CAIN Web Service

Centre for the Study of Conflict
School of History, Philosophy and Politics,
Faculty of Humanities, University of Ulster

Centre Publications

[Centre for the Study of Conflict - Home Page]
[Background] [Staff] [Projects] [CENTRE PUBLICATIONS] [Other Information] [Contact Details]
[Chronological Listing] [Alphabetical Listing] [Subject Listing]

Text: Valerie Morgan, Marie Smyth, Gillian Robinson and Grace Fraser ... Page Design: John Hughes

Mixed Marriages in Northern Ireland frontispiece

Mixed Marriages in Northern Ireland

by Valerie Morgan, Marie Smyth, Gillian Robinson and Grace Fraser
Published by the University of Ulster, Coleraine 1996
ISBN 1 85923 042 3
Paperback 61pp £4.00

Out of Print

This material is copyright of the Centre for the Study of Conflict and the author(s) and is included on the CAIN web site with the permission of the publisher. Reproduction or redistribution for commercial purposes is not permitted.

Mixed Marriages in Northern Ireland
Institutional Responses

by Valerie Morgan, Marie Smyth, Gillian Robinson and Grace Fraser

Centre for the Study of Conflict
University of Ulster


Section One: Introduction and Background
  Incidence of Mixed Marriage
  The Impact of Mixed Marriage
Section Two: Methodology
Section Three: The Response of the Churches

The Attitude of the Churches - Historical Development of Positions on Mixed Marriage


Recent Developments


Remaining Problems - Local Church Responses


Community Responses


The Religious Upbringing of Children of Mixed Marriages



Section Four: The Response of the Education System

The Implications of the Structure of the Northern Ireland Education System


Practical Implications


The Planned Integrated Schools

Section Five: Residential Segregation and Public Housing

Residential Segregation


Mixed Marriage Couples and Public Sector Housing - Northern Ireland Housing Executive Policy and Procedures

Section Six: Conclusions
  Background to Recommendations
Section Seven: Recommendations
Section Eight: References


The Centre for the Study of Conflict is a research centre based in the University of Ulster. Its main work is the promotion and encouragement of research on the community conflict and to this end it concentrates on practical issues to do with institutional and community structures and change. It publishes papers and books arising out of this work including: a series of research papers particularly designed to make available research data and reports; a series of Majority-Minority reports; and a series of occasional papers by distinguished academics in the field of conflict.

The Centre is very pleased to publish this new report on Mixed Marriages in Northern Ireland by Valerie Morgan, Marie Smyth, Gillian Robinson and Grace Fraser. The purpose of the research was to look closely at the whole range of past research findings on this subject and then to investigate the social and institutional context within which mixed (,or inter-faith) marriage exist and survive in Northern Ireland. In particular the problems and difficulties created for mixed couples with regard to religion, education and housing are examined and discussed in this report.

The Centre has recently published a number of other reports on topics such as Sport and Community Relations, Peer Mediation in Primary Schools, the Role of the Police, Parades in Northern Ireland, the Quaker Peace Education Project and Ethnic Residential Segregation in Belfast. This report on Mixed marriages is one of three new reports to be published at this time, the other two being on 'Education for Mutual Understanding' and on 'Ethnic Residential Segregation in Northern Ireland'. A full list of the Centre's publications is printed at the back of this volume.

Seamus Dunn
February 1996.

Return to publication contents


As this report goes to press (February 1996) the Irish Republican Army (IRA) has just declared the ending of its eighteen-month cease-fire and has set off a bomb in London, killing two innocent people and wounding many more. The ceasefires called by the IRA and Protestant paramilitary groups in autumn 1994 had brought to an end a phase of violent conflict that had been going on in Northern Ireland for over twenty five years. For much of that time it provided one of the most visible and accessible models of inter-community, political violence in the world. As a result it attracted a considerable amount of international academic, governmental and media attention and one element of this attention has been that numerous aspects of the conflict have been examined by researchers. Many of the resulting studies, especially in recent years, have laid emphasis on the complexity of the conflict, the variety of levels at which it operates and the enmeshed nature of the different political, economic, social, religious and cultural strands. As a result, the impossibility of providing simple explanations and even less simple solutions has become increasingly apparent. One consequence is a growing awareness that even if further violence can be avoided, and formal political structures acceptable across the community can be negotiated, many years of effort will be needed to build cross community confidence and understanding.

The concern of this report is with one aspect of life in Northern Ireland that highlights many of the complexities and long term difficulties of the conflict here: that is the experiences of couples in 'mixed marriages'. To readers from outside the province, it is necessary to clarify that in Northern Ireland the phrase 'mixed marriage' is used to describe a marriage between a Catholic and a Protestant.

This immediately raises one of the first problems encountered in this research, that of terminology. In other contexts terms such as 'inter-faith', 'cross-community' or 'inter-racial' are used to describe marriages in which the partners are from different religious, cultural or linguistic backgrounds, and marriages between members or nominal members of different Christian denominations are frequently not regarded as warranting a special description. But in Northern Ireland the term 'mixed-marriage' is normally used to describe a marriage between a Protestant and a Catholic1. On the other hand people in Northern Ireland who are actually partners in such marriages often find the 'mixed marriage' label unacceptable. However, there is no consensus amongst them on a preferred term; 'inter faith' is favoured by some ( Northern Ireland Mixed Marriages Association, n.d.) but rejected by others who do not wish to be identified in religious terms. Similarly the designation 'cross community' produces both favourable and unfavourable responses (Robinson, 1992). In this report the term 'mixed marriage' will be used simply because it is the one most familiar in the Northern Irish context and the one which the majority of those interviewed in the course of the study used throughout their discussions and descriptions.

Any attempt to examine the incidence and consequences of 'mixed marriage' in Northern Ireland illustrates how complex the question is, The intensity of the emotions which a marriage between a Protestant and a Catholic can evoke, and the scale of the ramifications which can affect the couple, their families and many religious, social and political groups and organisations, encapsulates the cross-currents and contradictions in the Northern Irish situation.

Of course marriage across cultural, religious or racial boundaries is not a phenomenon unique to Northern Ireland, and indeed the extent of the division between the partners may seem less than that encountered in many other contexts such as Christian - Jewish or Islamic - Christian marriages, or inter-racial/inter-ethnic marriages in countries such as the United States. Arising from analysis of such marriages across the world there is a considerable intemational literature which examines inter-faith and cross-cultural marriage in a variety of contexts (Barbara, 1989; Donnan, 1990; Tillion, 1977; Larson and Munro, 1990). This literature looks at such issues as the attitudes and responses of the individuals and families directly involved, the effects on family structures, and the implications for the upbringing of children. In addition there has been some consideration by researchers of the wider social repercussions as exemplified in the reactions of religious and civil institutions and their representatives.

