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Text: John Darby ... Page Design: John Hughes

What's Wrong With Conflict? frontispiece

What's Wrong With Conflict?

by John Darby
Published by the University of Ulster, Coleraine 1991, reprinted 1995
ISBN 1 85923 096 2
Paperback 14 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.

What's Wrong With Conflict?

by John Darby

Centre for the Study of Conflict
University of Ulster



The Author

Whats Wrong with Conflict


Northern Ireland: a controlled conflict?


Northern Ireland and the World


The Centre for the Study of Conflict is a research centre based in the University of Ulster. Its main work is the promotion and encouragement of research on the community conflict and to this end it concentrates on practical issues to do with institutional and community structures and change. It publishes papers and books arising out of this work including: a series of research papers particularly designed to make available research data and reports; a series of Majority-Minority reports; and a series of occasional papers by distinguished academics in the field of conflict.

This is a republication of John Darby's paper on conflict. It has been out of print for some time and is still much in demand. It is one of a set of new publications which the Centre will produce over the next few months, on topics such as Education for Mutual Understanding, Peace Education, Sport, Parades, the Role of the Police and Classroom Mediation.

Seamus Dunn
June 1995

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The Author

John Darby is Professor of Ethnic Studies at the University of Ulster. He was one of the founders of the Centre for the Study of Conflict, and was its first Director, a post he held for six years. He resigned in 1991 in order to devote himself to the establishment of the Ethnic Studies Network, and subsequently became the first Director of INCORE, the International Programme on Conflict Resolution and Ethnicity, jointly sponsored by the United Nations University and the University of Ulster. He is a distinguished writer and commentator on a range of issues related to conflict, and on ethnic conflict in particular. He has published a number of books and many papers on the conflict in Ireland, on the dynamics of conflict and on its controls.

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Whats Wrong with Conflict?

I was concerned that some people might be offended by this title, as it may appear to treat a serious subject frivolously. Despite this, I decided to keep it. Sometimes, to highlight a pertinent issue, it is necessary to ask an impertinent question.

The pertinent issue is the need to distinguish between conflict and violence. The tendency to confuse the two terms is not new. It arose around the turn of the last century from the willingness of the new discipline of sociology to regard society rather as a machine that occasionally breaks down, and sociologists as mechanics. Their role was to identify the fault and point out how it might be fixed. It is a view of society which regards conflict as dysfunctional, as evidence that something has gone wrong in the social body. This view of conflict still dominates, especially among American sociologists.

But there has been an alternative strain of conflict analysis, weaker but never quite defeated, represented by Georg Simmel almost a century ago and more recently by Lewis Coser. In this view it is as pointless to attack conflict as to attack the ageing process. Conflict is neither good nor bad, but intrinsic in every social relationship from marriage to international diplomacy. Whenever two or more people are gathered, there is conflict or potential conflict. The real issue is not the existence of conflict but how it is handled.

Ninety years ago Simmel used a domestic analogy to illustrate the danger of assessing the seriousness of a conflict by its outward expression. He described two married couples, one a model of harmony, considerate towards each other, always in agreement; the other given to spectacular public arguments. Behind these superficialities, however, the real picture may be completely different. The agreement of the first couple may be based on a realisation that their marriage is fragile and threatened; they cannot afford the risk of the one final quarrel which may topple them into divorce. The second couple, on the other hand, confident in the strength of their relationship, can afford to make every disagreement exuberantly public.

The same principle, of refusing to take the visible expression of conflict at face value, can be applied to ethnic conflicts. Events in eastern Europe since 1989 are reminders that countries which appeared to be insulated against ethnic conflict were not. Ethnic identity, like the seeds discovered in the Egyptian pyramids, can lie dormant for centuries and, given the right conditions, spring into life. The only solution which history has shown to be completely effective in removing it is genocide.

Northern Ireland: a controlled conflict?

Northern Ireland is a clear illustration of the persistence of the seed, although the harvests have been more frequent than in most regions. Between 1835 and 1969 there were nine periods of serious rioting in Belfast alone and many other years where some disturbances have been recorded. The current period of violence is the longest and most sustained of all. It has been uninterrupted, except for variations in form and intensity, for more than twenty years.

