Professor Kimberly Jones: Research in Northern Ireland

Interview Conducted by Julia Renner | renner.j@husky.neu.edu

Kimberly Jones, J.D., Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of International Affairs and Middle East Studies at Northeastern. She currently focuses on Ireland and the United Kingdom, with a particular interest in nations’ self-determination and secession, human rights, and conflict transformation. Her research and publications focus on issues relevant to policy, and include a chapter in “From Moscow to Makhachkala: the People in Between” and a revised chapter on Egypt in Europa World’s “The Middle East and North Africa”.

Can you give a brief synopsis of the historical and current conflict in Northern Ireland, and how it led up to current issues of terrorism?

The contemporary conflict in Northern Ireland is complex, and the socio-political divisions have deep, historical roots. The overarching issue has been about the constitutional status of the six counties that comprise Northern Ireland, which is legally and politically part of the United Kingdom. Republicans and nationalists want to see Northern Ireland reunited with the Republic of Ireland, while unionists and loyalists want it to stay part of the UK. From the late 1960s through the mid-1990s, state discrimination against nationalist communities and violence related to these competing aspirations left more than 3,000 people dead and many more were physically injured and traumatized.  However, in the early 1990s, things started to shift and a new political dispensation was on the horizon.  

By 1998, the major parties agreed on a peacebuilding framework, the Good Friday Agreement. Eighteen years on, the majority of the population uses nonviolent mechanisms to advance their agendas. Unionist and nationalist politicians now serve together in a new regional parliament and there are other new institutions and mechanisms designed to advance human rights. 

Northern Ireland, however, is still a society in conflict.  Although violence has been greatly reduced, bomb threats and shootings are still carried out by those who feel sold out or left behind by the peacebuilding processes. Moreover, there are real issues of discrimination and inequality and people are grappling with ways to deal with the past.  Lastly, it is important to recognize that there are other communities in Northern Ireland beyond the dominant binary narrative.  For example, Travellers and Roma are often marginalized socially and economically, and they have been victims of hate crimes.

 What led you towards this research?

I found it quite curious that on the geographic perimeter of Europe, the British state was engaged in a brutal conflict on a segment of its territory while seemingly otherwise conducting business as usual.  I have also wanted to learn more about the role of historic and contemporary grievances and state responses to nationalist movements.

Your primary area of work is in Middle East studies. What parallels do you see between that field and this research?

While I have done a good bit of research on the Middle East, much of my focus is on the broader United Kingdom.  Issues of human rights, self-determination, the legacies of colonialism and contemporary marginalization, while contextually distinct, span the geopolitical boundaries.

What conclusions have you come to so far in your research?

To effectively counter violence in conflict situations, we need to adopt an empathetic approach, embrace context in all its messiness, and spotlight the importance of relationships and structures in fomenting and transforming conflicts.  I also think we need to take care not [to] conflate repugnance for a group (or their tactics) with the veracity of their grievances.  

In what direction do you see yourself taking this research in the future?

Increasingly, I’ve been looking at self-determination, secession, and human rights, within and beyond the UK, examining international and regional legal regimes, in combination with state laws, policies and politics.  

Is there anything else you’d like to share with students interested in issues of conflict and counterterrorism in the region?

I encourage students interested in conflict and counterterrorism to engage with, but also look beyond, the dominant paradigms. I also believe in embracing your curiosities, reading (and thinking!) critically, and being creative your approaches to “solutions.”