Inclusive, Secure and Enriched Society | 2 February, 2017
Professor Hastings Donnan has just received an email. It’s from a Kurdish television company. They’re coming to Belfast to make a programme and they want someone to give them a briefing.
So they have turned to Queen’s and the Senator George J. Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice.
‘It’s another example of the unpredictable nature of our activities,’ says Hastings, the Director of the Institute. But he is keen to stress that the Institute’s Northern Ireland knowledge is not the sole basis for its reputation.
His own research expertise is on the difficult border areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan. He has colleagues working on the Middle East, Sri Lanka, Latin America and many other parts of the world.
He says, ‘All of this activity provides a comparative focus. That dimension is really critical. We learn much by studying peacebuilding in other regions and similarly we draw some negatives and some positives for Northern Ireland when we go elsewhere.’
The Institute was originally established as the Institute for the Study of Conflict Transformation and Social Justice. It was renamed in 2016 and became one of the University’s four new Global Research Institutes when it was launched by the man it honours, Senator George Mitchell, former Queen’s University Chancellor and international diplomat, the man who did so much to bring peace to Northern Ireland.
Hastings says, ‘I want the new Institute to be more expansive as well as more inclusive and to extend what we look at. For example, when you talk about security, people think of X-ray machines at the airport. But security isn’t just surveillance. It’s about the things that underpin security, like social justice.
‘Again, the word justice in the title means more than the legal notions. It means gender justice, environmental justice. And then there’s peace. The struggle for peace isn’t only about ending violence, critical though that is. It’s about building that peace on an everyday basis after the political settlement. And that focus is one of our unique selling points as an Institute.’
‘There are questions that aren’t immediately answerable from any single perspective. So bringing together colleagues from right across the University, from biological sciences, from medicine, from electronic engineering, as well as from social science and humanities, helps us answer big world questions in a way that’s impossible otherwise.’
He singles out a large grant shared with the Centre for Secure Information Technologies, supplying 30 PhD students with scholarships. ‘With cyber security there are social and cultural consequences around issues of trust, privacy, ethics, what it’s permissible to know about people. We’re working together, looking at the issues that might be presented by future new technologies.’
There is also a project on drones over borders, examining the issue of sharing data among several jurisdictions. And there are collaborations on global food security. ‘If you think of humanitarian interventions, large population displacements, the problems of food supply chains – there are a lot of questions there.’
Another of the Institute’s core activities is engaging with civic society. ‘We want everyone to have a voice,’ Hastings says. ‘We’re engaged with government institutions here and elsewhere. We bring in actors from across civic society and ask them what they think is important, what questions they think we should be asking.
‘We have high profile events with speakers like George Mitchell, Arlene Foster, Bertie Ahern, Jonathan Powell – all being challenged by an audience of people who aren’t professional politicians. We had sixth formers taking part in a lively and engaging debate on dealing with the past, with Martin McGuinness.’
And there are callers like the Kurdish television company. ‘We’re contacted by the Northern Ireland Office or the British Council about visitors from Bahrain, say, or South Korea. We could spend every day of every week briefing visiting delegations.’
In summary, Hastings says, ‘There’s a real need today for insights that are grounded and evidence-based and are rooted in quality research by people who have already demonstrated their research credentials and their cultural and political understanding of different parts of the globe.
‘I’m always saying to my colleagues – we’re not just in this for ourselves and to promote our careers. When you do your research it has to make some kind of difference to people’s lives.’
Learn more about the groundbreaking work taking place at the George J. Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice
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