Maps and metaphors guide the way to resolving conflict

Sir George Bain served as Vice Chancellor of Queens University Belfast from 1998-2004

Northern Ireland (or is it the North of Ireland?) is often described as ‘emerging’ from 30 years of violence known as ‘the Troubles’, 22 years after they were officially ended by an agreement whose name cannot be universally agreed. The power-sharing Executive and Assembly have finally been restored after a three-year hiatus. Promised measures for dealing with the legacy of the conflict have come and gone: the proposals of Eames–Bradley (2007–2009), Haas–O’Sullivan (2013), the Stormont House Agreement (2014), and the Fresh Start Agreement (2015) followed by the UK government’s public consultation on ‘Addressing the Legacy of Northern Ireland’s Past’ (May–September 2018).

But is ‘addressing the past’ the same as ‘dealing with’ it?

It’s a question examined in a new book which explores the language people choose to use and its political and social impact. Calming Conflict: Northern Ireland, Metaphor and Migration by Dr Brian Lambkin also suggests a solution to difficulties in finding a common approach to discussing the past. The book proposes a new educational resource for sharing histories – not just the Troubles, but family and local history stretching back centuries.

The book is published by the Ulster Historical Foundation and the Mellon Centre for Migration Studies and it is the author’s long association with the latter which forms the basis for the core proposal of this work.

Migration studies presents the movement of people — and the impact of this on families, communities and the wider population — as a central issue in relation to matters of segregation and integration. The new book’s proposed ‘CALM’ project takes the form of online atlases: a ‘Conflict Atlas for Local Migration’ (CALM I) and a ‘Citizens’ Atlas for Local Migration’ (CALM II). CALM I is primarily for the academics and CALM II for the wider public.

This book convincingly and coherently links the themes of conflict, migration and metaphor.

I am familiar with conflict studies through having been Vice-Chancellor of Queen’s University, which excels in the field, when I had the privilege of working with Senator George Mitchell as our chancellor.

I am also familiar with migration through being a migrant myself (Canadian-born with roots in Ireland and Scotland), through having researched and written family history and through serving on the board of the Ulster Historical Foundation.

But I have to admit that I had not previously heard of the academic discipline of ‘metaphor studies’. This book highlights and examines the way we use metaphor; for example, whether we choose to use a phrase such as ‘emerging’ from conflict, or ‘moving beyond’ it.

The fundamental argument of this book is very persuasive: that ‘hitting on the right metaphor’ is key if we are to get better at explaining conflict, proposing solutions and persuading others to adopt them.

Beyond this, Calming Conflict is an affirmation of the importance of family and local history and of the view that recording these stories is of social benefit, which should interest the policy-makers and practitioners concerned with community relations strategy.

Importantly, Calming Conflict practises what it preaches. It not only teases out the tangled way in which ‘experts’ have sometimes ‘calmed’ but also sometimes ‘enraged’ the conflict; it also makes detailed, well-illustrated proposals in terms of the digital mapping – prototypes can be seen at the book’s companion website, developed in partnership with Queen’s University (

As Dr Lambkin explains, the CALM projects need power-sharing support – between our Colleges (in fact, all educational institutions), Archives, Libraries, and Museums (also CALM!). This need not rely on politicians; it could be initiated now.

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