ESRC Fellow Dr Jonny Byrne's six month placement provided the Northern Ireland Office with a unique resource for analysing and understanding the contentious issues and challenges under discussion in the 2013 Haass Talks.

Impacts

  • Between July and December 2013, Dr Byrne hosted four seminars and three workshops bringing members of NIO together with representatives from academia and civil society
  • October-December 2013 he provided regular briefings to NIO officials on the implications for the NIO and wider society on the outcomes of the Haass process
  • A follow-up two-day residential with NIO officials was held in March 2014, facilitated by academic staff from the University of Ulster, with a focus on policy formulation and implementation in a contested society
  • Although Dr Haass left Belfast without an agreement, party leaders have continued to meet to build some form of consensus on the Haass proposals. A copy of the document can be accessed; see PDF link below.

"Dr Byrne provided on-going consultative support and advice on a number of sensitive and challenging issues associated with the peace and political processes in Northern Ireland. His input had a significant impact in terms of bringing contemporary academic research and thinking into the policy-making process." (Michael McAvoy, Deputy Director, Engagement Group in the Northern Ireland Office)

About the research

The Haass Talks, chaired by former US envoy Richard Haass in Belfast June-December 2013, involved representatives from the five main political parties in Northern Ireland. The process was initiated by the NI Executive because they recognised that previous attempts involving local politicians had been unable to resolve disputes over flags, parades and the past.

Dr Jonny Byrne's June-December 2013 placement in the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) coincided with the Haass Talks, and with his 15 years of experience researching contentious Northern Ireland issues he provided members of the NIO and UK Government ministers with support, advice and critical engagement on issues surrounding the building of a shared society. Dr Byrne was part of the team who briefed senior figures in the NIO, providing academic perspective and in-depth interpretation of the implications of any outcomes from the Haas process.

ESRC funding gave Dr Byrne the all-important credentials of independence and neutrality. This neutrality allowed him to gather views within a highly 'contested space' from all parts of civil society including local politicians, community workers, ex-combatants and clergy. During the placement Dr Byrne presented these up-to-date perspectives 'from the ground' in addition to findings from existing academic research. At all times the emphasis was on supporting those tasked with formulating and implementing policies aimed at building a shared and cohesive society.

"I was able to bring independent thought supported by several years of research to bear on some of the most contentious and sensitive issues that Northern Ireland society faces," Dr Byrne explains. "As an independent academic working in the department, this created the opportunity for those within the NIO to critically explore and evaluate their thinking on the issues and strategies involved in delivering a shared society.

"Put simply," he continues, "offering an academic viewpoint that included historical perspective not easily found in a department with fairly rapid turnover of senior people enabled the NIO to change slightly how it interpreted, framed and thought strategically about issues, including those discussed during the Haass Talks as well as the implications of policies being formulated and developed."