victims, survivors, victimhood and victim identity, asking to what extent victims can be expected to compromise and what traits or practices are helpful in this regard.

The essay reads in part:

In post-conflict societies, many people seem to talk about compromise, often without a clear idea of what it is. In the broadest sense, compromise is understood to be about feelings connected to making concessions between people or ideas. People love it or hate it – we speak of compromise being a “dirty word”, and refer to “no compromise” as a virtue, while also applauding efforts at building bridges across conflicts. When we like it, we associate compromise with restoring broken relationships and reconciliation with between former antagonists, returning (or coming for the first time) to a sense of wholeness. When we’re opposed to compromise, it is equated with appeasement, of being compromised by concessions, surrendering, and continuing (or disguising) the brokenness. In the latter perception, people feel that they continue to be beaten by weapons that the concessions have allowed others to keep; in the former, restoration turns swords into ploughshares.

These ways of talking about compromise have two unfortunate consequences. They establish a simply binary divide between reconciliation and retreat, and they reduce compromise to a set of emotions. So let’s try a different way. Let’s try to transcend the binary and go beyond feelings. If compromise does, as we believe, have the potential to not only make life better for many, but actually save lives that would otherwise be taken in violent conflict, it’s worth taking time to understand it better.

Compromise is then defined this way:

We propose that compromise is the reciprocal practice of tolerance toward former protagonists in the public sphere, involving an act of will to avoid behaving and talking in public space in the ways that people’s emotions in the private sphere would normally dictate. 

We might reasonably conclude that this approach to compromise has been absent in Northern Ireland — albeit to varying degrees — throughout the peace process and including ongoing events at Stormont.

Yet the conclusion of the essay is pragmatic, arguing that compromise is possible if it is detached from feelings or emotions (emphasis mine):

Compromise need not become embedded psychologically in people’s minds as an attitude trait or sociologically in their value systems as a cultural belief; it will probably never become virtuous, at least for the victims and the war generations themselves, because it is a ‘just tolerable discomfort’ where reconciliation and retreat occur in disharmony. It needs to be embedded as a social practice, as a set of performances uncoupled from emotions, attitudes, and social values, capable of being performed long before, if ever, people feel wholeness and completeness with their former enemies.

The website is well worth a visit to read the essay in full, as well as to browse the interview excerpts, which are fascinating. By way of example, I include a quote from the ‘next generation’ category from an interviewee in Northern Ireland:

I have a grandson and his mum and dad live up the road and he is thirteen years of age. He is Protestant; his parents are Protestant. And he is called [Patrick].  He plays Gaelic football. He speaks Irish. And he attends St. [Patrick’s] school. Which is a leading Catholic school. And he is a Protestant boy in the school. That is a statement by my daughter, that we don’t just believe what we believe, we believe what we do.

And he is not going to grow up with hatred and bigotry, or anything like that. That is putting your money where your mouth is. That is crossing the divide. And people will say—what is the name of your Grandson? [Patrick], yes! Is that some Irish phrases he is using there? Yes. Is that a Gaelic stick he has got? What school does he go to? St [Patrick’s].

So, that he just doesn’t accept. He hates bigotry, bitterness. And the teachers love him. He is not a thorn in the flesh in the class. And he outscores in RE, he outscores his Catholic boys all around. Which is a source of fun and humor to him.

That is our stake in the future. That is our stake.

Disclaimer: I also work in the Institute for the Study of Conflict Transformation and Social Justice at QUB.

Gladys is a Research Fellow in the Senator George J Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice at Queen’s University Belfast. She also blogs on religion and politics at www.gladysganiel.com

  • Sylvie

    Thanks a lot for sharing this project. It’s very interesting.

  • Granni Trixie

    I argeee that unpicking the concept of “compromise” is such a good idea. Many years go, until I worked out that compromise was perceived as appeasement (by DUP in particular), I was puzzled as to why as in Alliance circles it is a key value.

    It sounds like the project is adopting an anthropological approach – is it? (comparative,qualitative). Good luck and keep us posted.

  • Turgon

    So we can afford to have these sorts of institutes (Institute for the Study of Conflict Transformation and Social Justice at QUB) within Queens but not to have Modern Languages or Maths at our other university – the University of Ulster – one a classic STEM subject, the other also vital in the modern world. Sadly priorities within universities seem very out of keeping with the actual needs of society.

  • Newton Emerson


    Academic slams BBC Spotlight
    News Letter 10 Apr 2014

    A Queen’s University academic has slammed the BBC for Tuesday night’s Spotlight programme, denouncing it as “conflict journalism at its worst and so juxtaposed to [the Irish] state visit, playing into hands of the bigots? [sic] How’s that?”

    John Brewer, Professor of PostConflict Studies at Queen’s, made the comments on Twitter before Spotlight had even been broadcast.

    When asked if he was suggesting the BBC should not broadcast programmes which may be politically sensitive, he said: “No. Just intrigued by its timing and what was designed by it, that’s all.”

    The academic also claimed that BBC managers “need to ponder on what socially responsible journalism means”.

    A BBC spokeswoman vigorously defended its journalism. She said: “This story had clear public interest and was based on thorough investigative journalism. Its scheduling was not intended to coincide with any other news stories or developments. Spotlight is routinely broadcast on Tuesday evenings. Last night’s investigation had no editorial link, or connection, with President Higgins’ state visit to the UK.”

  • Cosmo

    Sounds rooted in behaviourism, as an approach.

  • Granni Trixie

    In the name of you-know-what Newton, surely this is man playing as the post is about the merit or otherwise of ideas behind a research project. It is presented by someone involved but not by Brewer, the focus of your response presumably to make a point about what some would see as inappropriate academic interference in the journalistic realm. But off topic! Unless you make your point relevant which it presently is not.

  • Newton Emerson

    Interviewing people to research a report isn’t that different from what Spotlight was doing. If John Brewer felt qualified to tell them to STFU for no good reason, I don’t see why the reverse can’t apply.

  • Cosmo

    A ‘university’ really gives up deserving the title, when it closes its Philosophy Department.

  • Granni Trixie

    Fair enough point but perhaps ” socially responsible journalism” (arguably social engineering) Is best dealt with as a separate post.

  • scepticacademic

    Just speculating ’cause I don’t know any details of its budget or funding but – from a quick glance over its website – it seems like this institute is mainly ‘staffed’ by existing QUB academics from across a range of social science and humanities departments. To me, it seems to be an attempt to pool and ‘badge’ expertise with an eye on the research excellence framework and its ‘impact’ criteria. I doubt its funding comes at the expense of any other specific department. There may even have been a specific grant behind it. I very much doubt the QUB bean-counters would fund this if it wasn’t “financially viable”.
    If you’re looking for a culprit for the recent UU course/dept closures, look at the budgetary squeeze facing the NI Exec – plus its (poorly) chosen priorities for the block grant and failure to consider ‘hard choices’ like raising the regional rate or increasing tuition fees to English levels.