Reconciliation and Social Inclusion in Rural Areas

Duncan Morrow, Karin Eyben, Derick Wilson

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Division and Reconciliation in Rural Areas: Background.Political division and the structures of life in Northern IrelandPolitical and religious tensions have a long pedigree in Ireland, especially in the North. It is hardly controversial to point out that religion, politics, education and cultural activities have been so closely bound together that it is impossible to pinpoint the precise point at which one blends into the other (Whyte, 1990). Indeed, division is so deep that it affects the whole structure of society and people in the most intimate details of their lives including who people are friends with and marry, where people worship and go to school, where people live and what they dare say to one another. Divisions at this level pervade and invade even those places where people from different parts of society meet such as the workplace, shared agricultural labour, town centres, places of entertainment and educational institutions. The axes of division have traditionally been nationality and religion. Both of these have a long association with violence. Whatever the precise causes, and they are naturally disputed, the legacy has been one where suspicion and fear of the other on grounds of political or religious affiliation has always been part of ‘common sense’. At the core of public life in Northern Ireland, therefore, is a deep split reflected in different experiences and feelings, sometimes about the same events. What marks Northern Ireland out politically is the degree to which this split has invaded not only the margins of society but all of it.Communication about issues of tensionDrawing on years of practice, being polite in Northern Ireland is often identical with avoiding giving offence in public. Some of our political loyalties, cultural practices, religious beliefs and historical activities are considered offensive by those who live alongside us yet who are clearly outside our group. The rules of politeness imply that these very divisive issues are seldom aired with those people against whom the grievance is held, except by the loud hailer of the pulpit or political platform (Morrow, 1997). The last thirty years have seen political violence in Northern Ireland on an unprecedented scale. Communities whose members have experienced fear and anger, grief and outrage at each other’s hands meet one another through this filter of polite avoidance. Paradoxically, things which can only be resolved by making new relationships are made difficult by the very coping mechanisms which common sense tells us make living with these tensions possible. Those places where there is contact between people of different backgrounds become places characterised by silence, wariness and subtle yet important boundaries and taboos. Social exclusion and inclusion are decided not only by economic factors, but by a climate of politeness, hesitation and anxiety the measurable symptoms of chronic division and fear.Division and reconciliation in rural communitiesRural areas of Northern Ireland and the market towns which service them have experienced their share of political violence (Fay, Morrissey, Smyth, 1999). As Rosemary Harris showed in her study of a rural area in the 1960s, sectarian silences and tensions are part of the fabric of the rural environment (Harris, 1972). No District Council area has escaped the last thirty years without bombing, shooting or rioting. Local historic memories stretch much further into the past, sometimes centring on memories of previous land-ownership patterns or on atrocities whose implications remain alive today. Less mobile property relationships and the continuity of family and community memory in rural communities mean that injuries in rural communities have an additional depth and length. Every constituency outside Greater Belfast bar one (Strangford) returned both Nationalist and Unionist members to the Northern Ireland Assembly in 1998. The same interface is politically present in the make-up of councillors and staff of rural District Councils. Rural communities in Northern Ireland all contain interfaces between different groups. No district is entirely Catholic or Protestant and in many districts the impact of political tension is evident in residential patterns, personal behaviour or institutional divisions . Brendan Murtagh’s detailed research in one interface illustrates how tensions shape the practical decisions of people in neighbouring rural areas about such apparently pragmatic issues as shopping, medical services and entertainment (Murtagh 1996) confirming other research into personal behaviour and political tension (Donnan and McFarlane, 1986). Farmers and producers associations are widely perceived to have distinct political and religious identities, although, Brendan Murtagh found that the letting of land, sharing of labour and machinery and the markets for livestock and produce were not similarly divided. Nonetheless, community relations in rural areas are integral to the fundamental social and economic structures and continue to determine the scope for change and stability. Cultural and community activity also reflects this partial yet deep tendency to segregation. Demographic evidence points to changes in residential patterns over the last 30 years, reflecting increasing fear and distance (Doherty, 1996). Churches, inevitably, are identified with specific political parts of the community (Morrow, 1991). Secular cultural organisations which have maintained close connections to churches or schools reflect this historic cleavage even more clearly. Of particular importance in rural districts are the Orange Order, which is often the cultural hub of protestant community life (Jarman, 1998), and the GAA which is of central cultural significance for many young Catholics (Sugden and Bairner, 1992). These organisations have also been the cultural bridges connecting people in market towns with their roots in the countryside. Reconciliation between traditional enemies in Northern Ireland is a matter of practical as well as moral importance for everyone who lives in Northern Ireland and for all institutions and organisations who have been affected directly or indirectly by fear, violence and hostility. A serious search for reconciliation will therefore entail change not only in personal behaviour and relationships but in the form in which institutions are organised and structured, in the way in which hostility and tension are dealt with in public and managerial contexts and in the political and social organisation of rural life.
Original languageEnglish
PublisherRural Community Network
Number of pages24
ISBN (Print)None used
Publication statusPublished (in print/issue) - Jan 2000

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  • Reconciliation
  • Social Inclusion
  • Social Cohesion
  • rural development
  • political division
  • conflictpeace.


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