Mixed marriage in Northern Ireland is less well documented. The studies that have been conducted consist mainly of accounts of the experiences of individuals and analyses of the formal positions of the churches (Morgan and Fraser, 1991; Robinson, 1992; Heron, 1977; Harris, 1972; Jenkins and Macrae, 1967; Lee, 1981; Lee, 1985; Leyton, 1975; MacFarlane, 1979; Masterson, 1973).

The research project on which this report is based has also been concerned with the impact of Catholic/Protestant marriage on individuals, but its primary aim is to place such personal experiences in a wider context by attempting to catalogue and understand the actions and reactions of the wider family group and of major social institutions such as the churches and the schools.

Incidence of Mixed Marriage

Before this can be attempted, however, some attempt should be made to establish the extent of 'mixed marriage' in Northern Ireland. In fact this has varied over time, geographically and in relation to social variables, so that the general figure of around 10% which has been suggested for the province as a whole is not very helpful and may not even be accurate. Compton (1989) had found that 3.6% of all marriages were mixed at the time of asking and that this rose to 6% when respondents were asked about religion of origin. Comparable figures from the 1991 Census (Compton, 1995) indicate that 2.3% of marriages in Northern Ireland were mixed. Details are not available for percentages relating to religion of origin. Analysis of four years of the Northern Ireland Social Attitudes data (1989, 1991, 1993, 1994) show a figure of 6%. However these Northern Ireland figures hide considerable variation across the province. Data obtained from the Catholic Diocesan office (Robinson, 1992) reveal that, in 1991, 20% of all marriages in the Down and Connor diocese were mixed; the comparable figure for the Armagh diocese was 4% and for the Derry Diocese it was 9%. Further analysis of the 1993 Northern Ireland Social Attitude data by area of residence reveals a variation of 8.4% in Belfast, 6.2% in the East of the Province and 2.2 % in the West.

It might have been anticipated that over the period of the current 'Troubles', heightened community tension would have led to a reduction in the rate of mixed marriages, but in fact over the last 25 years the incidence has fluctuated considerably, and there seems to have been some increase since the mid 1980s. For example figures relating to the number of 'mixed marriages' celebrated in Catholic churches in the diocese of Down and Connor (including Belfast) suggest that the proportion grew during the late 1960s and early 1970s, reaching 25 % of marriages in the diocese in 1971. Subsequently, in the late 1970s, during the most violent phase of the Troubles, the figure fell before rising again to about 16% in the late 1980s (Lee. 1994). Interpreting such data is, however, somewhat problematic since there have been other social changes during the period, such as an increase in civil marriages and in couples choosing to live together without marrying, which may also have affected the pattern.

Detailed information about the socio-economic status of individuals within mixed marriages is not available. There have, however, been suggestions that mixed marriage is predominantly a middle class phenomenon although one analysis of the census data (Lee, 1981; Lee, 1985) indicates that 'the likelihood of intermarriage varies very little by the occupational level of the husband ... (although) ... The tabulation does indicate, in line with ethnographic reports, that intermarriage is very rare where the husband is in a farm-related occupation' (Lee, 1994). Information from those mixed marriage families who send their children to integrated schools suggests that the partners in mixed marriages contracted from the mid 1980s onwards come from a very wide spread of socio-economic backgrounds (Morgan et al., 1991)

The Impact of Mixed Marriage

Analysis of the data collected in this study suggests that the effects and impacts of mixed marriage can be generalised in terms of a series of interfaces along each of which a marriage between a Catholic and a Protestant generates mismatches which illuminate and replicate many of the underlying tensions in Northern Irish society. The most important arenas in which these are played out are the family and the religious community; however, the policies and actions of other agencies such as the education system may become major factors at specific points in the development of the marriage. 'The mismatches can be expressed in a number of ways, for example as structural tensions between the church and the individual, or as emotional dichotomies between the happiness of the couple and the unhappiness of the families. There are also contrasting feelings of having a secure identity within a new relationship and having no clear place in wider social circles; of belonging, and yet being isolated and rejected.

In order to explore these tensions the main sections of this report will examine the interactions between mixed marriage couples and families, and the churches, the education system and public housing authorities. Whilst this division into discrete sections makes analysis easier, two major reservations must be made clear.

Firstly, it is important to bear in mind throughout that the influence and impact of political, religious and social institutions in Northern Ireland interact with and affect each other and are not independent variables. Secondly, when this study was being planned it was thought that a number of other branches of government, and a number of other public bodies including divisions within the social services and the media - would have policies and patterns of behaviour likely to be influential with regard to mixed marriages. During the course of the research, however, it became clear that a considerable number of organisations did not have a policy, or any organisational response, with regard to mixed marriages. For example, social workers responsible for adoption services indicated that, since each prospective adoptive parent was assessed individually, there was no general response or policy for couples in a mixed marriage who wished to adopt a child. Similarly, discussions with media representatives indicated that stories and issues were normally assessed on a pragmatic one-off basis. and so the question of a policy or institutional response to mixed marriages was not applicable. The question of media responses to mixed marriages, therefore, needs to be treated in an a posteriora manner through the collection and analysis of stories and presentations, out of which it might be possible to construct an implicit or assumed set of attitudes and responses to mixed marriage. This sort of approach, while of considerable potential interest, would necessitate content analyses of radio, TV and print media coverage and this is a time-consuming and long-term process.

Return to publication contents


As indicated in the introduction, this study sets out to examine in more detail some of the interfaces between institutions and people who have contracted, or are contemplating, a mixed marriage. The emphasis is on how the policies of institutions affect the interactions and inter-relationships of the couple and their families. In particular, for the reasons outlined in the previous chapter, it focuses on the impact of the attitudes and policies of the churches, the structure of the education system and the framework for the provision of public sector housing. It is based primarily on ethnographic field work carried out during a funded research study based in the Centre for the Study of Conflict at the University of Ulster, Coleraine.

The most important set of data collected was qualitative and verbal. resulting from semi-structured interviews carried out with a range of individuals, and individual members of specific groups described below. The interviews were all conducted on a one-to-one basis. Where it was acceptable to interviewees, a tape recording was made and subsequently transcribed. Where interviewees did not feel that this was appropriate, the interviewer took notes during the interview and wrote a full record as soon as possible after the completion of the interview.

