Pivotal

Author

Joanne Murphy

Joanne Murphy

Published

As Northern Ireland embarks on another ‘new start’ to governance, the need for leadership has been a major refrain from those inside and outside the region. One of the things that characterises political leadership in Northern Ireland is how individuals speak and act with passion and genuine concern for their own homeplace.

For many, this is also the constituency they represent. ‘Place–based’ leadership provides both a connection and foundation for decision making and action, but it can also be a constraint – embodying aspects of contested history, culture, identity as well as embedded networks of connection. In a society undergoing the transition from conflict to a hopefully more positive form of peace, it is useful to ask how our understandings of ‘leadership of place’ contributes to that transition.

 

My colleague Sara McDowell (Ulster University) and I have been looking at this and have interesting findings that we believe illuminate our understandings of leadership in NI – its challenges, difficulties, and the place–based nature of its development. Our research draws on three sets of data collated over a six–year period – January 2017 and December 2023. It includes a narrative review of three parliamentary archives (London, Dublin, Stormont), an analysis of public discourse, and sixteen semi structured interviews with key public, private and voluntary sector stakeholders.

Below are five major insights for local leaders and their leadership practice.

Acknowledge Context

In NI, context is intrinsically connected to history. As we know, the Assembly and Executive have been fully operational for 16 out of its 25 years. This pattern of post–conflict instability has been heightened by Brexit, which underlined and intensified the deep divisions within society and the body politic. Our research demonstrated that Northern Ireland was perceived as liminal – betwixt and between conflict and peace. In such environments, there is a persistent danger that underlying chaotic dynamics and schismogenesis (the ‘creation of division’) will trap societies in perpetual transition, preventing the transition to social and political stability. When we spoke to public, private and third sector leaders in NI, the message was simple. To move beyond our contested history and our present–day difficulties ‘we have to get past the past’. This related not just to conflict legacies but also to how things have been done previously in the delivery of public services and economic development.

Beware of ‘the Trickster’

When moving through liminal spaces, leadership becomes increasingly important and leaders themselves often take on a number of roles. Two of these roles can be characterised as ‘The Host’ and ‘the Trickster’. The Host guides participants through uncertainty, sensemaking and helping participants find a way in sometimes frightening processes of change. Tricksters operate differently – instigating conflict, fermenting division, and trapping participants in liminal space. When we looked at leadership in NI, public actors took on both roles. However, there was a understanding that to create change, leaders needed to beware of the lure of the Trickster – promising easy answers to complex questions, especially when it came to issues of reconciliation, finance, health infrastructure and environmental sustainability.

Retain Relationships

The East–West and North–South arrangements enshrined in the 1998 Agreement effectively ensure that both the British and Irish governments have a stake in the political landscape of Northern Ireland. Those relationships have been sorely tested post Brexit. We found that discourse in the RoI and UK parliaments around NI and leadership were markedly different, with a focus on peace and conflict in Dublin and a major emphasis on Brexit in London. What was unmistakable was the significance of these external relationships to the future of NI and how leadership acted within it. Maintaining and retaining relationships internally and externally was vital to progress.

Disrupt Stagnation

Many of our interviewees looked back to periods in the political process when adaptive and plural leadership was more evident. These were regarded as ‘high water marks’ in the development of the region. Some focused on the 1998 Agreement, others on the early days of devolution and many on the short period of time of when Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness were in leadership positions in the Northern Ireland Executive. These periods were identified because they illustrated an ability to act differently and to disrupt the stagnation which has often characterised political activity here. Many of those we spoke to felt that these periods of significant change were a positive example of what can be done if leaders are willing to act together with both confidence and courage.

A Collective Undertaking

Our interviewees were asked to reflect on what leadership was and the characteristics they felt it embodied. Many identified qualities such as humility, authenticity and imagination within individual leaders and more plural practices around leadership in the context of a post conflict society. Most focused on leaders as individuals, rather than leadership as an activity. However, one of the most significant insights in leadership research over the past decade is an understanding of it as a shared, rather than an individual undertaking. Our research would suggest that this distinction is at the heart of the leadership challenge faced by Northern Ireland. If the myriad of problems that beset us are to be addressed, we need to move beyond a concern for ‘leaders’ and towards an understanding of leadership as a collective, combined and positively place–based endeavour.

Joanne Murphy is Professor of Inclusive Leadership in Birmingham Business School, University of Birmingham. Her work focuses on leadership in contested contexts and her last book ‘Management and war: How Organizations Navigate Conflict and Build Peace’ was published by Palgrave (2020). 

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