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Sectarianism, Children and Community Relations in Northern Ireland.
Children and Contact Schemes
In the previous chapter, we have seen just how able and active some of the children are in appropriating and re-working broader sectarian ideas in order to make sense of their own day-to-day experiences. We have seen that sectarianism is therefore a deeply rooted set of beliefs and actions that provides the lens through which these children come to develop a keen interest in the politics of the conflict and through which they also develop a strong sense of themselves and ‘the other’. The main purpose of the chapter was to show that sectarianism is not an irrational set of beliefs that can simply be ‘educated away’ through teaching ‘one side’ about the other’s culture and traditions and/or by simply facilitating contact between the two main groups. Indeed in relation to contact schemes, it is clear that their effects can only be understood by extending the type of methodology used in the previous chapter to the issue of the children’s experiences and perspectives of particular cross-community contact schemes. As before, such experiences can only be fully understood by locating them within the broader social processes and contexts provided by the areas in which the children live and their own developing sub-cultures.
This provides the basic focus for the present chapter. The chapter draws upon the children’s experiences of a particular contact scheme organised jointly by two youth clubs in the Northside and Southside areas respectively. It involved bringing the children together via a disco. Unfortunately, the analysis to follow is limited given the fact that the disco took place before the interviews and thus no observations of the event were possible. We are therefore relying mainly upon the retrospective accounts of the children themselves.
Having said that, it does provide an extremely interesting case study in which the contact organised appears to have actually led to some of the children reinforcing their existing sectarian beliefs. In attempting to locate the reasons for this within the context provided by the children’s broader sub-cultures, the discussion to follow does provide an important insight into how a methodological approach of this type can help to understand and explain the particular impacts that cross-community contact has on children’s consequent attitudes and behaviour.
As before, there are clear dangers in attempting to generalise from this one case study. Indeed, given the broader survey data that is available on children and young people’s experiences of contact that was discussed in the introduction to this report (see Youth Council for Northern Ireland 1998), it would appear that this is a distinctly unrepresentative case study. The rather negative and adverse consequences to be discussed here sit is stark contrast with the overwhelmingly positive experiences of cross-community contact that children and young people have reported more generally. Accordingly, what follows should not be taken as a criticism of contact schemes per se. Indeed, as was stressed in Chapter Three, it is the argument of this Report that cross-community contact is a necessary and integral part of any community relations strategy.
Indeed it is precisely because of the importance of contact schemes that it is being argued here that we need to adopt a methodological approach that can help us develop a much greater understanding of their underlying processes and effects. While the type of processes and events to be discussed below are not representative, they do draw attention to some of the problems that can arise within contact schemes and the need to ensure that they are effectively planned and resourced.
The chapter will begin by briefly introducing the reader to the two respective youth clubs before examining particular elements of the children’s sub-cultures of relevance to the present study. This will then provide the context within which the children’s participation in the disco organised by the two youth clubs and the consequent effects on their attitudes can be understood.
Northside and Southside Youth Clubs
The children from both the Northside and Southside attended several youth clubs in their respective areas and also, for those predominantly from the Northside, they also attended a number of uniformed organisations including the Scouts and Guides and Boys’ and Girls’ Brigades. However, the Northside YC and Southside YC remained the most popular in each area respectively. As regards the Northside YC, it is undoubtedly due to the fact that this is the only formal recreational facility in the area specifically for children. The other youth clubs and groups that the children attended involved a fair amount of travel. The Northside YC is open three nights per week and offers a range of ‘traditional’ youth club activities, including snooker, darts, table tennis, football, computer games, a weekly disco and camping trips.
The Northside YC has been operating in the Northside for 25 years and ‘employs’ two youth leaders who work on a voluntary basis. Furthermore, one of the youth leaders is also the founder of the youth club. The youth club occupies a relatively small building that was originally a factory and has been converted. On a wall opposite the entrance to the club and on the gable end of the building itself, there are a number of murals supporting loyalist paramilitary groupings. Conversely, the youth clubs used by the children from the Southside tend to be purpose-built facilities and this was commented on during interviews with the children from the Northside. Children from the Northside who had visited other youth clubs via various contact schemes commented that youth club facilities in Catholic areas were often ‘bigger and better’ than their own youth club.
The Southside YC occupies a purpose-built building and is also located relatively centrally in the area. The club was established by the local Catholic Church in the early 1970s and offers an almost identical range of activities as the Northside YC. Similarly to the Northside YC, the Southside YC is also located in an area that has a number of republican murals and political graffiti including a number of signs depicting that it is a ‘no-go area’ for the RUC.
Both youth clubs receive funding from the Education and Library Boards. However, both youth clubs regard this funding to be inadequate and hence they resort to raising their own funds which is normally achieved by holding bazaars, discos, concerts and jumble sales. Moreover, because the Southside YC caters for a larger demographic area, the funding it receives is substantially greater than that for the Northside YC. This difference is further exacerbated by the increasing residualisation of the Northside as outlined earlier and thus the smaller number of children in the area. The youth leader at Northside YC was very aware of the differences in the facilities on offer at other Catholic youth clubs in the area and commented on how some of the children felt after a visit to a neighbouring catholic youth club:
Facilities for the children of Northside are likely to change in the next few years however. A major priority of the Northside Strategic Plan is to improve and enhance facilities and opportunities for children in the area. As the Northside Estate Partnership becomes more articulate and au fait with applying for funding and highlighting the level of disadvantage in the area to the statutory sector and other funding agents, the more likely they will be to attract the necessary support to develop proposals for children and other residents.