The interview transcripts were fully and carefully analysed, using, in the first place, the set of questions and issues on the interview schedule. Various forms of content analysis were also carried out relating to themes and matters considered to be of central importance and the results were used to produce the analyses contained in this report.

Interviews were carried out by the full time project research officer, the other principal researchers and two part time researchers. All were social scientists with extensive experience in qualitative, ethnographic research. Given the sensitivity of the issues under discussion, all interviewees were given assurances of complete confidentiality. Where direct quotations are used, names have been omitted and only general attribution is made.

Among other data sources used were relevant reports and published research materials such as the four reports of the Northern Ireland Social Attitudes Survey�, previous reports and publications on mixed marriages, relevant publications produced by the churches, and by educational and other bodies (see the list of references at the end of this report).

The groups interviewed were:

1. Clergy of the Main Christian Denominations. This category included �ordinary� clergy in urban and rural parishes and congregations, clergy who had special responsibility within their denomination for advising and supporting mixed marriage couples and clergy with responsibility for inter-church relations. A total of twenty clergy, five from each of the four major denominations, were interviewed.

2. School Principals and Educational Administrators. This included principals in primary and secondary schools in urban and rural locations. It also covered the three main management types. that is controlled schools (de facto Protestant), maintained schools (Catholic) and integrated schools (designed to educate Catholics and Protestants together). Educational administrators included officials and advisors working with the Area Education and Library Boards, the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools (CCMS) and the Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education (NICLE). A total of 50 people were interviewed, some of them as part of other parallel researches on aspects of education generally.

3. Public Housing Officials. Officials working with the Northern Ireland Housing Executive were interviewed.

4. Mixed Marriage Couples. In addition to the institutional representatives, a total of 25 mixed marriage couples were interviewed and asked to comment on the information provided by the institutions.

Return to publication contents


In spite of recent changes in the role and influence of the churches throughout Ireland, Northern Ireland is still a society in which a large majority of the population profess religious belief, and regular church attendance remains higher than in almost any other part of western Europe. Information on levels of church attendance is included in the data collected in the regular Social Attitudes Survey. Respondents are asked to assess their own religious observance in terms of how regularly they attend church services. In the 1992 survey 84% of Catholics, 52% of Presbyterians and 45% of members of the Church of Ireland classified themselves as �frequent churchgoers� i.e. attending church at least once a week. The contrast with the rest of the United Kingdom is clear in the table below (Bruce and Alderdyce, 1993).

Church Attendance expressed as percentages.















































Free Presbyterian





















As a result the churches still play a central role in the lives of individuals and in social and community life. A number of key events in individual�s lives are usually marked by church ceremonies: reception into the church through baptism; entry into full communicant membership of a particular denomination; formation of a new family unit at marriage and, services to mark the end of mortal life. But the influence of the churches in Northern Ireland extends beyond these sacramental events, since they have a significant influence on education and, more indirectly, on many aspects of community and social life, for example through church affiliated sports and recreational clubs.

Such a pattern is not, of course, unique to Northern Ireland. However, because the religious boundary between the Catholic church and the Protestant churches coincides very substantially with the cleavages in national identity. political aspiration and cultural background - between Irish and British or Nationalist and Unionist - religion has become a fundamental marker of division in the society. As a result, actions which lead to a person crossing that division, or being seen as compromising their religious identity, are likely to generate reactions ranging from anxiety to open animosity. To select a marriage partner across the religious divide�, therefore, directly raises a number of religious issues for the couple. These are magnified and augmented by the significance of a �mixed marriage� for the family and the community and by the entanglement of the theological implications with the coincident secular divisions in Northern Irish society. So even when neither partner in a relationship has ever held the religious beliefs of his or her family or community, marriage across the sectarian divide presents difficulties.

In this situation, the official doctrines of the various churches, the actual responses of clergy and the views of church members all contribute to the pattern of organisational responses experienced by those embarking upon, or living in, a mixed marriage. These organisational responses will be considered in the following sub sections of the report.

The Attitudes of the Churches - Historical Development of Positions on Mixed Marriage
The practical personal and social difficulties experienced by those participating in such marriages in Northern Ireland are not the primary concern of those who legislate, interpret doctrine or scripture and administer procedures relating to marriage and the family within particular churches. Those engaged in regulating marriage within the churches are concerned with theological issues, and may regard as secondary - and be distanced from - the realities of everyday life in a mixed marriage. It is, however, the historical theological divergences of the churches which have in large part created the basis of the practical difficulties associated with mixed marriage. Practice in relation to marriage cannot be separated from wider issues of ecclesiastical doctrine which set the requirements each church puts on its own members and the ways in which that church relates to members of other churches. As Heron (1975) points out the fundamental theological problem associated with mixed marriage is that separate churches exist at all. In Northern Ireland the overall attitude of the Catholic and Protestant churches to one another has been negative, even antagonistic, and this has carried over into their views of mixed marriage. The unity expressed by two marriage partners from within one church, and the common allegiance to that church�s immediate and wider community which supports the coherence and purpose of both church and family. are in theological terms replaced by instability and incoherence when one partner feels allegiance to another church.

Within this essentially hostile environment each church has developed its attitude to mixed marriage unilaterally. The general standpoints of both Protestant and Catholic churches have historically been to discourage interchurch marriage, to seek to retain the allegiance of their own members where such marriages do occur, and to focus on ensuring the upbringing of any children within their church. The Catholic church has perhaps been the most active both in legislating and in enforcing legislation with regard to mixed marriage. Less formal structures have existed within the Protestant churches, although the historical response of some Protestant denominations has been equally triumphalist and separatist. However, in recent decades the position of some of the Protestant denominations in Ireland can be seen as framed mainly in reaction to the Catholic church�s position.

