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James O'Connell and peace studies

James O'Connell, who has died at the age of 87, was through testing years head of Bradford University's department of peace studies. His successor pays tribute to a remarkable figure whose experiences in Ireland and Nigeria were crucial to his outlook.

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
11 September 2013

At the time of the Falklands/Malvinas conflict in 1982 there weren’t many universities or think-tanks in the UK providing independent critical analysis of the progress of the war. One was the department of peace studies at Bradford University, which at the time had but a handful of staff and barely a hundred students. Such was the political mood of the day, though, that a classic bit of graffiti on campus read: “they used to hang traitors - now they give them degrees in peace studies”.

A couple of years later, at the height of one of the most dangerous periods of the cold war, peace studies at Bradford was again under attack, this time directly from Margaret Thatcher's government. The education ministry, led by Sir Keith Joseph, was putting serious pressure on the University Grants Committee to investigate what was widely viewed as pro-Soviet “appeasement studies”.

The head of the UGC, Sir Peter Swinnerton-Dyer, approached the vice-chancellor at Bradford about looking at the department as part of a normal overview of the university, promising an independent and genuine assessment. This was a very unusual request, possibly unique in the 1980s, as the UGC did not normally go into such detail. The Bradford vice-chancellor agreed - but only if the peace-studies staff would go along with it.

The head of the department at that time was Professor James O’Connell. He discussed the request with his staff and they agreed. Swinnerton-Dyer and a colleague visited the department, looked at examination scripts, publications and other outputs, and gave peace studies a positive assessment. Thatcher and Joseph were reportedly very annoyed, but the UGC was a lot more independent of government that its modern-day equivalents and there was little they could do about it (see "Climate science: a peace-studies lesson", 12 March 2010).

A life in the world

James O’Connell, who died on 8 September 2013 at the age of 87, played an outstanding role in the growth of peace studies at Bradford. He was head of department for fifteen years from 1978-93 and by the time he retired twenty years ago, the discipline at Bradford had acquired a worldwide reputation as one of the leading university centres for peace research.

James’s background was distinctive. He was born in Cork in the early years of Ireland's independent statehood, was educated in Gaelic in his early years, ordained a Catholic priest in 1952 and awarded a PhD from Leuven/Louvain in 1957. He was a member of the Society of African Missions and worked in Nigeria for twenty years, including seven years as professor of government at Ahmadu University in Zaria. He left the priesthood but remained a Catholic for the rest of his life. James was expelled from Nigeria in 1975, mainly as a result of getting on the wrong side of politicians for his role in redrawing the constitution after the Biafra war, and was then dean of arts at Northern Ireland Polytechnic for two years before coming to Bradford to succeed Adam Curle in 1978.

At Bradford, as well as facing up to intense external pressures James had the difficult task of trying to combine leading a department that had staff and students heavily involved in activism with fulfilling the academic demands of an often suspicious university. As Jenny Pearce has written, James’s approach was that “the true activism of university work is scholarship” but this was nuanced by a passionate belief that “scholars should provide intellectual resources and information for activists, politicians and policy makers” (see Jenny Pearce, “Editorial”, Peace and Conflict Research at Bradford, 2010).

This is what he encouraged at Bradford and in doing so set a pattern which persists to this day. In one sense the intense scrutiny that focused on the department from academic and political opponents was greatly to its advantage because it meant that anyone publishing or lecturing from Bradford had to set very high standards. It also meant that some very committed and hard-working students chose to study there, and it was not uncommon for academic staff to take a cut in salary in order to come to Bradford from more secure institutions.

James’s role in all of this was crucial and it stemmed partly from his own background. As a native of County Cork he had a distance from the British establishment that ensured he was never in awe of it. Moreover, his quiet demeanour concealed a tough centre and a determination which surprised many who knew him little, ensuring that he played important roles at Bradford not just as head of peace studies but also variously as dean of faculty and pro-vice-chancellor.

In addition to his university work James played a key role in the development of a particularly effective NGO, the British American Security Information Council (BASIC), as its longest-serving board member: a clear demonstration of his determination to combine scholarship with support for activism (see "James O'Connell", BASIC, 9 September 2013).

If I may add a personal note, I was one of the first staff that James recruited at the end of the 1970s and it was my privilege to follow him as head of department. When he arrived there were six staff, by the time he retired there were twenty-one and a student community from at least thirty countries, in an institution that had become renowned internationally for the quality of its work. Without James’s role at Bradford, peace research would be very much weaker. To have fostered that development in any circumstances would be a notable achievement. To have done it in the difficult political climate of Britain in the 1980s is nothing short of remarkable.

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