2020 - 2029

Honorary Citation by Dr Mary C. Murphy for Professor Brendan O'Leary

22 May 2023
L-R: President of UCC, Professor John O'Halloran and Professor Brendan O'Leary

A dhaoine uaisle, is mór an onóir domsa a bheith anseo inniu chun céim oinigh Dochtúir Ealaíne a bhronnadh ar Breandán Ó Laoghaire.

President, colleagues, and distinguished guests, it is my immense pleasure to contribute to today’s UCC honorary conferring of the renowned political scientist, Professor Brendan O’Leary.

Professor O’Leary is the Lauder Professor of Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania and one of the world’s leading scholars in his field. For his work on Northern Ireland’s political history and its contemporary politics, Professor O’Leary is arguably the most cited, the most respected, and the most significant figure over recent decades. His work has been both important and influential in documenting the Northern Ireland conflict and the peace process and in proposing forms of conflict management and resolution. Brendan’s research on consociationalism – a form of power-sharing – has been especially significant. Indeed, his work finds expression in the Good Friday Agreement which bears a number of consociational characteristics and hallmarks.

But let me start at the beginning – Brendan was born in St Finbar’s Hospital in Cork in 1958 and his first year was spent not far from this very spot. He describes himself as a child of Blarney St and Magazine Road. His Cork roots are important to him – everyone who knows Brendan knows of his connection to this place. His family also has strong links with University College Cork. His father Donal J. O’Leary (chemistry) and his uncles Paud O’Leary, and Denis Brendan O’Leary are all graduates of UCC. His mother’s brother, Diarmuid O Mathúna, is also a UCC graduate who later went on to study for a PhD at MIT. His family’s academic reach extends to his cousin Dr Patrick O’Leary who is the Registrar of the NUI.

But Brendan’s time in the place of his birth was short. Just over a year after he was born, his family left for Northern Nigeria which was at that time enduring a vicious civil war. The family stayed there for some years, before moving back to Ireland, but this time to Northern Ireland in 1968 – a year which is considered to mark the start of the conflict there. Brendan would later say: ‘I grew up thinking that war was normal’.

Brendan attended St MacNissi’s College in Garron Tower, Co Antrim. On finishing school, he won a scholarship to study at Oxford University where he earned a degree in Politics, Philosophy and Economics. From there, he went to the LSE where he studied for his doctorate in political science. He would soon become a member of faculty at the LSE, and very shortly a Professor. Indeed, Brendan was one of the youngest ever to be appointed a Professor by the LSE.

That trust in a young scholar was well-placed. Brendan would go on to produce and publish work of substantial scholarly, social and political significance.

A Treatise on Northern Ireland is a three volume study published by Oxford University Press in 2020. Each volume is organized around a theoretical concept: colonialism, control, and consociation. Written over a period of roughly 12 years, it is based on Brendan’s prodigious reading, interviews, and archival research. The volume was the winner of the James S. Donnelly, Sr. Prize from the American Conference for Irish Studies and voted an Irish Times Book of the Year. It is arguably the most detailed and definitive account of Northern Ireland’s political history to the present day. It is an extraordinary and important piece of work.

Brendan’s most recent book, Making Sense of a United Ireland: Should it happen? How might it happen? (Penguin 2022) was described by the Financial Times as ‘a welcome and compelling read’. It is a landmark and comprehensive exploration of Irish unity and the challenges, obstacles and opportunities it presents. Praised by many, and criticised by some, it stands out as one of the most authoritative studies of what future Irish unification might involve.

In 2021, Professor O’Leary was one of the co-authors of the Final Report of the Working Group on Unification Referendums on the Island of Ireland (published by The Constitution Unit, UCL). This is a work of considerable importance because its findings serve as the essential reference point for how a future border poll might be structured, timed and conducted.

A further mark of Brendan’s influence – particularly in the study of consociationalism – was the publication in 2009 of an edited book entitled Consociational Theory: McGarry and O'Leary and the Northern Ireland Conflict. John McGarry is Brendan’s lifelong friend and colleague – it’s quite an extraordinary thing that both men were classmates in St MacNissi’s College in Co Antrim.

In addition to these stand-out works, Brendan is author, co-author, and co-editor of thirty books and collections; author, co-author of hundreds of articles or chapters in peer-reviewed journals, university presses, encyclopedia articles, and other forms of publication, including op-eds and commentary pieces.

Brendan’s research expertise has been widely sought by politicians, political parties, governments and international organisations. His research has been applied not just to Northern Ireland, but to a number of conflict situations, and has led Brendan to undertake a range of different advisory and consultative roles on the achievement and consolidation of peace across different parts of the world.

As we mark the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, it is timely to note that Brendan was a political advisor to the British Labour Shadow Cabinet on Northern Ireland between 1987-8 and 1996-7, advising the late Kevin McNamara and the late Marjorie (‘Mo’) Mowlam, shadow Secretaries of State for Northern Ireland. He also advised Irish, British, and American ministers and officials, and the Irish-American Morrison delegation during the Northern Ireland peace process. He appeared as an expert witness before the US Congress, and has been a guest at the White House on a number of occasions during the 1990s. His work with his friend and colleague - John McGarry - on police reform has been singled out for influencing the independent commission on police reform in Northern Ireland (the Patten Commission) which reported in 1999.