The views of the Catholic church have always appeared to be more fully developed than those of other denominations, mainly for historical reasons. The relationship between the views of the Catholic church and the views of the Protestant churches on mixed marriage - as on other matters - can be characterised by action and reaction. In the period after the Reformation, the Catholic church had already adopted a stance on mixed marriage that was based on a tradition of legislation and sanction that was fundamentally opposed to mixed marriage. As far as can be ascertained the early Catholic church did not consider marriage to be within its jurisdiction at all. As it became established, however, notably around the time of the responsio ad Bulgarios of Nicholas 1(866), the Eastern Orthodox church began to require that a priest be the celebrant of a marriage, although the western church did not make this obligatory until considerably later. By the end of the Middle Ages marriage, except for the nobility, was still considered a largely secular matter in much of western Europe. Irregular, clandestine and ad hoc marriage arrangements were common and these were becoming a major concern to the church. By the sixteenth century, and particularly after the Council of Trent, the Catholic church began to regard marriage as a major theological issue and to produce regulatory legislation. The papal decree Ramet (1563) laid down that to be valid a marriage must be contracted in the presence of a priest and with witnesses. By this stage the Protestant churches had already separated so they did not recognise the decree and, as a result the development of legislation and tradition relating to marriage, diverged and continued to develop separately.

Even following the Council of Trent, cultural and geographical conditions across Europe and beyond varied so much that Catholic legislation on marriage was not uniformly interpreted and enforced. It was only with the decree Ne Temere (1907) and the Codex luris Canonici (1918) that a fully uniform practice was imposed throughout the Catholic church. Formal church doctrine regards it as a principle of divine law that a Catholic should remain within their faith and if married to a non Catholic should do all in their power to bring up their children as Catholics. To protect this position marriage between a Catholic and anon Catholic is formally forbidden but this prohibition is not absolute. Dispensation in order to permit a Catholic to many a non Catholic can be obtained but Cautiones (conditions) must be fulfilled and promises made, particularly in relation to the Catholic partner remaining within the church and ensuring the upbringing of children as Catholics. Traditionally in Ireland this meant that the marriage had to be conducted by a Catholic priest and written undertakings given that children would be brought up in the Catholic faith.

The Protestant churches had no parallel body of canon law and no equivalent regulations regarding marriage. The tradition of dissent, the high levels of local autonomy of the individual denominations - even of single congregations - and the frequent sub-dividing within many of the Protestant denominations, meant that they found alien the concept of a divine requirement that individuals remain within one particular church. This does not, however, imply a more liberal attitude or indeed an acceptance of mixed marriage. Deep theological differences and opposition to the teachings and practice of the Catholic church meant that there were strong objections to mixed marriage, particularly to marriage with a Catholic, from most of the Protestant denominations. These could result in some cases in the exclusion from church membership of individuals contracting a mixed marriage. In addition the existence of papal decrees such as Ne Temere acquired powerful symbolism for many Protestants. They came to be considered as inherently divisive by many within the Protestant churches and as providing evidence of the arrogance and intolerance of the Catholic church (De Bhaldmithe, 1988).

Recent Developments
There has been no dramatic change in the formal positions of either the Catholic or Protestant churches over the last twenty five years. Rather, whilst principles have remained virtually the same, there has been a reinterpretation of doctrine and a relaxation of procedures together with the establishment of inter-church contacts and of structures to support mixed marriage couples and families (Tavard. 1991). Since the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) the Catholic church has modified the Codex Iuris Canon ici to reflect the Decree on Ecumenism and the Declaration on Religious Liberty. Legislation more specifically related to mixed marriage in the Instructio Matrimonii Sacramenturn (1966) and the Motu Proprio Mat rimonis Mixta (1970) means that whilst the principles relating to marriage between a Catholic and a non Catholic remain: the actual procedures have been relaxed. Participation of both Catholic and Protestant clergy in the marriage ceremony is now seen as much more acceptable and the formality of the requirements concerning the upbringing of children has been relaxed. The Catholic partner is expected to undertake to �do their best� to ensure children are brought up in the Catholic faith but there is no obligatory declaration from the Protestant partner. At the same time the major Protestant churches have begun to clarify their policy on mixed marriage, including accommodating the views of the Catholic partner and formulating procedures for the participation of a priest in a Protestant marriage ceremony or of a minister in a Catholic ceremony.

At a practical level there have been formal moves by the churches, both internationally and in Northern Ireland, to establish structures to handle various aspects of mixed marriage. There is an international commission on mixed marriage in which the Catholic church and many of the Protestant churches participate. and in Northern Ireland there is an Inter-Church Standing Committee on Mixed Marriage.

The result of these changes, and the increased general level of contact between Catholic and Protestant clergy, has been that many priests and ministers now see the situation as much more relaxed and supportive.

There has been a lot more contact over the last 7 or 8 years. I regularly meet with the other Protestant ministers as well as with the parish priest ... I�m hopeful that things are and have been improving significantly (Church of Ireland minister).

There was a great welcome when the old �Ne temere�, to which we all violently objected was supplanted by the �moto proprio�. If the �moto proprio �is interpreted in a liberal manner most people would say it is acceptable (Church of Ireland minister).

There�s no more fudging of the issues any more, we (The Inter Church Standing Committee on Mixed Marriage) confront things, and I think we know what is going on at grassroots level (Presbyterian

We felt that we had reached a sufficiently common ground with the other churches to get together something of our own guidelines (Methodist minister).

Now I�ve almost worked myself out of a job because of all the extra contact with other clergy. I�m not needed as liaison person and secondly most priests are now aware of the changes within the church so it�s very rare that someone has to come and see me for advice (Catholic priest and diocesan mixed marriage counsellor).

In addition to the improved general framework of co-operation, there was also evidence of initiatives in relation to joint pastoral care for mixed marriage couples and of willingness to try to accommodate individuals over such things as the actual format of the marriage ceremony. In the Catholic church priests on the ground are urged to be more open to people coming to discuss mixed marriage, to welcome the couple and to give them as much help and support as possible. Similar attitudes were cited by Methodist. Presbyterian and Church of Ireland clergy. For example the Methodist church has developed a policy of encouraging partners to worship in one another�s churches and officially endorses joint pastoral care.

In addition to joint pastoral care, we put the Catholic partner on a list of adherents. They can come if they wish, jointly to communion. I think this is a good step (Methodist minister).

We were all doing a lot more co-pastoral work Relations had improved to such an extent that we felt the time had come to do something constructive, acknowledging that relations had improved - in fact relations were very good (Methodist minister).

In relation to the actual marriage ceremony many clergy are now ready to discuss the format and incorporate elements from both Protestant and Catholic liturgies.

We try to be as open and accommodating as possible and, if it is wanted, the priest and myself will get together and almost rewrite a service if the couple aren't happy and we will always attend the wedding in the other church if requested (Church of Ireland minister).

Changes have been gradual and there are now �grey areas� in relation to procedure. One result is that there are some variations in the way priests and ministers interpret and operationalise the system, and clergy were clearly aware of this.

