In Pursuit of Peace
Growing up in Northern Ireland, Dr. John McGarry got an early introduction to his future career, living through what’s often been referred to as “The Troubles” – an ethno-political conflict that divided a country and escalated into three decades of violent unrest. Today, as a Queen’sresearcher, professor and senior advisor to the United Nations (UN), McGarry is once again on the front lines – but this time as a global advisor, mentor and active participant, collaborating with governments around the world in the quest for peaceful conflict resolution.
As a Catholic living in a primarily Protestant town, McGarry was close enough to the action to be both frightened and intrigued by the causes of conflict – and how it might be defused. Those childhood experiences motivated him to study conflict and conflict resolution at both Trinity College in Dublin and the University of Western Ontario. “I wanted to know more about why these kinds of conflict occur,” he says. “Learning how to ‘diagnose’ these situations was essential to proper prescription.”
Breaking down barriers
McGarry’s studies led to the development of a number of articles and books centred around different aspects of Northern Ireland’s conflict, many of them written with his close colleague, Brendan O’Leary. One of these was Policing Northern Ireland (1999), a book that proposed a number of recommendations for making progress around probably the most divisive issue in peace negotiations.
“Divisions around policing reform created a major barrier to an agreement,” he says. “Our book presented clear recommendations and proposals designed to find a respectful way for all parties to move forward.” Policing Northern Ireland was later cited as a critical influence on the commission tasked with reforming the police, a major milestone in the peace process. Policing reform in Northern Ireland has been a dramatic success story, and is now seen as “a,” if not “the,” model for other divided societies.
Bringing the world to the classroom
McGarry joined Queen's in 2002 and is an active researcher, as well as the Canada Research Chair in Nationalism and Democracy in the Department of Political Studies. His expertise in the design of political institutions in divided societies has been internationally recognized and has won him major accolades including Fellowship in the Royal Society of Canada, a prestigious Trudeau Fellowship and a 2013 Killam Prize. McGarry is also a much sought after professor – his undergraduate class in Comparative Politics has over 200 students and consistently runs a waiting list. He also works with a number of graduate students, using his background and experiences to deliver powerful and relevant lessons for students hoping to pursue a career in academics or conflict resolution.
McGarry is not just a popular professor and prolific researcher – he’s also a highly respected global advisor on conflict, power-sharing and public policy, appearing as an expert witness before the U.S. Congress and working alongside other experts as part of a UN team that has advised on some of the most chaotic areas of unrest in the world, including the Philippines, Kosovo, Iraq, and the Western Sahara.
Solutions for Cyprus
McGarry was appointed the first Senior Advisor on Power-Sharing to the UN (Mediation Support Unit) in 2008-09, and was most recently tasked with advising on the UN-led negotiations in Cyprus, a small Mediterranean island that achieved independence from British colonial rule in 1960 and is inhabited by both Greek and Turkish Cypriots. After just three years, Cyprus collapsed into inter-community violence, and UN peacekeepers have been there ever since. The island was forcibly partitioned by Turkey in 1974. The current peace negotiations are aimed at reunifying the island in a way that both of its communities can accept. It has been a difficult task, with the Cyprus problem seen as one of the three most intractable conflicts in the world, alongside Israel/Palestine and Kashmir.
As part of the UN team, McGarry’s role includes working with all parties to discuss issues of governance, particularly the specific issues of power-sharing institutions and federalism. The task requires careful and painstaking work. “Leaders need to be strong enough to take on the challenges that come with negotiations,” he says. “They can often be risk-averse, especially if groups in their constituency deem compromise as treachery.” He relies on his research as well as his background to help parties understand options and negotiate for mutual benefit. “Both sides have to believe that settling is better than the status quo,” he says.
Knowledge for action
McGarry says that it has been a huge privilege to be involved in these types of negotiations, especially when they lead to peaceful resolutions. “Contributing to peace, even in a small or indirect way, is an immense honour; knowing that more lives are being saved, because of a process in which you participated, brings the greatest pleasure imaginable.”
He cautions, however, that the real heroes are not advisors, but the politicians who can compromise skillfully without losing their followers. “They're the ones who risk their futures, and even put their lives on the line.”
Profile by Nanci Corrigan