UMass Boston

Moakley Chair Padraig O’Malley Celebrates New Book on Reunification of Ireland

06/29/2023| Adam Mooney

The John Joseph Moakley Distinguished Professor of Peace and Reconciliation Padraig O’Malley celebrated the publication of his new book in March. Following a European book launch in Belfast, O’Malley hosted a U.S. book launch for Perils and Prospects of a United Ireland in May at the Plough and Stars, a Cambridge pub O’Malley co-founded in 1969 with his brother Peter. The storied bar, which is home to the earliest editions of the lauded literary journal Ploughshares, saw friends and passersby duck out of the rain to hear O’Malley reflect on his work, including what a reunification of Ireland and Northern Ireland might look like, and sign books.

The John Joseph Moakley Distinguished Professor of Peace and Reconciliation, Padraig O’Malley.

For O’Malley, the U.S. book launch is the mark of an important period in both his professional and personal life and, in many ways, marks a full circle, which he reflected on in a recent interview. Perils and Prospects of a United Ireland sees O’Malley return to the study of Northern Ireland after many years. O’Malley’s early work in peacemaking centered on Northern Ireland, but as his career progressed, his impact expanded beyond the island of Ireland, where he was born in 1942.

At the launch, he commented that now was the time for him to do so. Following the event, O’Malley explained, “Growing up, no one had any interest at all in Northern Ireland.” His first professional interest in the region came after he left a good job in the Irish Civil Service to come to the United States. Here, he was studying and working as co-owner of the Plough when Bloody Sunday occurred in 1972. In the wake of the tragedy, the Plough organized a benefit concert in Dorchester with other Boston-area Irish bars—“a people’s event,” he called it. Charging $2 a person to get in, the bars raised $14,000 in support of families affected by the conflict.

This marked the start of his investment in Northern Ireland. Soon after, O’Malley visited Derry with a colleague to do outreach to families. “That changed my life,” he explained. A career around the conflict in Northern Ireland soon emerged. He went on to publish on op-ed in the Boston Globe that was read by the editor at Houghton Mifflin Company, who later suggested O’Malley turn it into a book, which became his 1983 book The Uncivil Wars: Ireland Today.

By the 1990s, O’Malley had, as he explained, “signed off on Northern Ireland. I’d moved onto South Africa. I then moved onto the Middle East and Iraq.” But around 2017, after decades spent in peacemaking around the world, O’Malley decided he should return to the subject of Northern Ireland.

Originally envisioning the project as a book on suicide and trauma in Northern Ireland following the Troubles—citing that more people died by suicide in the twenty years after the conflict than in its thirty years—the project didn’t quite stick. By January 2020, when he began interviewing people in Northern Ireland without a clear plan, he settled on “the perils and prospects of a united Ireland,” the subject line of the emails he sent out to potential interviewees.

Published just weeks prior to the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, O’Malley’s book contributes to conversations around peacemaking in the region, of which O’Malley played a significant role. The book extensively charts primary themes that emerged through his research process, assisted by Allyson Bachta, a doctoral student in the Global Governance and Human Security program, who supported O’Malley’s writings with data and ended up producing nearly 100 pages in footnotes. The book draws from various sources, including, most prominently, the CAIN Archive at Ulster University and the University of Liverpool’s Institute of Irish Studies. O’Malley was also aided by Marcy Murninghan, senior advisor for outreach and engagement at the McCormack School and longtime friend of O’Malley’s, who compiled an extensive bibliography for the book.

Alongside this foundation of research, O’Malley interviewed 97 political players, academics, and political influencers on the subject to get insider perspectives. After all was said and done, O’Malley found a few primary themes to consider that would inform the reunification of Ireland. First was the subject of a border referendum. The Good Friday agreement dictates that the secretary of state shall call a border referendum if it appears to him that a majority vote for it in Northern Ireland. “‘If it appears to him’—what does that mean?” O’Malley wondered. He investigated the metrics the secretary of state could draw on that would suggest a majority and found that no such metrics exist, meaning that the majority of Northern Ireland does not yet support a reunification with the Republic of Ireland.

Another angle became the economy. As O’Malley explained, Northerners have long said that “The Republic cannot afford us.” Any potential reunification would have to consider the economics of the region, O’Malley found. Third, O’Malley investigated “the main protagonists”: Sinn Féin and the unionist parties. “I looked at where they were headed and what they seemed to be suggesting as paths from their respective places,” O’Malley commented.

For O’Malley, the project sought to provide an up-to-date look at the many factors that play a role in the conversation of reunification. Drawing from insiders, O’Malley hoped, too, that interested readers could use the book to inform their understanding of the conversation. As Moakley Chair, O’Malley has long been invested in centering people in conflicts, working to bring various parties to the negotiating table through his peacemaking efforts in divided societies like Northern Ireland and South Africa. Through it all, he writes for everyday readers. As he says, “I try never to write for academics. I try to write for the interested person.”

Reflecting on the reception of the book launch—where people were crammed into every corner of the bar to celebrate O’Malley’s work—he called the book launch at the Plough and Stars “humbling” and “the best book event I’ve ever had.” For one, he sold nearly five times as many copies of his book as his other book launches. Audience members at the Plough squeezed through the crowd and shuffled in line to get their hands on a pint and a copy from bartenders.

More than that, the book launch provided O’Malley with pause to think on what he finds important in his life. He explained, “My relationship with some of those people has stretched back over decades. That they turned out on a day with the most awful weather we’ve had so far—a really wicked day—was surprising.” He recalled feeling grateful to see people like Shaun O’Connell, professor emeritus in the English department at UMass Boston whose work focuses on Irish literature, in attendance. “Shaun’s 88 years of age,” O’Malley said, “but we knew each other for 50 of those 88 years.” 

After the event, he reflected on what it meant for him to see so many of his friends and colleagues from his decades-long career gather on the occasion of his new book. Among the dozens of people in attendance were many McCormack and UMass Boston affiliates: McCormack’s interim Dean Rita Kiki Edozie and senior advisor Marcy Murninghan were in attendance, as was professor emeritus and former UMass Boston provost Winston Langley. O’Malley commented, “It moved me to reexamine the way I’ve lived my life” and focus on what is important—“to work your relationships, not to work your work.”

O’Malley’s U.S. book launch at the Plough and Stars comes on the tails of a European book launch with his publisher the Lilliput Press, of Dublin, and precedes another book event in the fall in Washington, D.C. Never one to rest on his laurels, O'Malley is off to Northern Ireland once again to commemorate the 30th anniversary of a Belfast-based citizens' inquiry into prospects for peace there. Organized by the Opsahl Commission—named for its chair, Norwegian human rights scholar and professor Torkel Opsahl—the inquiry brought warring parties in Northern Ireland together to introduce new voices and vocabulary to the debate. O’Malley was one of the members of the Opsahl Commission, which later produced The Opsahl Report on Northern Ireland.

In addition to the publication of Perils and Prospects, O’Malley has just published the most recent issue of the New England Journal of Public Policy, its sixtieth issue since 1986. As founding editor of the journal, O’Malley draws from his own expertise to arrange the current issue of articles on the challenges facing democracy and democratic peacebuilding in divided societies and grows the research output at the McCormack School.