There are still some ministers who won �t involve themselves in it (mixed marriage) (Presbyterian minister).

It�s true there are ministers who would advise young couples against it (Presbyterian minister).

Remaining Problems - Local Church Responses
There have, therefore, been significant developments although considerable difficulties remain. There is still uncertainty amongst the clergy within both the Catholic church and the main Protestant denominations. Part of the problem is that, for most clergy the experience of �confronting� a mixed marriage is still relatively uncommon. so they are unable to structure their response in the light of experience. In the Catholic church, and to a lesser extent the Church of Ireland, the position taken by the local bishop is often crucial and may set the tone for the whole diocese. On the other hand in Protestant churches with a more devolved governmental structure, such as the Presbyterian church, where individual ministers and congregations have high levels of autonomy, there may be marked differences between neighbouring churches. In some of the smaller and more evangelical Protestant denominations opposition to mixed marriage is still very strong and theological differences are seen as so great that co-operation with the Catholic church is unacceptable. For example, one of the bases for opposition to integrated education and Education for Mutual Understanding (the statutory component of the school curriculum which seeks to develop cross community understanding) on the part of some clergy of the Free Presbyterian church has been that it might �encourage mixed marriage�. In such situations the couple can still be faced with difficult choices: these include the conversion of one partner or the other; both partners moving to a different denomination where they feel they can worship together and be accepted; or, opting out of formal and lay church membership altogether.

Community Responses
The official positions of the churches, and the not always coherent interpretation and operationalisation of policy by individual clergy, are both very important in shaping the experiences of couples seeking to organise a �mixed marriage�. In addition, the reactions of lay church members can also be significant. Several of the clergy interviewed indicated that the reactions of church members and of the wider community could influence how they responded to requests from couples. In particular, they indicated that there could quite often be opposition from lay members of their parish or congregation to joint participation by Catholic and Protestant clergy in a marriage service. Sometimes this was primarily a manifestation of general antagonism to �the other side� from the community or the extended family, rather than a response based on religious belief.

The people in these parts (a strongly loyalist area) are very wary after all the trouble - there have been a number of shootings in the estate in the last year, two of which were fatal and a taxi driver was found murdered. They don't trust anyone, never mind a Catholic. So you can see what we�re up against here. There is a lot of animosity towards Catholics (Church of Ireland minister).

... participating in a mixed marriage ceremony would be impossible to implement everywhere. There are places and churches where clergy would be hesitant about that (Methodist minister).

We very often find that difficulties arise not so much with the couples themselves or their parents but from the community or grandmothers in particular seem to be very awkward people to deal with (Methodist minister).

Such attitudes can still lead to couples having to go outside their own area and negotiate with clergy, in places where there would be less opposition to a mixed marriage ceremony or to the participation of both Protestant and Catholic clergy in the service. This �having to shop around� model is less common than it was in the past when couples frequently had to be married far away from their own home area, and mixed marriage ceremonies were usually small and quiet so as not to attract attention and opposition.

I have carried out mixed marriages for couples from ... where the couples reckon it would be difficult, to say the least, to have the ceremony (Methodist minister).

In addition to the general anxiety about community reactions, some respondents talked about more focused objections from a clergyman�s own church members. The participation of Catholic clergymen in a ceremony in a Protestant church or vice versa was cited as a particular problem.

I know of one provincial town where the minister had no objection whatsoever but there were enough people in his congregation to object, especially as regards a Catholic priest taking part (Church of Ireland minister).

A minister might be quite happy to go to the Catholic church but the elders might be very critical and unless the minister felt his authority was secure (Presbyterian minister).

It is clear that many of these comments relate to the experiences and perceptions of Protestant clergy. This may have a number of causes. It may reflect more opposition among the Protestant lay people to mixed marriages. Gallagher and Dunn (1991) analysing Northern Ireland Social Attitudes data found that 54% of Catholics were in favour of a bit or much more mixing in people�s marriages compared to 34% of Protestants with similar views. Or it may arise out of opposition to joint clerical participation in marriage services. Finally, it may reflect differences in the organisational structures of the churches and the greater power of the laity in for example the Presbyterian system of church government. This possibility was supported by one interviewee.

I�ve known the Catholic Bishop of - travel quite a distance to counsel parents and grandparents who are greatly worried. Especially in the Catholic church this is very significant because, if the bishop says it�s OK, generally it is. Protestants aren't so amenable (Methodist minister).

Though the marriage ceremony and the events surrounding it represent the area of tension most frequently discussed, it is clear that there are often ongoing difficulties in relation to church attendance and especially the communion service. Even if the couple consciously decide to attend services in each other�s churches, and subsequently carry this through in a systematic way, one partner may not be able to participate fully in the services in the other�s church. For example, concerning the receiving of communion:

The tragedy of history is that this act of unity has become the very symbol and demarcation of the divisions and differences of the Christian churches. It has become a divisive act. For mixed marriage couples this is a particular tragedy, for here at the point of unity with Christ they cannot be united together (NIMMA).

The Church of Ireland welcomes all who receive communion in their own churches, while Presbyterians and Methodists unite all who �love the Lord Jesus�. Catholics, however, may never communicate at a non-Catholic Eucharist, and non-Catholics may not communicate at a Catholic Eucharist, except in cases where certain exceptional criteria apply such as �danger of death or urgent need (for example, if there is not access to one�s own minister)� (Laishley, 1991). For mixed marriage couples, clerical interpretation of this �need� can prove a difficulty. Once again this emphasised the �different� status of the mixed marriage family. One interviewee said:

I would love us to be going out (to church) together as a family, just like my elder sister (Mixed marriage partner).

The Religious Upbringing of Children of Mixed Marriages
Specific problems can emerge with the birth of children to those couples who wish to maintain a religious dimension to their own and their children�s lives. The �religious milestones� in children�s lives such as baptism and acceptance into full communicant membership of a specific church can pose particular problems since these are seen as public events where the extended family and the wider community see 'which side� children are joining. (There is an agreement among many major churches to recognise baptism in other churches although this does not lessen the impact of public events.) There are possibilities for joint participation in the pastoral care of children. but when a child takes first communion, is confirmed or is accepted into communicant membership by either the Catholic church or a Protestant denomination, this does mark a distinct formal link with the church of one parent rather than the other. This can be painful for the child, the parents and the wider family. Grandparents in particular may be very distressed if they see their grandchildren joining another church. Clergy who were sympathetic to the problems saw this as another area where support for mixed marriage families might be necessary.

