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Text: Maurice Hayes ... Page Design: John Hughes

Conflict Research frontispiece

Conflict Research

by Maurice Hayes
Published by the University of Ulster, Coleraine 1990
(Out of print)
Paperback 9 pp £1.50

Out of Print

This material is copyright of the Centre for the Study of Conflict and the author(s) and is included on the CAIN web site with the permission of the publisher. Reproduction or redistribution for commercial purposes is not permitted.

Conflict Research

by Maurice Hayes

Centre for the Study of Conflict
University of Ulster




The Author

Conflict Research


All violent conflicts have general as well as specific characteristics. The general characteristics operate, to a greater or lesser extent, in all plural societies. The specific characteristics are distinctive to each conflict and arise from its peculiar history, institutions and internal relationships. Almost inevitably, when one conflict is examined in detail, there is a tendency to narrow the focus in the search for explanations. This can lead, and in Northern Ireland has lead, to an exaggeration of the unique features of the conflict and a corresponding reluctance to stand back and consider broader approaches and issues.

The aim of this series of Occasional Papers, issued by the Centre for the Study of Conflict, is to redress this balance. It builds on the body of research carried out on the Northern Ireland conflict but is not a research series.

Our main hope is that the series will broaden the context in which the Irish conflict is considered, and will encourage comparative and innovative approaches to ethnic conflict in general.

John Darby, Director
April, 1990.

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The Author

Maurice Hayes has been the Northern Ireland Ombudsman since 1987. From 1984 to 1987 he was the Permanent Secretary of the DHSS and, from 1981 to 1984, Head of Personnel in the Northern Ireland Civil Service. In addition he was the first Chairman of the Northern Ireland Community Relations Commission, Assistant Secretary in the Office of the Northern Ireland Executive, Adviser to the Chairman of the Northern Ireland Constitutional Convention and Town Clerk, Downpatrick. Currently he is a Visiting Professor at the University of Ulster.

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Conflict Research

I have been asked to discuss the impact of conflict research in Northern Ireland on social policy and practice. If we were engaged in an exercise in cost benefit analysis, I would advise you all to go home now. The kindest and shortest answer to the question is not necessarily the least accurate one. It would be easy to say there has been no impact. If one admits that research has indeed contributed to policy formulation, then the question arises: to what extent? - which is a much more difficult matter of calculation and quantification. And even then, candour on my part, and humility on yours, would compel us to agree that the honest answer is 'Not very much'.

I am long enough in the game not to need Harold Wilson to tell me that there is no such thing as a free lunch. I can speculate that listening to an ex-administrator talk about research is itself a form of market research. And I am reminded of the New York Jewish story of the Jewish visitor to the Vatican, impressed by the wealth of the place, saying to the conducting Cardinal "Were not Christ and the Apostles Jews? How did we lose the business?" In your case, it may be less a case of losing business, than never having had it in the first place.

I do not propose to draw distinctions between civil servant baddies and academic good guys, or vice versa, or to suggest that one group is less intelligent, or less literate or less well educated than the other. This is not simply a story of ignorant or philistine politicians or administrators who do not recognise the resources of research or enlightenment which are available under their noses. Many civil servants are among the best read people that I know with a wide range of interests (which might indeed be part of the problem).

It might be worth spending a few minutes reflecting on the different mores and expectations of policy makers and academics, and how these affect perceptions.

First, though, a word about the values which do underlie policy formulation.

Of these, the first and most pervasive is inertia. Systems have a built-in bias towards self-preservation. It is very difficult to bring about a change in legislation, structure or practice. Even more difficult - short of war or natural disaster - is to create the structure for change. Change tends to take time, to require a coalition of interests and personalities, and to be so disruptive as not to be easily replicable.

Second is fashion. When there is change, this tends to follow fashion, and fashion is cyclical. In Northern Ireland there is a particular problem of time lag as fashion follows English models, and is in danger of being overtaken by the next fashion there.

Third is ideology. Policy is much less influenced in this field by the ideology of a particular party than is generally supposed - partly because of the effect of inertia and fashion, and partly, up to now, the generally regular alternation of governments.

Fourth (although perhaps more influential than the preceding pair) are the continuing values of the Department with the main responsibility for the policy. To the extent that anybody has thought of it, it is generally there. Even if it is on the back-burner, there will be someone minding in case the pot boils over. The Department view may be conservative and bound by precedent, but it does at least have the value of contact with the constituency and interest in a status quo. Depending on the values of the Department may be the way in which a problem is defined, and the options which might be thought reasonable to deal with it.

There are two corollaries to this however. A problem which straddles several departments might suffer from a plethora of views and responses or, more likely, become be-calmed in the bayou of inter-agency rivalry.

On the other hand, a problem which does not have a department, does not have a sponsor. In our system there is generally poor experience in dealing with the superordinate issues which transcend departmental interests.

Fifth is public opinion. Where public opinion effects policy formulation it tends to be short-term and not always constructive. The public reaction will usually be to a particular incident or set of incidents and may often be contradictory.

Sixth is research. Depending on the extent to which this influences or questions professional practice, or received wisdom or arouses public debate or creates a constituency for a new conceptual basis to policy. Ideas gain and lose intellectual respectability and this affects their importance as an influence on policy formulation. The effect tends to be cumulative rather than immediate, and to depend on some degree of dissemination and popularisation of research findings.

We should also consider how policy makers in general receive information, and how they perceive problems.

Policy makers, whether politicians or civil servants are not particularly geared to absorbing the findings of current research. In part this is caused by the way that information flows to them, but also to the sheer pressure of day to day business that commands attention. It is probably true that political parties and politicians do their reflecting when in opposition. It is true that unless a party comes into government with a fairly well developed programme and clear objectives, it is unlikely to achieve much. It is also true in a system where governments alternate, that the period in opposition is, for a party, a period of re-grouping and re-thinking, of learning from the mistakes of office and of presenting a coherent programme to the electorate. It is also fairly clear that if not done then, there is likely to be little re-thinking of a fundamental nature when burdened with the cares of office. One implication of which is maybe that the longer a government remains in office the more attenuated the linkage with research based reality, the greater the reliance on hunch and ad hocery and the more likely the reliance on ideology.

It may also be likely that most people (not necessarily excluding academics) take on a cast of mind in early adulthood which determines the way in which they look at questions and the likely range of responses which they are likely to consider as possible options. I think it highly likely that most policy makers are influenced in this way and that the dominant influences tend to be those formulated in the previous generation. This may, however, be less of a time warp than an example of how ideas are injected into the political process. To the extent that ideas are affected by research, or by the occasional academic work which forces a fundamental appraisal of policies, there seems to be an inevitable time-lag. Ideas need to become popular (or at least popularised) before they became politically acceptable. Politicians determine the acceptability of ideas at two levels - acceptability to the electorate (and it is a rare politician who can lead from any distance in front of the troops) and acceptability to other politicians and policy makers and their camp followers. Policy making (and politics) tends to proceed in an oddly incestuous world in which politicians speak to other politicians, or leak to the media, and are then confirmed or shaken in the stances they have taken by the reportage they have themselves stimulated. One has only to reflect on the level of discussion in the popular press to realise that the constituency for serious political debate is a very small one, and the academic who wishes to capture the commanding heights of policy making must do so through the handful of media outlets which influence political debate..

On this analysis, ideas tend to take a generation or so to gain acceptance, or to fundamentally influence policy. In this way, Keynes' General Theory was more influential (in Britain at least) in the 1950s than in the 1930s, and the time lag in economics is probably less than in social policy. Similarly, it was not until taken up by Beveridge that most of Seebohm Rowntrees researchers bore fruit. Once established in the collective subconscious of policy makers, however, these ideas can be amazingly hard to dislodge. One result of these is that policy makers are often responding to the problem of yesteryear with the academic arsenal of the year before. Keynes had lost academic respectability long before Keynesian economics had ceased to be a main basis for policy, and one suspects that many of the main tenets of monetarism are ready to succumb to critical scrutiny. Most government social policies continue to be based on a view of the family which is progressively less reflected in current sociological research.

