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Sectarianism, Children and Community Relations in Northern Ireland.
Sectarianism and Children's Perspectives
The aim of this and the following chapter is to ‘model out’ a more productive approach to researching the influence of sectarianism in children’s lives. This chapter will focus on the children’s knowledge and understanding of the broader political situation and how this relates to their own day-to-day experiences. The following chapter will examine the impact of one particular contact scheme organised between the children and will argue that its effects can only be understood within the context provided by the children’s sub-cultures.
It needs to be stressed at the outset that this is only an exploratory study. Given the limited time available, no observations were made of the children either in terms of how they related to one another generally or, moreover, of their participation in the contact scheme that was organised. Moreover, the number of children interviewed was relatively small and, therefore, no claims can be made concerning how representative they may be of the children living in their respective areas.
The purpose of this and the following chapter, therefore, is simply to illustrate the nature of the data that can be gained from adopting a more qualitative approach as advocated in the previous chapter. Moreover, in contextualising the children’s perspectives within the broader context of their day-to-day experiences, it also demonstrates the analytical potential of such an approach in helping to understand and explain these perspectives. Ultimately, while it would be dangerous to generalise from the data to follow, they do, nevertheless, provide an important insight into how sectarianism impacts upon the lives of some children. As such, the study provides a number of insights in this regard that are important in their own right.
The children’s experiences of the conflict
Both Northside and Southside have been particularly effected by industrial restructuring and civil unrest since the late 1960s. Both areas have suffered disproportionately from the decline in manufacturing industries locally and share higher than average levels of long-term unemployment as well as significantly lower than average levels of owner-occupation, car ownership and educational attainment. The extent of endemic deprivation is therefore very deep in both areas.
The Catholic Southside is particularly affected by a high level of long term unemployment and a lack of employment opportunities within the area. Approximately 35 per cent of unemployed males in Southside have been unemployed for five or more years. Furthermore, the level of welfare dependency in the area is extremely high with the proportion of children in receipt of free school meals, for example, ranging from 49 to 87 per cent and the proportion of households receiving income support and housing benefit being consistently around 80 per cent.
The Protestant Northside area has experienced severe population decline during the last 10 years as the more socially mobile households (i.e. young families, better educated and employed) have left the area to relocate to other parts of Northern Ireland and Great Britain (mainly Scotland). The remaining population is comprised mainly of elderly households and single-parent families consequently rendering the Northside area as one which is increasingly becoming residualised and stigmatised.
Both areas have also experienced relatively high levels of violence and sectarianism since the late 1960s and as such have developed quite distinct political identities with both areas being marked out by peace lines and the presence of political murals, paramilitary graffiti and painted kerbstones. It is not surprising, therefore, that the children themselves develop a heightened sensitivity to the local politics of the area that reflects their respective positions and political understanding. This is illustrated, for instance, by the very different relationships that the children have developed with the police.
A good relationship appears to have been developed between the police and the local youth club in the Northside where the police are regularly seen to visit the club and take the children on outings. As some of the children explain:
At the time of the research, however, the IRA had only recently ended its first cease-fire. The problems that the police now faced in entering the Northside and visiting the youth club is illustrated by the following discussion:
For these children in the Northside, this experience and knowledge provides an important purchase on their understanding of the conflict. Some of them had developed close relationships with particular police officers and now, because of the ending of the cease-fire, the children are acutely aware of the fact that these same police officers also run the risk of being shot and killed by the IRA. The kind of insecurity and fear that this engenders among some of the Protestant children of the Northside will be a theme developed further later in the chapter.
In stark contrast, many of the Catholic children of the Southside had a very different experience of the police.
For these particular children then, their perception of the police is one of them being ‘Prods’, ‘British’ and ‘Orange’. Moreover, their belief that the police are ‘on the other side’ appears to be reinforced by their experiences of police and army patrols in their area that are highly armed. This is illustrated in the following discussion which also highlights that the children are acutely aware of the different relationships that the people in the Northside have developed with the police compared with themselves:
Within this context, it is not surprising that some of the children will come to develop a distrust of the police especially if, as the experiences of Liam demonstrate in the following discussion, they also have experience of more direct conflict with them:
The main point to stress from this is that these children’s perceptions of the police are not simply ones that are passed on from their parents and which they repeat unquestioningly. Rather, they are experiences that are also rooted in their own day-to-day experiences. It is not surprising that the children develop a view of the police as ‘the other’ if the only time they see them is when they patrol the area heavily armed and under army escort. Moreover, it is a view that can only be reinforced by the belief that this is not how they patrol the neighbouring Protestant area. In addition, this type of situation only helps to increase the distance between some of the children and the police and prevents more direct relationships developing as with the children of the Northside reported earlier. Moreover, house raids and high profile arrests also inevitably contribute to this perception of the police as ‘the other’ especially as the news and rumours travel around the local area and become part of the folklore of the children’s own sub-cultures.
Protestant children’s perspectives
What is significant from the last transcript is the fact that some of the children feel that, because of their perceptions of the police, they have no option but to turn to the IRA when a problem arises. This is a similar perspective held by some of the Protestant children of the Northside who feel that, because of the threat of the IRA, they need to rely on the Loyalist paramilitary groupings of the UDA and UFF. This is illustrated in the following discussion which centres around the events they saw on television news which took place in Derry/Londonderry a few days before:
The insecurity and threat that these children feel in relation to their own position, as discussed earlier, is clearly evident in the discussion above. Here, the children clearly make little distinction between the IRA and the Catholic population and, as Andrew argues, believe that they ‘want to get rid of us’. This sense of threat is exacerbated for these children given the increasing residualisation of their area and what they perceive as the growing threat posed by the Southside. It is this feeling that underlies the children’s strong sense of place and the need to defend their territory as illustrated in the following conversation:
This view was one shared by other children in the Northside and is also illustrated by Laura’s comments taken from another discussion:
This sense of territory was also clearly experienced by some of the Catholic children from the Southside who had to walk past the area to get to the swimming pool. The clear marking out of the territory and the danger of entering it is highlighted in the following quote taken from a discussion with some of the boys from the Southside:
This general experience of threat amongst some of the Protestant children and the need to defend their territory against the Catholics provides part of the context within which direct conflict between themselves and Catholic children from the Southside occurs. This is illustrated in the following discussion among some of the girls from the Northside:
This sense of threat and the inevitable conflicts which ensue provides these Protestant children with the necessary context within which they not only develop a sensitivity to and keen interest in local political events but also the essential framework within which they come to make sense of these events. This is illustrated in the following transcript which begins with the children talking about the visit of President Clinton during the first IRA cease-fire. This quote will be described at length as it illustrates the relatively detailed understanding of political events that they have gained from the TV and reinforces many of the themes raised above in relation to the perceived threat from the IRA and their failure to make a distinction between the IRA and the broader Catholic population:
This quote is significant for two key reasons. First, it demonstrates that these children are actively constructing their own understanding of the conflict. They are not simply and uncritically reproducing what their parents have told them but are actively and passionately working through and interpreting a wide range of news events for themselves. This is not to deny the broader influence of their parents and others but it is to stress that these children are actively thinking through and interpreting what they are told while also gaining a significant amount of information from sources other than their parents - in this case the media. Such discussion, and those to follow, should therefore indicate the need to develop a much stronger political and historical element to the children’s education even in the primary school.
Second, we can see that a complex relationship exists between the children’s own lived experiences and how they then come to interpret and understand the news. In other words, the specific feelings of threat and territoriality that the children express about their own situation, on the one hand, appears to mediate their reading of the news and the actions of Gerry Adams and the IRA. On the other hand, these broader news events then, in turn, provide the lens through which local events and experiences are understood. It is clear from this that their political perspectives are not simply a set of ‘free-floating ideas’ that can be engaged with through education and abstract debate. Rather, they are beliefs that are deeply rooted in their lived experience and can only be adequately engaged with through enabling them to explore their more personal fears and anxieties.
Against this broader context, it is therefore not surprising that some of the Protestant children from the Northside develop derogatory and prejudiced views about Catholics. The following discussion begins with the interviewer questioning Andrew who had earlier on in the conversation claimed that he could tell the difference between Catholics and Protestants:
What is interesting about the above discussion is the contradictions that emerge between the derogatory discourse about Catholics and then, at the end, Stephen’s statement that they are ‘sorta "alright"’. This is a contradiction that emerges among discussions with some of the other children as the following transcript highlights:
The above two transcripts are useful as they not only highlight the prejudiced views that these children have about Catholics but they also draw attention to the contradictions that exist in their thinking. In this sense, especially in Stephen’s recognition of the commonality that exists in relation to Man United, in Audrey explaining how she had been mistaken for being a Catholic and in the more egalitarian views of Gillian, the above transcripts demonstrate the opportunities and cultural spaces that exist for challenging the children’s beliefs and encouraging them to think through and critically reflect upon their attitudes and behaviour. This is a point that will be returned to at the end of the chapter.
Catholic children’s perspectives
We have already highlighted some of the core elements of some of the Catholic children’s perspectives on the conflict above and therefore only need to draw the main elements together and summarise them here. Similarly to the Protestant children that were interviewed, some had also developed a relatively detailed and sophisticated analysis of the political situation which had been rooted in their own lived experiences. For these Catholic children, however, it was not insecurity and fear that was the root of their experience but one of conflict with the police and with other Protestant children. As we have seen above, it is from this vantage point that these children have developed a perception of the police as being ‘Prods’, ‘Orange’ and ‘British’ and therefore being representative of the ‘other side’.
As we have also seen above, just as some of the Protestant children saw no difference between the IRA and Catholics, so these children also make little distinction between the police and Protestants. This is not only the case because of the belief that all of the police ‘are Prods’ but also because of the perception that the police do not carry guns and are friendly with those they meet in the Northside when on patrol. For some of the children from the Southside, then, the threats they receive from Protestants when walking past the Northside and their experiences of police and army patrols in their own area are two sides of the same coin. They are both perceived as representing the
same oppressive force which is against them and wants to see them leave and/or die. These children from the Southside are therefore acutely aware of the negative and antagonistic views towards them. This can not only be seen from some of the transcripts above where the children talk about ‘getting a hiding’ from Protestants but is also evident in the attention the following children paid to a comment that was reportedly made about Catholics by a member of the pop group Wet Wet Wet as evident in the following discussion:
In perceiving themselves to be located in an overtly hostile environment where, as shown earlier, they do not feel that the police are either willing to help or come to the aid of Catholics, some of these children have invested their trust in the IRA. This can be seen in the following quote:
Finally, it is from this basis that some of these children in the Southside also develop antagonistic and stereotypical views about Protestants. As the following discussion highlights, the threat they feel translates into general hatred for Protestant children:
It is interesting to note, however, that these Catholic children, while exhibiting this hatred for Protestant children, did not seem to develop the derogatory views about them in the same way as some of the Protestant children did about them. In interviews, these Catholic children only commented upon their ‘posh’, ‘English’ accents as highlighted above but did not portray the Protestant children as ‘rough’ or inferior.
Developing anti-sectarian work
The final point I wish to stress here is the cultural space that exists among the children for developing anti-sectarian initiatives. Earlier we touched upon some of these in relation to how one of the boys could recognise the commonality of interest he had with those ‘on the other side’ through football. There was also the experience of one Protestant girl who was attacked because she was mistaken for being
Catholic. Similarly, another girl was keen to stress that we are ‘all the same’. A similar space was also created by the following Protestant girl who talked of her experience of a cross-community visit to a Catholic church. While she obviously did not wish to go, she did stress the need to ‘have the decency’ to reciprocate
These types of incidents which draw attention to commonalties, contradictions and existing egalitarian beliefs are all good entry points into the children’s social worlds. They provide useful starting points from which to encourage the children to think through and critically reflect upon their existing beliefs. While it is beyond the remit of this present study to offer suggestions as to how this could be done in practice, it is at least important to recognise that such cultural spaces do exist and that the picture is not so uniform and bleak as the proceeding sections of this chapter may lead us to believe.
This chapter has offered a detailed exploration of the children’s understanding of their present situation, their grasp of the broader political context and the nature and influence of sectarianism within this. While the warnings given at the beginning of the chapter concerning the dangers of generalising from such a small, exploratory study need to be borne in mind, it does highlight the clear potential that qualitative methods provide for helping to understand the social processes, contexts and experiences that lie behind the children’s perspectives. In this sense the chapter has fulfilled its primary purpose.
However, the data does also offer some important insights into the experiences and perspectives of at least some children growing up in areas of relatively high conflict. As such, for these 10 and 11 year old children at least, we can conclude that they:
Above all, it is clear from the brief case study that sectarianism cannot simply be understood as an irrational set of beliefs that children unquestioningly take on board and which can easily be educated away.
Rather, it would appear that the development of the children’s beliefs as outlined above is essentially a very rational and understandable process given the contexts within which they live. It is this understanding of sectarianism and its implications for community relations work that I now wish to consider in more detail in relation to the role of contact schemes in the following chapter.