Reducing prejudice in Northern Ireland

Research has found that interaction between Catholic and Protestant groups could have a stronger impact on reducing levels of prejudice between both faith groups in Northern Ireland when it is a novel feature in a person’s life.

The two studies, published in the British Psychological Society’s British Journal of Educational Psychology via the Wiley Online Library, were carried out by psychologists from England, Northern Ireland, and Italy examined the amount of contact between Catholic and Protestant students in Northern Ireland at current and prior levels of education, and at home. They then examined the effects of contact on levels of prejudice.

The research determined that contact with a member of another faith group was found to be more powerful in reducing prejudice when it was a unique feature in a person’s life. Forming intergroup relationships for the first time at university-level, for example, appeared to have a stronger impact on reducing prejudice for those who have had little inter-group contact in the past, when compared to those who have had a lot of prior inter-group contact.

Dr Ananthi Al Ramiah of the University of Oxford says:

“Inter-group contact needs to be encouraged where possible and not only during the early stages of education. Interaction is especially beneficial in reducing prejudice if there has not been contact before. This finding supports the idea that it is never too late to introduce intergroup contact.

“This finding has potentially important implications, especially in post-conflict societies, such as Northern Ireland, where people from different groups may now live alongside or at least in some proximity to one another. It could also help policy-makers when deciding how best to allocate resources to improve community relations.”

The team of researchers also included Society Fellow, Miles Hewstone from the University of Oxford, Alberto Voci from the University of Padova, Ed Cairns from the University of Ulster, and Joanne Hughes, from Queens University Belfast.

This is hardly surprising as a finding but it is often overlooked, in research about NI, that political culture is wider than religious identity alone. The impact of social deprivation and the dominant political ideology of a community is, perhaps, more significant as a factor in intergroup relations than a religious affilliation.

A trip around Belfast and the sites where political murals are displayed can be quite instructive. I remember a neighbour of mine who was a clergy man working in Belfast remarking at attendance in church on days of orange parades. For many, participation in the church event was a necessary part of the march rather than a conviction arising from religious principles.

Reading the speeches of James Craig, as PM of Northern Ireland, and his remarks about catholics suggest a social rather than religious bias. While religious affiliation is a feature in that conflict that marks NI, it is not a feature of life in the rest of Ireland and it never has in the way that is or was historically the case in Northern Ireland. Why is this?

I suggest that political and socio economic factors are a large causal factor. It would be good to see that question of the factors underpinning the NI divide being explained more widely than just religion. There are many people in NI who will never go to university and if you were to look at the socio economic background of many who served prison terms for political and terrorist crimes, there will be answers deeper than religious affiliation alone.