This somewhat caricature version of politicians as policy makers does not entirely exclude the civil servant. The cult of the generalist, and the general reluctance to specialise, has generally prevented civil servants from developing long-term interests in specific areas of policy. And while their interests may be deep, and may range over the available literature at specific instances, they do not normally develop the long-term perspective of the academic researcher or analyst.

Another important difference between the policy maker and the analyst is timescale. The politician generally does not have time to take the long view. His horizons are defined, if not limited, by the electoral cycle and the life of a Parliament. As a minister he can only do a few things and he wants to do those today or tomorrow. He cannot afford a long gestation period, or the prolonged analysis of problems and testing of options. The same pressures push him from long-term programmes. Like the politician, and because he is serving a political system, the civil servant tends to be more aware of the problems of today than those which are latent and of the future. This is a fundamental difference between the academic and the policy maker - where they get their problems from. What the academic sees as a 'problem' or as a subject for research comes from theory or abstract thought. The policy maker gets his problems delivered to his plate by the political process. There is no point in one blaming the other for being academic or theoretical on the one hand, or political on the other. The inexorable nature of the pressures, too, mean that the policy maker is looking for answers rather than explanations, and for advice and guidance rather than general theory.

There are other difficulties, too, in the murky underworld where policy consorts with theory. Politicians tend to seek reassurance rather than enlightenment. They have generally invested a good deal of political capital in a policy, and while they are quite happy to have it endorsed by research findings, they are not particularly good at providing sticks to beat themselves with. The lack of openness which characterises the British democratic system reinforces the tendency, and creates the sorts of tensions which one has noticed recently in New Society about the ownership of research data and the vetting or control of publication of research results.

There are other tensions, too. The academic researcher, because he is an academic, will be seeking to identify problems, to clarify issues, to expose options, while the politician might be better served by fudge, or imprecision, or a lack of clarity. There are concepts which are unsaleable in the political market place, ideas whose time has not yet come. The politician might feel that the very ends (and not necessarily disreputable or conspiratorial ones) which he seeks may be inhibited by the exposure of issues through research.

Again, research, especially the commissioning of research, forces people to define the problem - which may create its own difficulty. It may not be politically prudent to accept that there is a problem. Most bodies tend in any case to define problems in terms in which they can do something about them - or conveniently ignore them.

In so far as social research breaks down into fundamental and applied or policy oriented research, there is likely to be a differential take-up within government. Fundamental research, in so far as it is long-range, and may raise issues which straddle several departmental interests, is very likely to lack sponsorship. Its effect, too, is unlikely to be immediate, requiring dissemination, dilution and popularisation through a variety of media before it can begin to influence policy. Policy oriented research may be more likely to be sponsored, but almost by definition it requires the sponsoring body to be aware that a problem exists - which is not always the case. At a time when governments feel embattled, even this form of research may be avoided as too challenging of received wisdom or settled policies, and to put too much at hazard of the political opposition to be worth the candle. So research is tending to move in the direction of operational research, studying the effectiveness of programmes.

All of which suggests that fundamental research is unlikely to be immediately attractive to policy makers and politicians. In a competitive situation it is likely to be pushed out by other priorities for expenditure. Indeed, it is questionable whether such research, which has the potential to subvert the status quo or contradict received wisdom, should run the risk of dependence on political patronage. A proper candidate, I should have thought, for support by the Research Councils which could insulate the academic from the grosser aspects of the political process, leaving policy relevant research to be funded by users on the Rothschild formula. Such, however, it appears, is not to be with the financial emasculation of the SSRC.

What has all this to say about the utility and relevance of research into the Northern Ireland conflict.

The locus classicus must be John Whyte's inaugural lecture [Is Research on the Northern Ireland Problems Worthwhile], in which he eventually succeeded in convincing himself (just) that academic research into the Northern Ireland conflict had three main uses:

  • to influence policy
  • to provide a bench mark for future scholars (and potentially contributing to better understanding of the conflict at a future stage)
  • to provide an opportunity to test general theories.

