Michael Livesey - No such thing as political violence: A genealogy of security in 1970s Britain

Peace wall in West Belfast 2017
© Copyright David Dixon - Peace Wall West Belfast

About my research

My research explores British security policy during the Northern Ireland Troubles. During the Troubles, the British Government introduced the UK’s first ever ‘counter-terrorism’ laws. These laws gave the Government powers like stop-and-search, detention without charge, exclusion, and non-jury trials for suspected ‘terrorists’. All these powers remain on the UK’s statute book today, and continue to cause controversy. My PhD thesis questions how it was possible to introduce such powers in the first place. This means analysing the rhetoric by which Government ministers justified the transition to a new and ‘unpalatable’ domestic security architecture.

My research also looks at security interventions made by the British Army in Northern Ireland itself. This includes analysing the so-called ‘peace walls’: Berlin-style security barriers built by the Army, to physically separate Catholic/nationalist and Protestant/unionist areas in cities like Belfast. These walls have had negative effects for Northern Irish communities’ mobility, cohesion, and even health. My research explores these effects, and asks how it was possible to introduce such harmful infrastructures, which the Government itself recognised as ‘an ugly thing to see in a city in the United Kingdom’.

All Troubles-era peace walls were due to come down in 2022, but they remain standing today.

What made me interested in this topic

I have mixed British and Irish heritage. One side of my family lived in Northern Ireland before the Troubles, but left after violence began. I’ve always been interested to learn more about the Troubles, because every family that lived through the violence still carry some scars. This PhD gave me the opportunity to explore one part of the Troubles story: the role of British political agents in contributing to violence through their own security technologies. At a more general level, I’m really interested in how people justify security practices like stop-and-search, or the peace walls: which have many harmful effects (often, more so than the ‘threats’ they were designed to contain). My research is ’critical’ in the sense of trying to point out the harms within security practices which people have deemed ‘natural’ or ‘necessary’. I always think of my research as trying to get behind the matrix of taken-for-granted common sense which makes harmful security possible.

Peace wall in Northern Ireland with the word 'security' engraved into the brick

What's new about my research

Firstly, my research advances an important argument about the historical roots of contemporary security practices. Often, we can’t understand the present without paying attention to the past. But, strangely, this simple lesson gets overlooked in a lot of political science and international relations scholarship. I come from a background in history. And, when I moved into politics & IR, I was surprised by the absence of historical approaches and knowledge. Most research on ‘terrorism’ or ‘counter-terrorism’, for example, only looks at events and practices since 9/11. My research goes deeper into the historical past: exploring the evolution of counter-terrorism in an earlier period, as well as demonstrating this earlier evolution’s own roots in a long ‘genealogy’ of Anglo-Irish relations.

Secondly, my research has introduced some methods innovations. My PhD combines analysis of language (the rhetoric by which Government ministers justified new counter-terrorism powers), with analysis of space (the peace walls’ effects for spatial mobility) and arts-based materials (the murals which communities have painted onto peace walls). This combination of different sources, or ‘modes’, of data is unusual in politics/IR. I’m excited by the lessons I’ve drawn from a genuinely mixed PhD methodology, and for opportunities these lessons might afford for future research.

What impact my research could have

As I say, one thing that excites me about my PhD is the diversity of methods I’ve used during my research. This includes arts-based methods. During my fieldwork in Belfast, I took photographs and made sketches of the peace walls built there by the British Army during the Troubles.

So far, people who have seen the materials have reported their surprise in learning about the Troubles – and about the peace walls. Most British people aren’t aware of the extent (and continuous impacts) of British security interventions in Northern Ireland. This lack of awareness has some harmful effects itself, including in a lack of public pressure to ‘de-securitise’ Northern Irish space. I hope the exhibition, and the research it’s drawn from, will help people understand British security policy in greater depth – and to question its validity for the future. So, feel free to come along and learn more!

What's most interesting about this work

Ultimately, the most valuable thing about research work is the freedom it gives me to ‘follow my nose’: whenever I’ve found something that puzzles or interests me. Sometimes, this freedom can lead me down rabbit holes. But mostly, it’s enabled me to learn new things and develop new skills. During my PhD, I’ve been able to explore ideas, methods, and empirical materials which I think are important, or which matter to me – rather than relying on other people’s perceptions. Usually, it's been this freedom from others’ direction which has brought my research to its genuine ‘contributions’ (a buzzword for academics).

Having worked under line management before, where I had to persuade bosses that what I wanted to do was worthwhile, this independence felt both scary and empowering when I first started the PhD! I hope it’s taken my research to new and innovative places (I’ll leave that for others to judge). And I also hope I’ll have the opportunity to keep following my nose in future.

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