Alexandra Dinning

Civilization and Savagery: The Launch of the Security and Conflict Research Group with Orla Guerin

For as long as people have existed, so has barbarity- you do not have to be at the forefront of current affairs to realise that at any given time, there are people in the world suffering due to war. This was the big draw for academics and interested parties alike to the grand Leggate theatre in October. Its featured line-up promised to think about how we engage with trying to make the world a safer and more peaceful place.

Bookending Liverpool’s 15th Irish Festival, the event was hosted by Peter Shirlow from the Institute of Irish Studies, and the legacy of the Northern Ireland peace process served as a running theme for most of the talks; the hope of reconciliation it gave countering some of the more seemingly hopeless present-day situations mentioned. Shirlow underscored the necessity of an interdisciplinary approach in striving for improvement.

Before Guerin as the keynote speaker, Liverpool academics from law, geography, sociology, languages, and politics pitched their research that encompassed issues worldwide. Topics included representation of war crime victims and human rights issues, the role of art projects in reconciliation, reproductive rights, counter-terrorism and law as a mediator between state and civilian. The seemingly far-flung areas of study only underlined how impactful security is a basic human need- not to mention how easily things go wrong without it.

This provided a grounded backdrop for Guerin’s talk, buoyed by Shirlow’s assurances that so many had attended her speech the previous evening they had had to barricade the doors. “I am aware” she joked, “it is not necessarily a good sign when I show up”. This did not dull the feeling of anticipation- backed by the projection her laptop background, a tank topped with a Kurdish flag, she gave the audience a comprehensive tour of her career in her characteristic reporter’s deadpan.

Her main suggestion: conflicts now, versus the early nineties when she started her career, are more insidious and harder to stop- in many cases frontline war has mutated into the random terrorist attack. However, regardless of what time period she took an anecdote or a report from, its conclusions were usually similarly harrowing. One of her first stories spoke of seeing her 25-year-old war photographer friend rushing to a stand-off in Sarajevo, 1992 and not returning, questioning “who will explain what is being done in Sarajevo?”. Listing some of the colleagues she had lost over the years, Guerin underlined the inherent dangers of her profession with precision.

Unsurprisingly, this did not stop her still making a great case for the continuing necessity of war journalism, detailing recent excursions to Iraq and Yemen. Drawing from her BBC reports and her personal experience, she provided impactful accounts of events in both countries. Being smuggled into Yemen as it underwent bombing by Saudi Arabia and interviewing “seemingly ordinary” jihadi militants on their justification were some of the most striking parts a talk already full of deeply important moments.

She was also careful to mention the positive change to have come through the industry- a more macho, emotionally repressed culture is being gradually replaced with one aware of a need for personal safety and mental stability. Her reflections on behind the scenes also offered a different picture to the narrow lens of the news report, revealing both the generosity of strangers who helped film crew and the mundane happenings in between filming.

When the floor was opened to questions, one audience member took issue with Guerin’s suggestion that today’s wars were a fight between “civilisation and savagery”.  They were, however, placated with the answer that she did was not describing a fixed duality, least of all between ‘West’ and ‘East’. In keeping with her declaration that conflict was harder to judge in the world today, it seemed that politics from all corners of the world shared some culpability.

Although enemies may be shifting and conflict may be everywhere, Guerin, as with the other speakers, remained keen to point to areas of hope. She mentioned both that Northern Ireland “have shown how the guns can be silenced” and the to date near removal of ISIS from Iraq,  down from one-third of the country down to a tiny portion near Syria. Positive transformation, as always, was the most important matter on the agenda, and Guerin concluded in showing us that we are not entirely without it.







Featured image courtesy of The Independent

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