This persistent antagonism has not been between hostile neighbouring countries, but between two internal groups. The distinction between ethnic conflicts and international wars needs to be emphasised. In ethnic conflicts the combatants permanently inhabit the same battlefield; even during periods of tranquility their lives are often intermeshed with those of their enemies; it is not possible to terminate hostilities by withdrawal behind national frontiers. As a consequence, ethnic conflict is often characterised by internecine viciousness rather than by the more impassive slaughter of international wars.

In such circumstances violence, unless arrested at an early stage, tends to develop along predictable lines: disagreements harden into disputes; the violence expands to involve a greater number of activists disputing a greater number of issues; the combatants become more efficiently organised under more implacable leaders; the restraints on decent behaviour are eroded. As Coleman put it, ‘the harmful and dangerous elements drive out those which keep the conflict within bounds’, creating a Gresham’s law of conflict.

During the early 1970s many observers believed that the upsurge of violence in Northern Ireland could lead to only two outcomes: the belligerents would either be shocked into an internal accommodation, or propelled into genocidal massacre. Neither has occurred. Two decades later there is still no settlement, and the level of violence, though remarkably persistent, has not intensified.

On the contrary, there is evidence that violence has diminished rather than risen in intensity (see, for example, McGarry and O’Leary, appendix). It reached a peak in 1972, when 468 people died. Since then it has gradually declined to below 100 in each year since 1981. The proportion of civilian deaths has diminished, and the number from direct violence between the communities has almost disappeared; in 1990 it is difficult to find any examples of the direct sectarian confrontations which had been the main form of violence in 1969 and 1970. This is not to diminish the awful tragedy of those who have suffered. Nor is it to suggest that paramilitary violence is dwindling away, and will peter out; its pattern over the last twenty years has been spasmodic and subject to sudden increases. It is to demonstrate that the violence, however it is measured, peaked in 1972, but has continued doggedly at a significantly lower level. The question is: why did it develop in this way rather than draw the two communities into more bloody confrontation?

Four principal reasons might be suggested:
The first is the presence of a substantial army in Northern Ireland. Whatever secondary problems it has created, and they have been many, the army’s presence has been a obstacle to the mass mobilisation and uncontrolled violence of the sort seen in the Lebanon.

A second reason is the dynamic of the violence itself. Since 1970 its main form has changed from sectarian rioting to a guerrilla war, predominantly but not exclusively between the IRA and the security forces. It is a battle fought not so much by large numbers of people as by their surrogates. As a result very few people are directly involved in the conduct of violence. Many may maintain their allegiences and sympathies, but do not participate directly in the fighting. Consequently casualties are lower.

The manner in which the military activities have been conducted by the combatants has also controlled their impact. The level of engagement between the IRA and the British anny has been contained within limits set by both sides. The army has resisted pressure for more draconian approaches. As for the IRA, the concept of limiting violence to ‘legitimate targets’ has also reduced casualties. This is no consolation to those who have been killed; and it is undeniable that the concept has been a movable feast - it expanded to include, at different times, civilian workers and caterers in army camps, retired policemen, judges, even for a time the entire civil service. The effect, however, has been to introduce an artificial self-imposed limit by combatants on their own activities.

The fourth reason why the violence has not spiraled out of control is to be found in the relationships which have developed between Catholics and Protestants from long familiarity with conflict. In other endemic disputes, like those in Sri Lanka and the Lenbanon, this has created an escalation towards unrestrained violence. In Northern Ireland it has controlled rather than stimulated the spread of violence. Unwilling to assimilate and unable to remove each other, Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland have evolved social mechanisms to regulate and control their relationships. I will mention three:

The first is avoidance:
In some parts of Northern Ireland Catholics and Protestants have effectively avoided conflict by avoiding each other. In the early 1970s the forcible intimidation and removal of minority families from both communities also removed the occasions for further tension. It is an irony that segregation has often reduced violence, at least in the short term.

The second mechanism I call controlled contact:
Complete avoidance between Catholics and Protestants is impossible in most parts of Northern Ireland. In most places it is possible for members of the two groups to develop relationships without abandoning their separate basic allegiences. They may drink in the same pubs, use the same shops, work together, belong to the same clubs - the level of interaction partly determined by the demographic mix in each neighbourhood.

