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Tufts University

Publication Date

Fall 2008

Program Name

Ireland: Transformation of Social and Political Conflict


The inevitable question as a society emerges from conflict is how to deal with the past. Commemorate and remember or forget and move on? More importantly, how does this choice affect the participants in the conflict and other members of society—how is commemoration or disregard transmitted to the population? Looking around the world at societies emerging from all types and degrees of conflict, divergent approaches to this seminal question are taken at every turn. Centrally, societies must decide how to deal with perpetrators of violence; South Africa may have the most famous method for dealing with victims and perpetrators of violence: the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Here, the victim(s) or victims' family are given the chance to confront the attacker in a safe, public space; in exchange for agreeing to appear at the TRC and admitting their role, the perpetrator is given amnesty. Other states and regions transitioning from violent conflict have taken both harsher and more lenient approaches to dealing with the victim/attacker relationship, but there are still more crucial questions to be answered.

Ten years after the Belfast Agreement, Northern Ireland seems to be transitioning from consistent and repeated cycles of violence into a less violent but still divisive conflict. Despite the deaths of 3500 people as a result of the conflict, many in Northern Ireland disagree on the current status of the conflict. I have heard from people who firmly believe that the conflict is over and should be written up in the history books today, while others maintain that a conclusion cannot arise without reconciliation and a true transition into a peaceful society. In addition, people have forgotten even to consider a basic question that is fundamental to resolving this conflict: why and how did it start? Why are people fighting, what motivates them? Casting the IRA (Irish Republican Army) or the UVF (Ulster Volunteer Force) aside as bands of terrorists is counterproductive, but similarly, assuming that the only way to end the violence is to accede to the demands of the paramilitaries is foolish, not to mention impossible on many levels.

In reality, the two warring factions in Northern Ireland are more alike than different. Catholic Nationalists and Protestant Unionists may differ in their perception of which nation they belong to, but there are very few cultural differences that an outsider could discern. In fact, the two communities in conflict have very similar cultures, come from the same civilization, and so by no means was the conflict inevitable. Additionally, the area of Northern Ireland is relatively prosperous, as are the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland. The conflict is not about access to a limited resource. Many of these themes have been discussed and suggested as potential causes for the continuation of division and conflict, but I will join a plethora of scholars in arguing that the enmity that has been built up between Unionists and Nationalists is based on little more than conflicting senses of identity. Certainly myriad factors contribute to the ongoing division in Northern Ireland, but this is a central issue. Moreover, both communities in the North suffer from a scarcity of multiple identities; the goal, then, is “fragmenting rigid identifications.” (Smith, 2005) There are few common identities in the North, specifically because any label used by one community is like to be disregarded and even hated by the other.

Identities that have been cemented over hundreds of years may not be immediately alterable or “fragment-able”, but the best and only way to directly address identity issues in each community is through education. The issue of education in Northern Ireland is one that has been studied often, especially related to the development of identity and sectarian attitudes, but the role of history education in particular has been largely ignored in favor of a focus on the segregated school system or the new citizenship curriculum. Yet history classes are a potent source of information and a key influence on the perpetuation of sectarian conflict, not to mention the development of children as pluralistic citizens. At a formative point in their development, students are likely to be susceptible to biased presentations and the instillation of sectarian attitudes. As a result, history teaching is fundamentally important to resolving and moving beyond the conflict in Northern Ireland. The key question guiding this research, then, is whether and to what extent history education in Northern Ireland provides a forum or arena for social and societal reconciliation.

The research for this paper was conducted over the month of November, 2008 in Belfast, Northern Ireland. I made use of a litany of primary and secondary sources, specifically interviews with experts in the field and current and former history teachers. Each interview or meeting that I participated in helped to guide my research moving forward, and in that way this was largely an improvised study. The direction of the research changed a number of times through the month, but at the point of writing I feel that the changeable nature of the study was a great asset rather than a drawback. I was able to speak at length with experts and respected scholars in the field, and each interviewee enhanced my understanding of the topic and allowed me to expand my thinking. I came out of each interview with new ideas for where this paper would go in tandem with an entirely different perspective on the issues. This speaks to the usefulness of keeping an open mind and allowing the subject matter to dictate the course of the research as well as the intelligence and helpfulness of the interviewees I spoke to throughout the process. I must pass along warm regards and great thanks to all of them.


Peace and Conflict Studies



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