Although church teachings may have a powerful influence on an individual�s actions and beliefs, the relationship between the individual and the church is ultimately voluntary and relies heavily on the acceptance of church doctrine by the individual. Although the churches can develop carefully structured mechanisms for regulating and supporting mixed marriages, if couples choose to ignore these the churches have very limited sanctions. In spite of the changes which have taken place over the last 10- 20 years, dealing with the formal structures of the churches and with individual clergy over mixed marriage can still be a stressful and sometimes intimidating experience for the couple and their families.

For those who have no personal faith or only limited commitment to Christianity it may be easier to either live together without marrying or to marry through a civil ceremony. Unfortunately evidence about whether these options are being increasingly exercised is difficult to obtain. The number of marriages conducted in registry offices is still low in Northern Ireland. and there are no data to indicate what proportion of such marriages involve partners with different religious backgrounds. Similarly, there is no concrete evidence about the numbers who choose to live together without marrying or the reasons for this choice, other than general evidence of increasing secularism in the society and the changing nature of the family. Where the partners have retained only a nominal connection with their churches, or where one partner has a clear attachment to their church but the other is indifferent, couples may choose to �go along with the procedures of one church or the other in respect of the marriage ceremony. Subsequently one or both partners may drift away from church attendance. In such situations one partner - often the man - accedes to the wishes of the other on the format of the marriage ceremony and the upbringing of children, but opts out� of formal religious observance. Again data on these patterns is difficult to obtain although many of the clergy interviewed were aware of them and able to quote specific examples.

One partner just takes a back seat (Presbyterian minister).

It takes only one to care (Church of Ireland minister).

It is the couple who both have deep religious beliefs who may find the stresses of handling relationships with the churches most difficult. Where their interactions with clergy are positive and they receive sympathetic consideration. this may help them and even strengthen their religious beliefs. In other cases both churches may ultimately lose them as a result of unsupportive experiences with clergy in relation to participation in church ceremonies.

Return to publication contents


As already indicated, a number of studies have emphasised the significance of particular stress points for people in mixed marriages. These have been identified as situations in which the marriage partners have to interact with social or organisational structures which are either unused to coping with, or actively unwilling to accommodate the needs of, people who do not fit into the traditional dualistic structures of Northern Irish society. Such events are particularly likely to arise in interactions involving some combination of family, community and social institutions such as schools or sporting organisations. In these situations, the - often traditional - expectations and hopes of two extended families can be in direct opposition to each other, leading to tensions and conflict.

The question of the education of children from mixed marriage families represents a particularly frequent, and often deeply contentious, example of this sort. The birth of children can, in some cases, bring the two extended families together and help to heal division. But it can also initiate or intensify difficult interactions with some family members and with the churches over things such as the naming of a child or the place of its baptism. Many of the discussions, or arguments, are reopened when the child reaches school age, since at this stage mixed marriage families have to discuss the range of possible options with schools, principals and class teachers as well as with family members, and also possibly with clergy. Moreover the debates have the potential to run for the whole period of the child�s schooling

The Implications of the Structure of the Northern Ireland Education System
The difficulties over schooling experienced by mixed marriage families are related to the structure of the education system in Northern Ireland. The relationship between schools and the society in which they operate is always complex, and in Northern Ireland the organisation of schools both reflects the division within the society and helps to give it concrete manifestation. Almost every individual school in Northern Ireland can be clearly identified by the community as either Protestant or Catholic in its affiliation. Some integrated schools have been set up since the 1 980s, but their limited number (there were 17 primary schools and 5 secondary schools by the 1994-5 school year) and their concentration in major urban areas mean that the dualistic system is the only option for most parents. In this situation, most mixed marriage parents �have to choose between a Catholic and a Protestant school for their children. This decision, a traumatic event in itself, has long term implications for both the family and the child, since the school a person has attended remains as a marker of community membership - or perceived community membership - throughout adult life. In the coded language of Northern Ireland, asking which school someone attended is a way of establishing his or her religious and political affiliation: indeed the legally required fair employment monitoring procedures used by employers frequently uses the name of the primary school attended by an employee or job applicant as a basis for assigning community membership.

Schooling, therefore, poses serious difficulties for mixed marriage families. Since this study is concerned primarily with the responses of institutions to mixed marriage, the investigation has focussed on the views of teachers and educational administrators, and it is clear that making special provision for children from mixed marriages poses a number of problems for schools and points towards difficulties within formal educational structures. These stem essentially from the way in which the education system was set up at the inception of the Northern Ireland state. Separate educational systems subsequently developed as one of the central elements in maintaining the dual structures of a divided society. Over the last seventy years schools in Northern Ireland have seen their task as serving the needs of the two separate sections of the community. The structures which have evolved reflect a long series of power struggles, compromises and victories between religious, political and community organisations and interest groups. All, however, have been based on the premise that individuals would either actively claim, or at least tacitly accept, an identification as either Catholic or Protestant.

In order to understand the difficulties that schools have in meeting the needs of mixed marriage families, some background information is essential. There have been numerous detailed analyses of the Northern Ireland education system and its complex relationship with both the religious and political divisions in the society (Dunn, 1986 and 1991; Morgan, et al.. 1993). Briefly, whilst there are a number of types of schools and differences in provision based on gender, ability and social class, in Northern Ireland the major cleavage is between state managed schools, which are in effect Protestant (controlled schools), and schools managed by the Catholic church (maintained schools). In addition there are a smaller number of �voluntary schools� at secondary level, which have a semi-independent management structure, but which can nevertheless be identified in each individual case as either Protestant or Catholic. Finally, there are a very small group of recently established integrated schools which stand outside the dualistic (controlled - maintained or Catholic - Protestant) structure.

The controlled schools have always been wholly financed by, and under the direct management of, the government mediated through one of the five regional Education and Library Boards (that is local education authorities). They are open to all children and provide �non-denominational� religious education. In reality, however, they have, since the establishment of the state, promoted a Protestant and pro-Union identity. The teaching staff is made up almost entirely of Protestants, or those from a Protestant background; only Protestant clergy come into the school to assist in the provision of religious education; and, the religious education syllabuses reflect Protestant interpretations of Christianity. In addition the overall culture of the schools is supportive of a Protestant /Unionist identity. This is reflected in areas of the curriculum such as history and physical education where particular textbooks are used and specific sports played. It is perhaps even more clearly displayed in the �hidden curriculum�, the places visited on schools trips, the events and causes supported, the visitors invited for occasions such as prize-givings and the symbols displayed around the school.

