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Sectarianism, Children and Community Relations in Northern Ireland.

  Chapter 7:
Summary and Recommendations


The purpose of this Report has been twofold:

  1. To provide a review and assessment of the contribution that existing research has made to our understanding of sectarianism and community relations work with children;

  2. To suggest and ‘model out’ an alternative methodological approach for future research that has the potential to make a significant contribution to the refinement and development of community relations policy and practice for children.

It has been stressed throughout that the small-scale and limited nature of the case study means that it is dangerous to use it as a basis to develop generalisations about youth clubs and/or contact schemes. In line with the above, the primary purpose of the case study has simply been to demonstrate the type and quality of data that can be generated from the alternative methodological approach that has been proposed. However, while by no means representative, the case study has produced some useful insights into the nature of sectarianism and community relations work with children.

What follows is a summary of the key issues raised in the Report together with the main conclusions drawn. This will be followed by a set of recommendations concerning the future direction of research on sectarianism and community relations work with children.

Summary and conclusions

Sectarianism and children

  • It is reasonable to assume that children, from about the age of three, are able to develop an understanding of the categories of ‘Protestant’ and ‘Catholic’ (although possibly not using those precise terms) and to apply negative characteristics to these.

  • These initial categorisations can be understood to have an ‘imprinting effect’ where they progressively become embedded

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within the children’s ways of thinking and behaving. With time, and as children are exposed to broader social contexts and experiences, they will come to develop more elaborate and sophisticated ways of identifying, categorising and evaluating others.

  • Sectarianism is not confined to individual prejudices and beliefs but is manifest in, and reproduced by, peer-group relations and sub-cultures and a range of broader social, political and economic structures.

  • The expression of sectarianism among children is rooted in their day-to-day experiences. For some, it appears to provide the interpretative lens through which they develop a keen interest in and understanding of the news and politics of the conflict.

  • The expression of sectarianism among children can therefore only be fully understood within the particular sub-cultural contexts within which it occurs.

  • The findings of the exploratory study would appear to suggest that children are not passive receptacles to be filled with the sectarian beliefs and value-systems of their parents but are actively and competently involved in appropriating, re-working and reproducing these sectarian beliefs in order to make sense of their own experiences.

Community relations work with children

  • Given the fact that sectarianism is to be found at all levels of society – from the systemic and structural to the sub-cultural and subjective - any community relations strategy needs to be similarly multi-layered and involve effective interventions at all of these levels.

  • Children and young people appear to have gained overwhelmingly positive experiences from cross-community contact schemes. Such schemes will inevitably continue to provide an important element to any community relations strategy in their potential to address sectarianism and foster respect and mutual tolerance at the sub-cultural and subjective levels.

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  • Given the fact that sectarianism will manifest itself differently from one context to the next, the nature and content of community relations work and, within this, each contact scheme should be carefully planned in relation to the existing needs and experiences of the children in any one area.

  • Whatever the current situation in any particular area, it is clear that community relations work needs to engage directly with their perspectives and experiences, whatever these may be. In relation to the children in the present case study, this should also involve helping them to work through their own anxieties and fears.

  • Cross-community contact schemes should play a key role in this type of approach. However, it will require the continued training and support of those organising such schemes and also will inevitably require appropriate work with the children prior to and then following the contact.

  • Some form of community relations work with children needs to begin as soon as they are capable of being influenced by sectarianism which, from the available evidence, appears to be from about the age of three onwards. Certainly, the available research suggests that children of this age, with the appropriate help and support, are capable of reflecting upon their own attitudes and behaviour (see Connolly 1999).

  • When discussing the importance of finding neutral venues for cross-community contact to take place, the current case study would suggest that this should include consideration of the socio-cultural context as well as the geographical location.


Recommendations for future research

Given the above summary, a number of general recommendations arise in relation to the future direction of research on sectarianism and community relations work with children.

  • In contributing to our understanding of the nature and influence of sectarianism in children’s lives, research needs to adopt a much more qualitative, ethnographic approach that focuses on the children’s own experiences and perspectives.

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  • Through the use of a broadly ethnographic approach, such experiences and perspectives need to be contextualised within the broader social contexts within which the children are located including the sub-cultures of their peer groups and the wider processes and practices evident within their locality.

  • Within this overall methodological approach, a much more comprehensive picture needs to be constructed of how the influences and effects of sectarianism are likely to develop and change with age. Such an understanding is essential if a realistic and appropriate community relations curriculum is to be developed for children aged 3 – 11 years.

  • Similarly, an understanding of the effects of particular contact schemes and the underlying reasons for these will only be gained from such a qualitative ethnographic focus. As before, such schemes cannot be studied in isolation but rather their influences and effects on children’s attitudes and behaviour can only be understood through a consideration of the wider social contexts within which they take place.