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Sectarianism, Children and Community Relations in Northern Ireland.

 
  Introduction
 
 

It was during the relatively high levels of violence and conflict of the early 1970s that concerns were first voiced about the effects of sectarianism on the lives of children and young people (Fields 1973; Fraser 1974). While, in retrospect, these early studies appear to have been a little sensationalist and anecdotal, they did open up a debate that has attracted much research attention and popular interest over the ensuing decades (Gough et al. 1992; Trew 1992; Cairns et al. 1995; Cairns and Cairns 1995). One of the most recent reports, offering an important insight into the actual experiences and perspectives of children and young people growing up in Northern Ireland, seems to confirm that their day-to-day lives remain significantly influenced by sectarianism and the effects of the conflict (Smyth 1998).

It is not surprising that children and young people should provide the focus of so much academic and political attention. Most fundamentally, they represent ‘the future’. While there may exist a relatively pessimistic attitude towards the ability to mend bridges and resolve conflict among the adult population, children and young people are often regarded as less ‘entrenched’ and more receptive to new ways of thinking. It may well be because they are seen as holding the key to the future that some of the most concerted and sustained attempts at community relations work has been aimed at this age group. This is most evident in terms of the official sanctioning of community relations strategies at this level through the introduction of ‘Education for Mutual Understanding’ and ‘Cultural Heritage’ as cross-curricular themes within the national curriculum. While the actual impact of these statutory requirements on schools has been variable (Smith and Robinson 1996), there is no doubt that they have at least contributed to an increasing focus on the need ‘to do something’ with children and young people in respect of community relations work.

The most significant and widespread practical response to this perceived need has undoubtedly been the use of cross-community contact schemes. Since the Department of Education for Northern Ireland (DENI) first provided funds for such schemes between schools in 1987, the number of schools participating has risen from 15 per cent at that time to 45 per cent in 1995 (Smith and Robinson 1996). A similar picture also emerges within the Youth Service where it is has recently been reported that 65 per cent of full-time youth clubs, 32 per cent of part-time youth clubs and 38 per cent of uniformed organisations

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currently participate in cross-community contact schemes (Youth Council for Northern Ireland 1998). Moreover, the same report goes onto show that when the use of single identity work is also taken into consideration then the clear majority of youth organisations have been found to involve themselves in some form of community relations work (85 per cent of full-time, 60 per cent of part-time and 68 per cent of uniformed organisations). Overall, the effects of such work certainly appears to be encouraging with a significant majority of young people surveyed believing that ‘their involvement had resulted in a more positive perception towards those from other religious traditions’ and, for those involved in more frequent and sustained community relations work, they were ‘significantly more likely to have inter-religious friendships, and less likely to perpetrate sectarian bullying than those not involved’ (Youth Council for Northern Ireland 1998: iv).

The outlook for community relations work with children and young people, at least for the foreseeable future, also appears to be extremely positive. In relation to schools, for example, DENI’s current Strategic Plan for 1996-2000 underlines its own continuing commitment to community relations work by identifying it as one of the four key priorities for action for the education service. As DENI reiterate:

Schools have a vital part to play in strengthening the cohesion of Northern Ireland society. The ethos imparted in the school environment has an enduring impact. Contact between pupils of different backgrounds will continue to be promoted through the Cross-Community Contact Scheme, so as to build respect for, and understanding of, different cultural traditions. Education for Mutual Understanding will remain an important theme in the Northern Ireland Curriculum. Integrated schools also contribute to this important objective

(DENI 1997: Section 4.19)

The recent publication by DENI of a revised curriculum for youth work appears to afford community relations an even stronger role in relation to the work of the Youth Service (DENI 1998). In identifying personal and social development as being the central theme of youth work, DENI identify three core principles that should underpin the curriculum of youth work in order to achieve this. One of these three principles is the ‘acceptance and understanding of others’. In offering a rationale for the identification of this core principle, DENI argue that:

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It is important that youth workers appreciate that they are valuable role models and they have the potential to impart to young people the values of compassion, understanding and acceptance of others. By their example, they can do much to promote these values within their own units and can encourage the extension of such acceptance and understanding to other groups of young people within and beyond their local communities … Youth workers cannot ignore the major features of life which, in the context of Northern Ireland, polarise and divide young people, allow them to stereotype and categorise each other, and lead many of them into direct confrontation. Over the past 28 years, initiatives to promote greater acceptance and understanding of difference have emerged under a variety of community relations initiatives. This is vital work, if a tolerant and peaceful society is to be created. Youth workers are often well placed to help young people to arrive at a better understanding of their own beliefs, culture and sexuality, to acknowledge and accept the diversity of their own communities, to challenge prejudice, and to pursue equality of opportunity for themselves and for others.

(DENI 1998: 10-11)

Interestingly, we have now reached a significant point in the development of community relations work for children and young people. DENI’s own Strategic Plan has reached a mid-term review where it is currently engaged in a process of consultation on its strategic and supporting aims, priorities for action and targets set. This process, it is hoped, will enable the shadow education Minister to consider the results of this consultation early in 1999 and, in turn, will pave the way for a formal review of the Strategic Plan in April/May next. Moreover, the Youth Service is, itself, coming to the end of a fundamental review of its future role and scope. It is not only reviewing the current objectives set for the Service but also, more fundamentally, the age-ranges the Service should target, how to include young people and the wider community more centrally in the Service and how the Service relates to other agencies and organisations (Youth Service Policy Review 1998a, 1998b). The final Report is due at any time with an anticipated policy statement by the Minister in March 1999.

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It therefore also seems an opportune moment to reflect upon and evaluate the contribution that research has made to community relations work with children and young people and to consider its future role. This is the main purpose of the current Report. In offering a detailed review of research on children and sectarianism and on the contact hypothesis more generally, the Report will draw attention to the continuing gaps in our understanding and will suggest alternative directions for future research in terms of methodology and focus. In then drawing upon data gained from an exploratory qualitative study focusing on the experiences and perspectives of 10 and 11 year old children, the Report also aims not only to ‘model out’ a more effective research approach to the study of sectarianism, children and community relations work but will also offer some tentative indication of the nature and extent of the issues to be addressed.

Chapters One to Three, therefore, offer comprehensive reviews and evaluations of existing research on sectarianism and children and on the contact hypothesis respectively. Chapter Four draws together the main implications of these preceding reviews and sets out the central elements of an alternative methodological approach to the study of sectarianism, children and community relations. It also provides details of the specific methods used in the present exploratory study. Chapters Five and Six then provide an example of how this alternative methodology can be applied by offering the main findings of the exploratory study. Chapter Five focuses on the nature and forms that sectarianism takes among the children while Chapter Six offers a brief analysis of the impact and effects that a particular contact scheme organised between two respective youth clubs has had on the children’s attitudes and behaviour. The final chapter, Chapter Seven, provides a summary of the key issues raised by the Report in terms of both the general research approaches that have been adopted in relation to sectarianism, children and community relations work and the issues arising from the exploratory study with respect to policy and practice. The chapter concludes with a number of recommendations in relation to the implications of this for future research, policy and practice in the area.