The third control mechanism is functional integration:
Certain groups in any community are more disposed towards cooperation than others. There is ample research evidence that common material or social interests has overcome sectarian suspicions. Reconciliation groups, whose objective is to bring together Catholics and Protestants, face greater difficulties. In districts that have experienced sectarian violence, the argument that people should get together because they are different is not persuasive.

These and other mechanisms act as restraints on the conduct of the two conflicting communities. Their main function is to reduce and manage the effects of sectarian differences. They are, of course, more successful in some areas than in others, but the cumulative effect of so great a variety of local controls constitutes a general control. In effect they are obstacles to absolute group cohesion for both communities, and therefore to a more genocidal form of violence. (See also Darby 1986 and 1990)

Northern Ireland and the world

Underlying these control mechanisms is the persistence of ethnic identity. Events in eastern Europe during the last year further emphasise the same point, the instinct in most people to identify with a group or community. After decades of suppression, the strength of religious and national identity has survived, apparently stronger than ever, to threaten stability in a new way. It seems inevitable that the focus in world conflict by the turn of the century will be on internal ethnic violence rather than the international threat of nuclear war that has dominated during the post-war decades.

The current outbreaks of ethnic violence throughout the world provide a measure for the conflict in Northern Ireland. They assure us that we are not singled out by some genetic birthmark, pariahs doomed forever to slaughter each other. There is no curse of Cuchulain or Carson.

We need look no further than today’s newspapers forillustration that conflict is not peculiar to the Irish. These are headlines from today’s Independent, June 14 1990:

Bloody clashes in Bucharest
Moscow to ease economic blocade (on Lithuania)
Serbs vent fury at a ‘new Tito’
Kashmir meeting (between Indian and Pakistani foreign ministers)
Basque attack
Austrian welcome wears thin (for third world immigrants)
Muslim militants win in Algeria
Shamir’s new coalition is split
All-out war looms as Sri Lankan truce fails
Mandela asks EC for cash and sanctions.

Not an untypical catch, these days, from one day’s news.

Against these must be measured those countries plagued by internal violence until they found a better way to manage it:

  • In the 16th century Switzerland was one of the most bitterly divided countries in Europe;
  • As recently as 1918 people believed that Holland was about to disintegrate because of religious divisions not dissimilar to those in Northern Ireland;
  • In the South Tyrol, too, a region deeply divided after the second world war and claimed by two sovereign states Italy and Austria,n progress has been so dramatic as to encourage some commentators to declare the problem solved - a most dangerous temptation;
  • Malaysia showed every sign in 1969 of falling into the same racial violence experienced by her neighbours, but avoided it by skilful electoral practices.
  • Switzerland; Holland; the South Tyrol; Malaysia: none of these now springs to mind as a hotbed of serious ethnic violence.
  • It is of course rash to make optimistic forecasts about the future direction of any ethnic conflict. Whenever I feel tempted to exaggerate the benefits of comparative research - a common temptation - I remind myself of constitutional models for Northern Ireland which were suggested to me at different times by two of the world’s leading ethnic researchers: one suggested in 1980 that we in Northern Ireland should look more closely at Sri Lanka’s success in accommodating ethnic differences; the other commended to us the constitutional arrangements in the Lebanon.

    If this analysis, that conflict is a natural condition in any social network, is correct, it has implications for both the research community and Northern Ireland in general.

    For those engaged in the academic study of conflict it amounts to reversing the usual question. Not, why is the conflict in Northern Ireland so violent; but what are the elements which restrain it?

    Two approaches may help to provide an answer this question. First is a more systematic examination of the dymanics of the Northern Irish conflict. The second approach is a greater use of comparative approaches, and an increased willingness to look at those elements in the Northern Ireland conflict which distinguish it from those in other regions, and those which are similar.

    There are great advantages in approaching comparative research from the basis of a strong case study. In particular it provides a basis for assessment and review: Do the conflicts arise from similar causes? Do they suffer the same effects? Have they adopted more successful ways of tackling them?

    For any society experiencing ethnic conflict, there is much to be learned from comparisons: from Malaysia about how to manage ethnic tensions through electoral reform; from Holland in its approach to educational diversity; from Belgium in its treatment of minority languages; from equal opportunity approaches in Canada and the South Tyrol. Some cases must be treated more selectively: we may aspire to Switzerland’s decentralisation without embracing its treatment of women and immigrants; we might consider the Lebanon’s power-sharing experiments, but perhaps should stop short of imitating some other aspects of the Lebanese experience.