Professor O’Leary has since been a constitutional advisor for the EU and the UN in the promotion of the confederal and federal re-building of Somalia, and for the UK’s Department of International Development in consultancies on power-sharing in coalition governments in Kwa-Zulu Natal, South Africa, and in Nepal.

For the UN, Professor O’Leary was among the principal consultants to its 2004 UN Human Development Report on Culture and Liberty, co-edited by Amartya Sen. In 2009-2010 he was seconded to the UN as the Senior Advisor on Power-Sharing in the Standby Team of the Mediation Support Unit of the Department of Political Affairs. In that capacity he had field experience in numerous conflict-sites, including in Sudan, South Sudan, Nepal and Kyrgyzstan, and he chaired a seminar of the United Nations General Assembly on mediation.

In 2003, Brendan was invited to visit the University of Southern Denmark and give a lecture on 10 years of Iraqi Kurdistan. In this context, Brendan was encouraged to apply his knowledge about power-sharing in Northern Ireland to this new context. Brendan later recalled: ‘I gave the talk, and afterwards the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister of the Kurdistan region asked me, would I be willing to advise them if the Americans removed Saddam from power? I said “yes”, assuming that the Americans were not going to remove Saddam!’

With the support of his home University of Pennsylvania, Brendan was in Kurdistan for most of the first half of 2004, and again for a lengthy period in 2005. This was during the making of the transitional administrative law and then the making of Iraq’s constitution. Brendan would later note that: ‘These were some of the most remarkably interesting experiences of my life.’

Since that period, Brendan has regularly been an international constitutional advisor to the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq, assisting in the negotiation of the Transitional Administrative Law (2004); electoral systems design (2004-5); the Constitution of Iraq (2005); the draft Constitution of the Kurdistan Region (2005-); and in monitoring violations of the Constitution of Iraq by its federal government. He has been an expert witness on Iraq and Kurdistan to branches of the US Government, and to the UK’s Iraq Commission, and an expert witness in court cases related to Iraq's Constitution.

The respect for Brendan’s research is but one mark of the esteem in which he is held. It is important to acknowledge the influence Brendan has had in terms of shaping the next generation of scholars. Brendan places enormous weight on his role as teacher and mentor. His support for his PhD students has always been generous and immense. Even long after they have graduated, Brendan continues to support and to advocate – in the words of one of his PhD graduates: ‘Many of us feel we owe our careers to him’. Established colleagues too have been influenced and motivated by Brendan’s scholarship. Students and academics around the world – including here in UCC – study his conceptual and empirical work.

Brendan strongly believes in objectivity – he rejects the idea that everyone has their own facts. Indeed, Brendan places objective analysis above political beliefs and background – and reflecting this, his work is grounded in honesty and authenticity. He also welcomes debate and he appreciates being countered by intellectually rigorous critics. He once said:

I think it is incumbent on social scientists and historians to indicate where they come from, literally and figuratively, and how their views might potentially be challenged and how they might be wrong.

Be warned however – he does not suffer fools.

Brendan’s wife Dr Lori Salem cannot be here this evening, and nor can his three daughters, but I am sure that they are here in spirit. It is wonderful that Brendan’s sister Mary and some of his extended family are joining us in person this evening. I know that Brendan is immensely proud of his family – today I’m sure that pride is reciprocated in spades. Brendan is also proud of where he comes from. Every summer he returns to Northern Ireland – to the beautiful village of Cushendall in Co Antrim. For a man whose life has been dedicated to helping in the pursuit of peace, Cushendall is a place where Brendan himself feels at peace.

Allow me in finishing to underline the significance of Brendan’s work for the future of this island. Throughout the last century, and since partition, the unification of the two parts of the island of Ireland seemed remote, if not impossible. However, recent political developments (notably the fallout from Brexit); demographic change; shifting public opinion; the emergence of civic society movements pushing for a border poll; the reconfiguration of the political party system in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland; and other exogenous factors (including calls for Scottish independence) have put the question of future Irish unity on the political agenda. The political and constitutional future of the island of Ireland – in whatever form – is therefore, an issue of contemporary significance.

Awarding this honour to Brendan is a statement of UCC’s public support for the kind of research and scholarship which is informing what may become one of the most important political decisions of our lifetimes.

In recognition of his extensive, important and multi-dimensional contributions to political science and, in particular, to the study of Northern Ireland, it is my honour and privilege to present Professor Brendan O’Leary for an honorary Doctor of Arts from University College Cork.

Praehonorabilis Pro Vice-Cancellarie, totaque Universitas! Praesento vobis: hunc meum filium quem scio tam moribus quam doctrina habilem et idoneum esse qui admittatur, honorus causa, ad Gradum Doctoratus in Artibus; idque tibi fide mea testor ac spondeo, totique Academiae.


Bronnadh Céimeanna

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