The discussion on influencing policy is interesting in exposing some of the difficulties of the researcher who hopes to do so, but is there an example of effective intervention - the Belfast Areas of Need Programme and the research commissioned by the FEA being cases to point. Whyte attributes some of this to the lack of a systematic general theory, citing the example of Marxists historians to show the advantage of a coherent general explanation as a framework for understanding, and points out the confusion to policy makers of being presented with different and often competing analyses when what they need is certainty and prescription.

It would be wrong to assume an antithesis between differing, if not warring academics and policy makers with a single-minded view of the problem. There is no unanimity in government either, and no general agreement about the nature of the problem. Departmental structures and responsibilities mean that each sees a little bit of the problem, and relates that to their own responsibilities. There is not even a common continuing recognition that there is a problem, or how it might be defined. And if to academics, as one of them has said 'The problem is there's no solution', to politicians the preferred solution is there's no problem.

There is no (or at least a very inadequately defined and expressed) overarching view, no ownership of the problem as a whole, no sponsorship for research at this fundamental level, and uncertain receptivity for the results of research or experience elsewhere.

While it is true that the Governments have over the past 13 or 14 years maintained fairly consistently the need for political structures of a particular sort as a means to resolving the conflict, there have been shifts in emphasis from time to time which reflect differing interpretations of the underlying nature of the conflict. This has owed more to the character and experience of the various main actors from Stormont Ministers through successive Secretaries of State, than to any fundamental reappraisal based on research findings.

Indeed, this is a classic case of reluctance to clarify, or of the political undesirability of doing so. Governments find it difficult to accept definitions of a problem which make them part - even a main part of the problem. Most governments will prefer a definition of conflict as civil disorder rather than as civil war - few governments will wish to publicise an analysis in which they are seen not to be in control, or incapable of taking control. It is easier for governments to cope with conflicts which are related to unemployment, or poverty, or bad housing, or discrimination, or which can be ascribed to crime or the wickedness of a minority, or defined as a security problem, than to accept a fundamental appraisal of divisions which go to the roots of society.

One of the problems of commissioning or utilising research at this fundamental level in relation to the Northern Ireland conflict is that government is not particularly well informed to deal with it in this way. The various strands come together only at the top where, for most of the reasons that I have already described, the impact of external research is minimal.

John Whyte refers to the importance and the chance nature of personal contacts with policy makers. Having merited three anonymous references in his paper not of an entirely derogatory nature, I can perhaps comment on these. He mentions approaching a civil servant who was drafting a paper on forms of government who had not heard of Lipjhart's work. In another part of the system he would have found a civil servant with a shelf-full of such books. But, and this is a comment on the fragmentary nature of policy making (which does not deny Whyte's thesis), he had no direct input into that bit of policy.

However, I have no desire to scapegoat, but if I did, there are academic scapegoats too. Much of what we call research is the result of a boom in academic activity in the 60s and 70s. Not all of it was of universally high standard. Some of it was not even passable by any reasonable standard. The disease which seems to prevent PhD theses from being completed in time, has contributed to the delay in many research projects beyond the time at which they can be helpful. The wheels of government grind on without it. Some research has been poorly conceived, and worse managed. There was, for a while, an obsession with the computer which far outstripped the capacity of those concerned to manage large and complex programmes which then simply ran into the sand. Some seemed merely to be reinventing the wheel, to replicate relevant research which had been carried out elsewhere, or to flex the muscles of the researchers. I don't wish to particularise, but I know of no major research project with which I have been associated which has not been a disappointment in one way or another. Neither can the story of the Committee for Social Science Research (which was run by academic researchers) or the Northern Ireland Committee of SSRC, be held up as shining examples, and both the Policy Research Institute and the Conflict Research Institute find it easier and more comfortable (and probably more profitable in the narrow sense) to concentrate on specific research on problems defined for them by the consumer. And yet, as Machiavelli said 'When everybody knows there is a problem, it is already too late to do anything about it. It is only a few, and those the most prescient, know that it is possible to take action.'

All this too, apart from the grosser problems of confidentiality, secrecy and publication.