The children’s sub-cultures
Before looking in more detail at the social role that discos play among the children at the two youth clubs, it is worth offering a brief outline of some of the more salient features of their sub-cultures in general and the particular things that the children value and aspire to within this. This will then provide the necessary context for understanding the types of interaction and conflicts that occur within the social setting of the disco.
For the purposes of this present report, we can best understand the children’s sub-cultures as involving a number of factors that the children value and compete over in order to gain status among their peers. For these children, the factors often involve what are considered to be ‘adult’ knowledge and behaviour, including smoking, drinking and sex. The more that the children can demonstrate knowledge and practical experience of one or more of these things, the more they gain status among their peers (see also Connolly 1998a). As a result, interactions between the children often involve intense competition and argument over such knowledge and behaviour. This is illustrated in the following discussion among children from the Southside:
As pointed out in Chapter Four and also argued elsewhere (see Connolly 1997), we need to bear in mind that these children are discussing these issues infront of an adult. As such they may well be exaggerating and/or lying about some of the points they are making so as to try and impress the interviewer. However, whatever the underlying truth is behind this discussion, it is clear that the children have come to value such activity and are keen to compete with one another over expressing knowledge about it as a way of gaining status. While we therefore cannot assume that the above conversation is representative of the ones the children might usually engage in when alone, it is clear that the topics of the conversation provide important elements within their social worlds that they value and compete over.
Above and beyond drinking and smoking, the topic of sex and relationships proved to be one of the most important for some of these children in demonstrating their ‘adult’ knowledge and status (see also
Grugeon 1993; Connolly 1995, 1998a; Hatcher 1995; Kehily and Nayak 1996, 1997; Epstein 1997). This is illustrated in the following discussion among children from the Northside:
Boyfriends, girlfriends and youth club discos
It is clear from the discussion above that having a boy/girlfriend infers a great deal of status for some children. At this age, when the children are increasingly coming to try out and experiment with relationships of this kind, the weekly disco provides one of the main social contexts within which reputations are made and status is conferred and lost. This is illustrated in the following discussion about discos among some of the girls from the Northside:
The importance of the disco as an arena within which some children experiment with relationships and where status is struggled over is also illustrated in the following discussion among some boys, also from the Northside:
Again, as regards the two discussions above, it is impossible to tell how much of this is fantasy and how much is based upon reality. Given the nature and style of the conversations that took place among the children and the general exaggeration and boasting that happened, then we would have to be very careful in assuming that these discussions accurately reflect the day-to-day interactions among the children. However, and as already argued, they do illustrate quite clearly the importance of this type of knowledge and experience and the centrality it plays within the children’s sub-cultures as they compete with one another for status.
Youth club discos and contact schemes
This is the necessary context within which we can now assess the impact of the cross-community contact that has taken place between the Northside and Southside Youth Clubs. A significant part of the contact involved bringing the Protestant and Catholic children together for a disco. In talking to the youth club leaders it would appear that there was no preparatory work carried out with the children in their respective youth clubs prior to the event in relation to encouraging them to think about and critically reflect upon their beliefs about children from ‘the other side’. Neither was this the focus of the contact scheme itself when the children met together. Rather, the idea appeared to be simply to begin to break down the divides that had built up among the children by bringing them together via a disco.
In retrospect, it would appear that the problem of such an approach comprises two elements. First, the children, who are already deeply divided as we have seen, were brought together unwittingly into an arena which is a highly contested and status-ridden one. As outlined above, discos are, by their nature, highly-charged affairs where the children’s reputations and status among their peers are continually at stake. Bringing two groups of children together into such an arena who already have a history of deep division and conflict can only be
seen as making matters worse. Second, because the scheme did not involve any anti-sectarian work with the children at all, then the children’s existing prejudices and beliefs were left to simmer beneath the surface to then be stoked-up and reinforced by the events at the disco.
As a result, of these two elements, one of the effects of the disco for at least some of the children was simply to help to sustain and reinforce their existing sectarian beliefs as they attempted to understand and make sense of their own and others’ precarious attempts at developing boyfriend/girlfriend relationships. This is illustrated by the following discussion that took place among some of the boys from the Northside following their contact with children from the Southside at the disco:
These types of derogatory views were also found among some of the Protestant girls following their attendance at the disco. While part of the following quote was used in the previous chapter, it is worth repeating here to further emphasise the negative consequences of this type of contact scheme:
Clearly, we need to be cautious in the conclusions we draw from this brief case study. There may well have been more positive and productive consequences to arise from the contact described above as well as the more negative and adverse ones stressed here. Certainly, the events discussed here cannot be used to draw any conclusions about contact schemes as a whole. As stressed at the beginning, the main purpose of this chapter has simply been to ‘model out’ and demonstrate the usefulness of adopting a more qualitative methodological approach to the study of contact schemes. Even from this relatively limited and incomplete study, it is clear that a number of important insights can be gained from such an approach that can help to inform the continuing development and refinement of cross-community contact. Ultimately, several points can be drawn from this present study. These are: