Darby, John Patrick (1941–2012), social and political scientist, was born on 18 November 1940 at 149 Springfield Road, Belfast, where his parents Sadie (née Mackle) and Patrick Darby ran a pub. When he was a young child his family moved to Portrush, Co. Antrim, where he attended St Patrick’s primary school; he later boarded at St Patrick’s College, Armagh. Undertaking a BA in history at QUB (1959–62), then post-graduate teacher training (1962–3) at St Joseph’s training college, Belfast, he taught history at St Malachy’s College, Belfast, from 1963 before joining the Northern Ireland Community Relations Commission (CRC) (c. 1970) as research and publications officer.
With Geoffrey Morris, Darby co-wrote the landmark report Intimidation in housing (1974) which examined the response of public authorities to the then largest forced population movement in western Europe since 1945. Between 1969 and 1973 over 8,000 families were compelled to vacate their homes in the greater Belfast area; catholic families, who comprised twenty-five per cent of the population, accounted for eighty per cent of these movements. A draft report (containing significant criticisms of the RUC, alongside praise and criticism of the British army) was reviewed by commission members and relevant agencies, before being leaked to the press in April 1973. It observed how both the IRA and the UDA encouraged intimidation for tactical reasons. A revised report was eventually made public. In 1974 the CRC was disbanded under the Sunningdale power-sharing regime, largely because of the furore generated by the report.
That year Darby was appointed a lecturer in social studies at the New University of Ulster (NUU) in Coleraine and researched socio-religious educational segregation in Northern Ireland with a grant from the US Ford Foundation. In the first study of its kind, Darby and his co-authors deployed qualitative and quantitative methods to analyse the province’s separate and religiously discrete dual educational infrastructures. Education and community in Northern Ireland: schools apart? (1977) delineated how the parallel systems were surprisingly similar, exhibiting a common suspicion of parental involvement while encouraging the development of hostile communal attitudes amongst children. A follow-up report, Schools together? (1984), found cooperation between the two systems to be almost entirely lacking and further established the extent of socio-religious segregation in Northern Irish schools.
Darby’s first book, Conflict in Northern Ireland: the development of a polarised community (1976) comprised bibliographic review essays addressing various facets of Northern Irish history, society and politics. Violence and the social services in Northern Ireland (1978), co-written with Arthur Williamson, examined how various state agencies and bodies responded to the Troubles. In Dressed to kill (1983) Darby examined over 5,000 political cartoons in Irish, UK and international newspapers, as well as publications from loyalist, republican and British military organisations, to document how cartoonists perceived the Troubles from varying national and political perspectives.
His Intimidation and control of conflict in Northern Ireland (1986), emanating from 1972 CRC research, examined three small communities exhibiting significant intracommunity intimidation. He observed how intimidation could be effective in homogenising a community and preventing further violence. This informed a wider argument that Darby made publicly from the early 1980s: namely that endemic conflict continued because Northern Irish society deemed violence tolerable. The price of compromise was greater than the cost of ongoing violence in a context where ‘compromise is universally seen as a synonym for treason’ (Ir. Independent, 3 Dec. 1988).
Darby forged international links with scholars and funders, compensating for the fact that the primary UK social science research funding body, the Economic and Social Research Council, refused to fund research projects addressing the Troubles or examining the wider endemic conflict in Northern Irish society. He was a co-founder of the post-graduate Centre for the Study of Conflict (1978) at NUU and chair of the faculty of social and health sciences (1985), and founder and director of the Ethnic Studies Network, established in 1991 to engage with international scholars studying conflict resolution elsewhere. In 1990–91 the Centre for the Study of Conflict, which focussed on Northern Ireland, arranged clandestine contacts between the UUP, the DUP and the SDLP (Guardian, 17 Aug. 1993).
The Ethnic Studies Network attracted the attention of the UN, which in the post-Cold War international environment was increasingly grappling with inter-ethnic conflict in the former Yugoslavia, Somalia and elsewhere. Darby, as professor of ethnic studies, was closely involved with the establishment of the Initiative on Conflict Resolution and Ethnicity (INCORE) in 1993. A joint undertaking between the University of Ulster and the UN University, Tokyo, INCORE conducted research into peace processes around the world, closely examining how social attitudes influenced reconciliation and integration attempts. Darby’s Scorpions in a bottle: conflicting cultures in Northern Ireland (1997), written for the Minority Rights Group, assessed how ethno-nationalist conflicts are contested at the extremes of electoral politics.
In 1999 Darby was appointed professor of comparative ethnic studies at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, University of Notre Dame. Teaching at the university in autumn, he spent part of each year in Northern Ireland and continued to publish. The management of peace processes: coming out of violence (2000), co-edited with Roger Mac Ginty, examined diverse ethnic conflicts moving towards resolution. The effects of violence on peace processes (2001) observed the steps necessary to engender peace. Recognising violence as the key catalyst which creates and destroys peace agreements, Darby examined the quandary of the state as both the guarantor of peace and a source of violence. He argued peace agreements should envelop all who might usurp their implementation and consider the interests and motivations of as many actors as possible, primarily to mitigate spoiling by zealots. With Mac Ginty, Darby co-wrote Guns and government: the management of the Northern Ireland peace process (2002) which investigated how the participation of civil society groups and violent militants broadened the societal base of the peace process. Darby and Mac Ginty observed how emphasis of the principle of ‘parity of esteem’, embedded in the 1998 Belfast Agreement, paradoxically reinforced the oppositional nature of the world view of each community. The two also edited Contemporary peace making: conflict, violence and peace processes (2003), which assessed the preparation, negotiation and implementation of peace accords around the world. Their work demonstrated how the South African peace process provided an example for Northern Ireland, emphasising how such processes borrow from each other.
Darby also looked at why peace accords fail so frequently. Seeking to identify common characteristics of successful peace processes, he examined the exchange of ideas and approaches between them. In 2004 he founded and directed the ‘Peace Accords Matrix’ project, in collaboration with Uppsala University, Sweden. This collected documentation and data from over forty international peace processes instituted since 1989, a comprehensive database was launched in 2011 allowing the systematic analysis and comparison of accords. The project’s research findings closely informed the peace negotiations that concluded in Colombia in 2016. Juan Manuel Santos, president of Colombia (2010–18) and sole recipient of the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize, paid tribute to the Peace Accords Matrix for informing his own country’s path to peace (Roger Mac Ginty, ‘John Darby, the PAM project and the Nobel Peace Prize’). Drawing on data from the ‘Research initiative on the resolution of ethnic conflict’ project hosted by the Kroc Institute, Darby co-wrote with Tristan Anne Borer and Siobhán McEvoy-Levy Peacebuilding after peace accords: the challenges of violence, truth, and youth (2006); he also edited Violence and reconstruction (2006) which emerged from the same project.
Highly sociable, Darby deployed his considerable wit and storytelling abilities while mentoring many early-career scholars and collaborating widely. He loved to travel, especially to Sri Lanka, and spent many trips there and elsewhere talking to those involved in conflict, telling them about other peace initiatives. He convinced many in Northern Ireland, and elsewhere, of the benefits of absorbing lessons learnt from the resolution of other conflicts.
A member of the UK standing advisory panel on human rights (1984–6) and the standing advisory commission on human rights (1986–90), and a board member of the Irish Peace Institute, Darby was awarded an OBE in 1997. In over 120 academic publications he established a leading international reputation in the burgeoning field of the comparative study of peace processes, which he had played no small part in establishing. He was shortlisted for various international scholarly awards for many of the fifteen books he wrote or edited, held visiting positions at Harvard and Duke universities, and was a fellow of the Rockefeller Foundation in Bellagio (1990), the Woodrow Wilson Center, Washington DC (1992), the US Institute of Peace (1998) and the Fulbright New Century Scholars Program (2003). After suffering from motor neurone disease for some time, he died on 2 June 2012 at home in Portstewart, Co. Londonderry, survived by his wife and their two sons. The Kroc Institute established the John Darby memorial fellowship in 2016, supporting doctoral students engaged in peace studies at the University of Notre Dame.