However much we deplore the arcane provisions of the Official Secrets Act, or yearn for the freedom of information and openness of Sweden or the USA, for civil servants it is a fact of life. (It's a fact of life for politicians, too, but often they don't seem to notice). On a more basic level, ministers and departments don't relish being upstaged by their own researchers, or often by controversial comment being released in a context which is not of their making. Some academics are themselves politicians, and some research departments feel the need for self-promotion and media-catching hype. There are cases, too, of a degree of arrogance in the treatment of the sponsor who has put up the money. This was bad enough when resources were not a problem, but with departments being forced to review core programmes, research, regrettably, is seen as an optional extra if not an actual luxury. There is the countervailing danger now that researchers may become too subservient, too policy oriented, too inclined to take the problem as given and to seek for politically acceptable solutions. This total dependence on the funding sponsor I would regard as the greatest danger to academic freedom and to fundamental research.

If I am saying that research on the Northern Ireland conflict has had little impact on policy formulation, it is to regret that this should be so. It has not been ineffectual, but it is difficult to trace a direct causal connection between a research programme and a change or development of policy. What research does is to contribute to the universe of discourse, to change the climate in which the debate takes place, progressively to modify perceptions. Perhaps the most striking example of this has been the work of Irish historical research which has provided an entirely new basis for contemplating the problems of presenting a perspective on the shared historical experience of a divided society. It has also helped to demolish a few myths and challenge a few cherished assumptions. Social science research, and in particular conflict research, has contributed to a greater appreciation of the complexity of the problem, and may have discouraged policy makers from the pursuit of simplistic solutions.

I would argue the importance of fundamental research as the prime duty of the academic and the university. Increasingly this will be difficult to fund and is unlikely to attract funds from government directly. If the channels of the Research Councils are to be constricted, or research linked to a public expenditure pay off, then the main hope would seem to be the independent foundation and trust money. And even these are beginning to be affected by the value for money syndrome and to expect quick returns.

Richard Rose, in an interesting little pamphlet on Policy Research (even if it does exhibit undue symptoms of the Jack Horner syndrome), distinguishes three loci for social research - in-house by government, in capital city think tanks, and university-based centres. Not surprisingly he sees great merits in the last.

Whether for fundamental or other research, the existence of a centre does seem to offer advantages which have been listed by Rose as harnessing the advantages of the university setting, of intellectual capital, variety and depths in resources, independence from immediate political pressures (but for how long?) and a comparative international perspective. Added to this is the synergistic effect of the centre, the development of a centre of influence, and the capacity for dissemination of results. Having listed these advantages, he becomes rather more vague about the direct effects of this influence on policy and can only end with the whimper that 'There must be a better way.' Which is at least better than 'There is no solution.'

What Rose does stress, usefully, is the importance of dissemination. It may actually be more influential to disseminate research results in a way which makes them available to and usable by policy makers than either the big bang of dramatic publications or the anonymity of the dust bin or the remaindered shelf.

Researchers might give some thought to how best to bring policy makers (in this case probably civil servants, or the exceptional politicians) into the process. Ideally, the free movement of people from academe to public life and administration and vice versa which characterises other political systems would provide the sort of cross-fertilisation I have in mind. Failing that, there is a need to create forums where exchanges can take place. Possibly something of the nature of the motor show or book fair where researchers can parade work in progress. Less flippantly researchers could do more to involve policy makers in the definition and clarification of research briefs, in determining the areas of research, in testing hypotheses, and draft conclusions.

There is also a need to create a constituency for research findings at several levels - at the levels at which politicians and civil servants receive information, and more popularly. This suggests the development in the media of groups of people who are interested in the various problems and who are sufficiently well informed to know where to turn.

To sum up - research does influence policy, but mainly indirectly, and usually after a time lag. It is interesting that the academic works which have most influenced policy have been produced by individuals working alone (and unfunded) and are not the products of great research programmes. Much of the research that influences policy in Northern Ireland will have been carried out elsewhere. Indeed, it is the uncritical importation of findings that is often part of the problem. There is a role for research, not least because of the way it can influence teaching. But researchers are unlikely to continue to receive funding without conditions, and should be wary of trading independence for support. If their aim is to influence policy, then they must open lines of communication with the policy makers and attempt to adapt to their culture.

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