Study the question

February 16, 1996

Whenever Gladstone was getting close to the answer, the Irish would change the Question." Like all great humourists, W. C. Sellar and R. J. Yeatman based their satire on a foundation of reality. Their characterisation of the mutual incomprehension and distrust that has dogged relations within and between John Bull's two islands remains as valid today as it was when Gladstone was losing Home Rule Bills or when 1066 and All That was published in 1930.

As one observer put it soon after last Friday's bomb had shattered the 17-month ceasefire: "The trouble is that each party to this whole business will think that it confirms their worst suspicions about everyone else." The temptation to throw up one's hands in horror and give way to despair is understandable. What can we do? What can our leaders do? And what can academics possibly do?

Not to despair is the first answer. The Docklands bomb was a dreadful setback to hopes of peace in Ireland, but at the time of writing it was not clear that it had destroyed them. More parochially, it no more invalidates the academic efforts that have gone into studying Northern Ireland, its society, history, idiosyncrasies and misfortunes than the fall of the Berlin Wall rendered specialists in Marx obsolete.

There is no point inflating expectations of what academics can contribute. If Northern Ireland's problems are to be solved, it will have to be done by the politicians. But who informs the politicians, and the public to whom they are answerable, is another matter. Here academics have a vitally important role. In this conflict, with its deep historical roots, politicians need guidance not only from their civil servants and political colleagues, but from those whose knowledge of Northern Ireland and how it got that way is informed by a longer, deeper perspective.

There is a role for media commentators and advisers, with the radio interview and the by-lined column. There is a place too for the often unacknowledged supply of background information and analysis. The 119 journalists who have spoken to Steve Bruce of Aberdeen University since the ceasefire started will undoubtedly have gone away both wiser and better informed about Irish affairs. The same goes for those who have spoken to Brendan O'Leary of the London School of Economics, Paul Bew of Queen's Belfast or a dozen more specialists.

To study, to explain, to make the apparently incomprehensible clear to a wider audience. This is what academics are for. That mission to study and to explain means long-term commitment. There are frustrations for any academic whose work acquires resonance in the wider world: people, particularly politicians, tend to select what they want from an expert's work and bend it to uses which were never intended and may not be much liked. But that risk has to be taken. Where there is superstition, ancient hatred and distrust somebody has to explain and someone should challenge entrenched ideas. If academics do not provide such in-depth understanding, who will?

And there may be more that can be done. There is on occasion a role for conciliation. This may even be a growth academic area with the university as neutral ground. Academics at both universities in Northern Ireland have played their part in cross-sectarian discussions, initiatives and institutions such as Ulster's Centre for the Resolution of Conflict. They need encouragement and support. So do events like Salford's seminar programme (page 3) and NUS/USI's community programme and forthcoming conference (page 1). It is worth remembering the vital role Norwegian academics played in brokering the Middle Eastern peace process - but also that it was up to Rabin and Arafat to deliver.

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