The other pole of the duality is presented by the maintained schools. These were set up by the Catholic church and until very recently were partially funded by contributions from church members. The Catholic church retains a central role in their management and sees the schools as integral to the religious development of Catholic children, a vital element in the trilogy of family, parish and school. Documents produced by the church stress the importance of the �Catholic ethos� of these schools and this ethos permeates all aspects of education. Teachers are almost all Catholics and Catholic clergy visit regularly and participate in the management of the schools. In primary schools, religious commitment by the teachers is regarded as very important, since teachers are expected to take an active part in the preparation of children for the sacraments of first communion and confirmation - a task for which they must have training and qualifications acceptable to the church. Furthermore, these schools� curricula in areas such as history and physical education and their hidden curriculum support an Irish rather than British cultural identity, and a Nationalist rather than a Unionist political identity.

Within the framework provided by the controlled and maintained schools there seems little scope for schools to respond to the complex uncertainties and blurring of identity and affiliation which might reflect the situation of children of mixed marriages. The �voluntary� schools might appear to provide a third strand, but in reality these are almost all selective secondary schools (grammar schools) which are distinctive only in terms of their management structure. These schools have a relationship with government directly through the Department of Education for Northern Ireland, rather than via the Education and Library Boards or the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools (CCMS). In other respects they fit into the dual system in that each individual school can be identified with either the Catholic or the Protestant tradition. Indeed, many have very specific religious links since they were established either by one of the religious orders of the Catholic church or by particular Protestant denomination. Others have more secular foundations. with a clear British identity, such as the �Royal� schools founded in the Plantation period. Originally many of the voluntary grammar schools were explicitly exclusive to particular religious and social groups, but there have been some shifts in the recent past. Voluntary grammar schools are more likely than either controlled or maintained schools to have pupils from the �other side� of the community and a small number of them have a reputation for a degree of �mixing�s although this rarely exceeds 10%. However, this mixing does not imply a policy commitment to integration or to specific provision for pupils from a mixed marriage background.

The planned integrated schools which have been established during the 1980s and 1990s specifically provide for pupils from all Christian denominations, from other religious backgrounds and from homes which do not have any religious commitment. As already indicated these schools are currently few in number and, therefore, are inaccessible to parents in many parts of Northern Ireland. In particular, there are a limited number of secondary schools at present: in the 1995-1996 school-year there were two in Belfast, one in Derry/Londonderry, one in Newcastle, one in Enniskillen, one in Omagh, one in Craigavon, one in Dungannon and one in Banbridge. Even when an integrated school is available problems for mixed marriage couples do not necessarily end. Structures which support mixing of pupils from Catholic and Protestant backgrounds may not meet the specific needs of parents and children who wish to establish a dual identity within both traditions, as later sections will indicate.

There are, therefore, difficulties in the interaction between mixed marriage families and the education system at all levels and these are largely the product of the underlying structures of the education system which have been outlined above. These give, and indeed were intended to give, almost all schools a religious and cultural ethos which immediately identifies them with one community or the other. This means that any school which parents choose to send their child to (unless it is one of the integrated schools) will promote and value the identity, culture and religion of one side of the child�s family and ignore or even actively devalue, those of the other half.

With the increasing number of mixed marriages and the more open discussion of the experiences of mixed marriage couples, most of those involved in teaching and educational administration have some awareness of the problems mixed marriage families experience in relation to education. Indeed, most larger non-integrated schools are likely to have had a small number of pupils from such backgrounds. In some cases, principals and class teachers take the view that since the numbers are small the children can just �fit in�. The schools, therefore, ignore the issues posed by these children�s identity. A small number of cases were reported by interviewees from mixed marriage families in which schools appeared to have been actively antagonistic or unhelpful to parents wishing to discuss the potential, or actual, problems their children might, or did, encounter. Even in schools where staff are sensitive to potential problems, and endeavour to support pupils and their parents, there are still a number of difficulties in realising this support in relation to the specific issues faced by children of mixed marriages.

Practical Implications
These specific difficulties take a number of practical forms. All schools are currently experiencing financial pressure, and the stress arising from increased workloads generated by curriculum and management changes. In these circumstances, making provision for pupils with particular needs becomes an additional pressure. For example it might be useful to increase the range of history books available in the school library to reflect different perspectives, but even if this is seen as politically possible there may not be resources to allow it to be done. In the classrooms, a little extra time discussing and explaining the range of reactions to a news item could promote the inclusion of a wider range of perspectives, but teachers are pressurised by the volume of curriculum material to be covered and the administrative demands on them. and many feel that it is impossible to spare the time for such discussions.

These real practical problems do not, however, explain all the difficulties, some of which result from the insecurity, lack of experience and lack of training of teachers and parents in what is, for them, a new situation. Both parents and teachers are operating on unfamiliar territory and misunderstanding and uncertainty can easily generate mistrust and anger, which the inclusion of relevant teacher training at either pre-service or in-service level might help to resolve. Currently most teachers undertake their initial training in institutions which are segregated on the same lines as the schools. In the one education first degree course which takes Catholic and Protestant students, recent evidence suggests that contact between Catholic and Protestant participants is limited and often superficial (Farren, et al., 1992). (This course is now being phased out and had its final intake in autumn 1995).

Teacher education courses include training designed to cover the Education for Mutual Understanding and Cultural Heritage elements of the new curriculum, but there is no specific treatment of issues which may arise in relation to children from mixed marriage families. The very tightly specified curriculum for pre-service education makes the possibility of inclusion of new material problematic. However, provision of training at pre-service level directed at issues raised by children of mixed marriages is both possible and appropriate, since it can be related directly to teachers� classroom experience.

Even if teachers are aware of and sympathetic to the situation of children from mixed marriage backgrounds, and feel confident in handling material about �the other� section of the community, they may face opposition from a number of sources. Other teachers, governors, or the local community may oppose what they see as �concessions� and the dilution of the traditional identity and ethos of a school. Some of the voluntary grammar schools which educate pupils �across the divide� have experienced this sort of difficulty. For example, in a school with a strong Protestant tradition which had a growing number of Catholic and mixed marriage background pupils, there were requests for the provision of the Irish language as a GCSE option. Initial reaction by the principal was favourable, but as a result of anxieties amongst governors, the plan was abandoned.

