Addressing division and building peace with Virtual Reality – can ‘the ultimate empathy machine’ humanise history in post conflict Northern Ireland?

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingConference contributionpeer-review


Northern Ireland, geographically part of Ireland but politically part of the UK, is a society emerging from ethnosectarian conflict, largely resulting from ‘opposed nationalisms’ (Boal, 2002:688) with colonial roots (Clayton, 2014). ‘Catholic’ Irish Nationalists generally favour a reunification of Ireland and ‘Protestant’ British Unionists favour continued union with Great Britain, and these political aspirations can and do generate social divisions including in residential spaces and in segregated educational provision. After thirty years of violent conflict and over two decades since the IRA ceasefire of 1997 and the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, ‘peace’ is in a fragile state (Jarman, 2016). Increasing attacks from dissident republican groups, absence of a working government, failure to agree on how to deal with the legacy of the past, segregated housing and the proliferation of peace walls dividing communities are examples of how Northern Ireland may be described as having “peace” but many communities are not “at peace” with one another. Now more than ever, the potential contribution of education to conflict transformation and peace-building must be harnessed as Northern Ireland continues its transition from its violent past to building a shared society.

Throughout ‘the troubles’, space and geography were often used as ‘markers’ for where people could and could not go. Today, societal divisions endure, albeit to a lesser extent. Some geographical spaces remain ‘no go areas’ for ‘the other’ community, viewed as “physical embodiments of fear, threat and conflict” (Selim, 2015, p17). Catholics and Protestants are often reluctant to enter the other groups’ areas to meet, form friendship groups or to socialise, and as a consequence interaction can be minimal (Roulston et al., 2017). Unfortunately, in spite of educational policy developments, this ‘discontinuity in the residential and social fabric’ (Boal, 2008:330) also permeates much of education, particularly in the areas of History education and the introduction of Citizenship education. Many classrooms across Northern Ireland could also be described as “no go areas” when it comes to dealing with conflict-sensitive issues.

By creating a virtual learning environment, teachers can use the richness of the VR learning tool as a safe ‘way in’ to explore contentious and sensitive conflict sites, contested spaces and events in the past. Developments in VR allow for fully immersive experiences which “…let its users feel they are in and a part of the computer-generated virtual scenarios” (Ip et al., 2018:3) “…giving the user a sense of being there, taking control, and personally interacting with that environment with his/her own body” (Ausburn and Ausburn, 2004, para.4). Coined the ‘ultimate empathy machine’ (Milk, 2015), VR‘s empathetic affordances are evidenced in clinical practices (Dyer et al., 2018), panic disorders (Russel et al., 2018), schizoprenia (Formosa et al., 2018) and homelessness (Shashkevivich, 2018). Hassan (2019) critically cites attempts to use VR to stimulate empathy with demonstrators in a political rally. Similarly, 360 degree immersive experiences have been produced by the UN, to help users understand more deeply the plight of displaced refugees in Jordan and the 2014 Ebola outbreak. Amongst the empathetic affordances of VR, is the evidence that immersive VR enables users to “feel as if they are sharing the same physical space […and…] influences how they think and behave.” (Bailey and Bailenson 2017:109-110). It is these specific affordances of sharing physical space, and prospective changes in attitudes and behaviour that have potential for impact in the context of the contested past in Northern Ireland.

Research Design
A virtual reality experience, incorporating 360-degree imagery and audio and video overlay stimuli, was created around Bloody Sunday in 1972 when 14 people were killed during a protest march against Internment without trial.

Pre-service teacher participants explored the immersive experience, relecting on the affordances of their engagement. The power of ‘being there’ and ‘seeing through the eyes of others’ was used as an enquiry frame to explore multi-perspectivity and promote respect for difference, understanding and critical engagement with Northern Ireland’s difficult past, using a convergent mixed methods approach (Creswell, 2013).

Teaching controversial issues in Northern Ireland remains challenging for learners and teachers. This study explores preservice and serving teachers’ perceptions of safety, actual safety, and the curricular, environmental and economic sustainability within a still deeply divided society. This pioneering research examines the affective, empathetic, humanising potential of VR to contribute to peace-building; ‘opening up’ community and classroom ‘no go areas’ - a pre-requisite if Northern Ireland is to leave its difficult past behind and be truly deserved of the status as a post-conflict society.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationComparative and International Education Society
Subtitle of host publicationSocial Responsibility within Changing Contexts
Publication statusPublished (in print/issue) - 26 Apr 2021
EventvCIES Conference 2021: Social Responsibility within Changing Contexts - Seattle, United States
Duration: 25 Apr 20212 May 2021


SeminarvCIES Conference 2021
Country/TerritoryUnited States
Internet address


Dive into the research topics of 'Addressing division and building peace with Virtual Reality – can ‘the ultimate empathy machine’ humanise history in post conflict Northern Ireland?'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this