    This is not a one-way traffic. Research being conducted in Northern Ireland is increasingly attracting interest from other societies. The surgical techniques and emergency procedures developed in the Royal Victoria hospital, for example, has become a model for hospitals in Israel and other societies experiencing street violence. The educational research being carried out by colleagues has not only influenced the development of thinking on integrated education and on education for mutual understanding in Northern Ireland; it is regarded in other countries as a model for their own research and policies. The approaches to evaluation being developed in the Centre for the Study of Conflict places it in the vanguard of what will become a major research concern. All of this is reflected in the increasing number of academics coming to study in Northern Ireland. In 1990 alone six academics from other universities were based in the Centre, from the United States, Japan, Israel and Iraq.

    However badly the Northern Ireland conflict has been handled, there are increasing signs that others feel that they have much to learn from its experience, warts and all. In other areas of international cooperation - business, politics, medicine - there are signs of increased willingness to help emerging communities, especially in Europe and Africa, with expertise and advice. The time has arrived for us to set about finding ways to make a similar contribution to the problems of ethnic conflict. A start might be made immediately by establishing links with universities in eastern Europe through the recently announced Tempus scheme. Is anyone better qualified to make this contribution than those who have been trying to study this conflict systematically for the last twenty years? It is a responsibility and an opportunity.

    A major obstacle to seizing the opportunity is what I would describe as a reverse chauvenism. It works in two ways: it encourages in some what might be described as an underweening modesty which assumes that other societies have handled their problems better than they have been handled here. In others it encourages a truculent provincialism which takes a perverse pride in stressing the peculiarity and complexities of our conflict. Whose conflict compares with ours? Four hundred uninterrupted years: has anyone told the Guinness Book of Records?

    Patrick Kavanagh’s short poem ‘Epic’ is a useful reminder of the need to maintain a sense of perspective. Written in 1938, when Kavanagh was heavily engaged in local disputes between farmers in county Monaghan, and when more momentous affairs were taking place elsewhere, he wrote:

    That was the year of the Munich bother. Which
    Was more important? I inclined
    to lose my faith in Ballyrush and Gortin
    Till Homer’s ghost came whispering to my mind.
    He said: I made the Iliad from such
    A local row.

    This is not to suggest that we should accept the siege of Troy as a model in conflict resolution. Kavanagh’s lesson is that we must acknowledge the riches around us as well as the difficulties; that we must stop thinking of ourselves as inhabiting the edge of the earth. In some respects, including our research experience, we are at the centre. All that is needed is the confidence to recognise it. The issues being contested here - human rights, ethnic violence, aggression, reconciliation, cultural pluralism - are not peculiarly Irish. They are universal themes.

    That is why the Centre has recently launched the Ethnic Studies Network, an international Network of individual researchers and research centres with particular interests in ethnic conflict and violence. Its aim is to encourage cross-national cooperation between researchers who are working in societies experiencing ethnic conflict. It will, I hope, provide a machinery for mutual learning.

    I mentioned that the implications of my argument are both specific - to those engaged in conflict research - and general - for the Northern Ireland problem. Indeed I wish we could stop regarding the Northern Ireland issue as a problem at all, with its implication that a solution lies around the corner for anyone ingenious enough to find it.


    Rather it is a tangle of inter-related problems -

  • there is a central constitutional problem: what should be the political context for the people of Northern Ireland? Integration with Britain? A united Ireland; independence?
  • there is a continuing problem of social and economic inequalities, especially in the field of employment.
  • there is a problem of cultural identity, relating to education, to the Irish language, to the whole spread of cultural differences.
  • there is a problem of security; people are being killed and maimed because of it.
  • some people even think there is a problem of religious difference.
  • there is certainly a problem of the day-to-day relationships between the people who live here.
  • All of these are elements of Northern Ireland’s problem. Each affects the others. At certain times there is a chance of movement on some of these issues, while on others progress is impossible. In such circumstances it makes sense to adopt a pragmatic approach, with initiatives determined by opportunity and circumstances. Push where there is give. During the last year there have been changes in the educational and fair employment fields which were unthinkable just five years ago. Let no-one believe that, even if political talks are successful, the other elements of the problem will meekly resolve themselves.

    So an integrated approach to change is needed, one which takes into account all elements of the problem. Educational reforms will be frustrated if they are not accompanied by the removal of fundamental inequalities in the distribution of jobs. It is foolish to seek a political settlement which does not acknowledge that each tradition has cultural expressions which are non-negotiable to them but anathema to many of their opponents. It is ridiculous to devise security policies - peace lines; undercover operations - without trying to anticipate their effect on community relationships.

    This brings me back to my original point, that conflict is something to be handled rather than solved. Government policy since the 1970s has been directed towards seeking to expand the middle ground and marginalising more extreme elements. This has clearly not been successful. It is now obvious that any significant improvement will require the acceptance of elements from the other culture which seem to be confrontational. For Catholics it means regarding Orange processions, which seem so triumphal ist to many of them, as a legitimate expression of cultural distinction. For Protestants it means acknowledging the position of the Irish language, which seems so threatening to many of them. Respect for diversity will not come naturally, and it cannot depend on vague good wishes. Initially at least it will need the force of the law to back it up.

    None of this will be palatable. The 1 990s may be the decade of the hard swallow and the weak smile. These will become harder and weaker as society confronts the inevitable problem of how, when the violence ends, to reintroduce to the community those who have been engaged in using it.

    None of this undervalues the importance of the middle ground. Moderate opinion, expressed through reconciliation groups, the churches and political action, has played its part in keeping this society together during twenty years of violence. It will have a major role in conflict management in the future. But now it must move over and make room for unsavoury bed-fellows. Altruism is an unreliable basis for conflict resolution. Better to rely on hard negotiation, firmly based on self-interest.

    There is an analogy here with the treatment of cancer. Until recently cancer was seen as a terminal condition. Now each year sees a statistically measurable improvement in the survival possibilities for cancer victims. There has been a correspondiong switch in treatment. Patients are no longer prepared for death, but encouraged to enjoy a normal life. Conflict should be regarded in the same way, as a permanent but not a terminal condition - one to be tackled and improved.

    Does this mean accepting perpetual violence? On the contrary, it is the route out of our present condition. Some years ago I was forcibly struck by how much we have come to take abnormality for granted. I was showing a French television team through west Belfast when an army patrol, armed to the teeth, rushed out from Fort Monagh on a regular patrol. They took position beside the crew, spreadeagled on the ground, covering each other. As the Swedish cameraman was reaching a point of orgasmic excitement filming this, two old ladies, shopping bags in hand, came walking along the pavement. Without interrupting their conversation they carefully picked their way over a recumbent soldier and continued towards the shops. I am convinced they did not even see him.

    There is the danger of accepting the unacceptable ...
            ... and the resilience and common sense on which to build.

    If a text is needed for this, let me provide my favourite, from ‘The Yogi and the Commissar’ by Arthur Koestler:

    What we need is an active fraternity of pessimists. They will not aim at immediate radical solutions, because they know that these cannot be achieved in the hollow of the historical wave. They will not brandish the surgeon’s knife at the social body, because they know that their own instruments are polluted. They will watch with open eyes and without sectarian blinkers for the first sign of the new horizontal movement. When it comes they will assist its birth. But if it does not come in their lifetime, they will not despair. And meantime their chief aim will be to create oases in the inter regnum desert.


    Coleman J, ‘The dynamics of conflict’ in Marx G, Racial Conflict, Little Brown, 1971.

    Coser L, Georg Simmel, Prentice Hall, 1965.

    Coser L, The Functions of Social Conflict, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1956.

    Darby J, Intimidation and the Control of Conflict in Northern Ireland, Gill and MacMillan, 1986.

    Darby J, ‘The Persistence and Limitations of Violence’ in Montville J, Conflict and Peacemaking in Multiethnic Societies, Lexington, 1990.

    Kavanagh P, Collected Poems, MacGibbon and Kee, 1964.

    Koestler A, The Yogi and the Commisar, Macmillan, 1965.

    McGarry J and O’Leary B, The future of Northern Ireland, Oxford, 1990.


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