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Charting a course for peace

John McGarry sits in an office chair in front of a wall of bookcases. His legs are crosses with his hands resting on his left knee.

Photography by Jackie Hall

Winning awards is nothing new for Queen’s Political Studies Professor John McGarry, but when the renowned expert in conflict resolution got the call that he had won the 2022 Pearson Peace Medal, his jaw almost hit the floor. 

The medal is one of the highest honours in this country. Given out every year by the United Nations (UN) Association in Canada, it recognizes Canadians who have made significant contributions to peace and prosperity around the world. Past recipients have included former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Beverley McLachlin and Lt.-Gen. Roméo Dallaire.  

“To be mentioned in the same breath as some of these people is stupefying,” says Dr. McGarry. “I feel like a bit of an impostor.” 

Yet if you just scan Dr. McGarry’s CV, you might think otherwise. The native of Northern Ireland is widely recognized as one of the world’s leading specialists on power-sharing, and he was appointed the UN’s first Senior Adviser on Power-Sharing in 2008. He also spent more than a decade as the lead adviser on power-sharing and governance in the UN-backed negotiations in Cyprus, and has been part of peace processes in Bolivia, Moldova, Iraq, and elsewhere. He was even involved in informal backchannel talks on Ukraine before Russia’s invasion last year.  

Dr. McGarry’s interest in conflict started early. He grew up seeing the origins of the troubles in Northern Ireland first-hand as a Catholic living in the largely Protestant town of Ballymena. “I knew people who were killed and I myself walked past a car that blew up a few minutes later,” he remembers. “It all led to a need to inquire into what was causing this.”  

It also led to the work he is most proud of. In the 1990s, he co-wrote three books seen as influential in the making of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement (which sought to end conflict in Northern Ireland), and that also informed the achievement of representative policing in Northern Ireland.  

Today, Dr. McGarry is keeping a close eye on Ukraine, and says he would be happy to be part of any peace process when the time comes. He believes that while Russia has no right to annex Ukrainian territory, the time will likely come when both sides want a negotiated settlement. “If either of them prefers fighting and is able to keep fighting, then we don’t get a deal.”  

In the meantime, Dr. McGarry is focusing on what he always has: combining academics and practice. “I always like to say that it is possible to mix academic research with practice. And it’s possible to bring practice to bear on teaching as well – students are fascinated to hear this stuff.” 

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