Teaching controversial issues in Northern Ireland

Alan McCully, Lesley Emerson

    Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review


    This chapter examines the evolution of practice regarding the teaching of controversial and sensitive issues in the secondary education sector in Northern Ireland. The latter presents an interesting context for such teaching. Northern Ireland is emerging from three decades of violent conflict. It is a deeply divided society where the great majority of Protestants and Catholics are educated in segregated schools yet, unlike many areas affected by conflict, its education system shares many of the sophisticated characteristics of modern western states. Untypically, educators there began addressing the relationship between education and conflict at an early stage in the 1970s when violence was endemic, envisaging that education should have an interventionist role in contributing to a more peaceful society. Consequently, over the next four decades curricular provision and pedagogy have evolved in response to evaluation and research, educational trends and changes in political circumstances. Observers have commented on a ‘culture of avoidance’ (Richardson & Gallagher 2011) prevalent in Northern Ireland which may help people to cope with difference but works against them participating in the difficult conversations necessary for the transformation from conflict. Hence, educational initiatives have frequently placed an emphasis on facilitating dialogue around controversial issues as a way of clarifying young people’s views and preparing them to contribute to a more cohesive society.The chapter traces the development of policy and practice around controversial issues in two phases. The break between these phases roughly corresponds to the signing of the Good Friday Agreement (GFA), 1998. Prior to that, work was centred on fostering better community relations through building mutual understanding between individuals and groups. The Cross-curricular theme of Education for Mutual Understanding was to be infused into all subjects but, in reality, it sat at the periphery of the curriculum and its more contentious aspects were often side-stepped. After the GFA, in a climate which is becoming more conducive to cross-community dialogue, the educational focus has shifted to addressing structural inequalities in society, largely through the introduction of a Local and Global Citizenship programme founded on Human Rights principles. The chief characteristics of each phase are drawn out. In the conclusion, the generic learning from the Northern Irish experience is distilled and principles of practice are presented.
    Original languageEnglish
    Title of host publicationCross-Cultural Case Studies of Teaching Controversial Issues
    Subtitle of host publicationPathways and Challenges to Democratic Citizenship Education
    EditorsThomas T. Misco, Jan de Groof
    Place of PublicationTilberg
    PublisherWolf Legal Publishers
    ISBN (Print)978-9058508249, 978-9462401891
    Publication statusPublished (in print/issue) - 31 Dec 2014


    • History Teaching National Identity Globalisation
    • Critical Citizenship Multiple Identities
    • National Identity
    • Globalisation
    • Multiple Identities


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