Informal but perhaps even more personally damaging antagonism may come from other pupils. The peer group culture in many schools in Northern Ireland can be very partisan. It may find expression through support for particular football teams or sporting personalities, scatological rhymes and chants, slogans carved on desks or written on walls, decoration of book covers or name-calling and fights in the area around the school and on school buses. Although there is considerable variation, it is usually at secondary level that many children from mixed marriage families are most likely to experience alienation as a result of their �different� status. This alienation may range from situations in which they feel uncomfortable through name-calling and ostracism, to intimidation through bullying and real physical threats, and even actual violence. Schools are usually aware of these problems and many have taken action to stop, for example, pupils decorating their note files and exercise book covers with sectarian slogans and emblems or the wearing of partisan badges. School staff often feel that they are walking a tight-rope between challenging sectarian behaviour on the one hand, and on the other attracting attention to the position of children who do not �fit� into the expected categories. Highlighting issues of community division may mean setting pupils with a mixed marriage background apart from other children and this may mean they suffer more. at least in the short term.

The Planned Integrated Schools
Overall controlled and maintained schools, and the voluntary grammar schools linked to either the Protestant or Catholic traditions, can only respond to the specific educational needs of mixed marriage families to a limited extent. Children from such backgrounds may be either positively welcomed or merely tolerated. Inevitably they have to accommodate to the dominant ethos in which they might otherwise be marginalised. This means that there are almost bound to be events and situations where they feel aware of being different, even odd. The only group of schools which structurally have the capacity to respond more positively are the integrated schools. Their basic principles include valuing the religion, culture and aspirations of the two major traditions equally and respecting the beliefs of children from any religious background or none. The fact that the integrated schools seek to have a numerical balance, preferably within the 60:40 range in either direction, between Catholics and Protestants amongst pupils, teaching and support staff and on the Board of Governors means that they provide an active model of collaboration in which children from both traditions can potentially feel secure and supported. The number of integrated schools is currently limited and not all mixed marriage couples who have access to an integrated school choose to send their children there. However, the proportion of children from such families in integrated schools is higher than their proportion in the population as a whole (Morgan, et al., 1991 Morgan, et al., 1993).

Interviews with teachers, parents and pupils in integrated schools suggest that many mixed marriage children find positive support in the integrated schools. Pupils who have moved from other schools comment that they feel able to talk about their mother�s or father�s family without being worried that using the names of aunts, uncles or cousins would �give away� the fact that one of their parents is �from the other side�. For both parents and children, being in a situation where there are a number of other families with the same background is a new and affirming experience. Parents say that they find the fact that their insights and knowledge are valued and seen in a positive light by teachers and other parents enables them to make a specific contribution rather than feeling constrained and �keeping quiet�.

There are problems, however, in the relationship between integrated schools and mixed marriage families. At an organisational level, integrated schools strive to maintain a balance of Protestant and Catholic pupils, usually within a 40:60 ratio in either direction. If this ratio is problematic, there may be pressure to define children from a mixed marriage family as either �one or the other�. This may help the school and be acceptable to some mixed marriage parents, but for others it may place them in precisely the situation they have been striving to avoid. Similar issues can arise in relation to religious education. Integrated schools are part of a politically, religiously and socially divided society, and unless they become totally secular (an option which is currently not acceptable to most parents) they have to relate to the existing church structures. In an effort to respond to both the ecumenical concerns and denominational loyalties of the majority of parents, together with the concerns of the churches, they provide a common core of religious education and worship - this is designed to be appropriate for Catholic and Protestant pupils - and in addition they provide specific denominational instruction. Parents have to decide whether their child will receive this additional teaching. Exercising this option, in effect, means opting for one religious identity. This decision is usually taken at primary school, when the family decide whether the child will attend the classes taught by trained Catholic teachers in preparation for first communion and confirmation. So sending a child to an integrated school does not mean avoiding choices which may be painful and difficult, although mixed marriage parents have said that integrated schools provide a supportive context, a space in which to make these decisions. Furthermore, in the integrated schools, although a primary identity with one denomination may be established. links with the other parent�s faith are not completely cut. The cultural traditions of both can be maintained and valued, a situation which cannot currently be achieved in the mainstream education system.

Return to publication contents


The two factors which do most to divide Protestants as a whole from Catholics as a whole are endogamy and separate education (Whyte, 1990, P. 48.).

As we have seen, in our discussion of separate education in Northern Ireland, endogamy is supported by educational segregation. Conversely, mixed marriage presents a challenge to the educational status quo, and mixed marriage couples and their children are marginalised and made virtually invisible within the education system as a result. Thus, the institutions, such as marriage, which structure family and personal life, are supported as the endogamous norm by other social institutions, such as education. Those who depart from the norm in family and personal life by entering a mixed marriage, find that they also run counter to the norm within educational institutions. A similar relationship can be seen between endogamous marriage norms and housing provision.

The provision and nature of public housing in Northern Ireland has been a contested political issue, carrying a weight of sectarian significance. Allegations of discrimination in housing allocation were the instigation of the formation of the Civil Rights Movement in the mid 1960�s and Catholic grievances about housing discrimination lie at the heart of the origins of the civil unrest from that period on. Prior to the end of the second world war, local councils had been responsible for the provision of public housing. Provision was piecemeal, due to the socially conservative nature of some local councils which meant that they were hostile to the idea of public housing provision. The significance of housing for the political make-up within political boundaries ensured that councils were keen to maintain control of public housing. The establishment of the Northern Ireland Housing Trust under the Housing Act (NI) 1945 constituted a threat to this control. The operations of the Northern Ireland Housing Trust was subject to criticism. Financial constraints meant that rents within the public housing sector were high, and those with greatest housing need were not catered for. Housing provision was unevenly distributed throughout Northern Ireland. and most was concentrated in the east. with the south and west under-provided for. Furthermore Catholic grievances about having unequal access to public housing were to become a major political issue.

With allegations of discrimination in housing being at the centre of civil rights issues. housing was a key area for reform when Stormont was prorogued and local government was reformed in 1972. The establishment of the new Northern Ireland Housing Executive was designed to remove housing entirely from the political arena, and provide a fair and neutral method of regulating housing provision and management. The Housing Executive inherited a number of problems - an ageing and numerically inadequate housing stock, segregation and intimidation, and suspicions and anger about discrimination in housing allocation. The Housing Executive introduced a single standard selection scheme for housing allocation, which was needs based. and standardised the setting of rents.

In the last fifteen years, changes in housing policy, and moves towards privatisation have led to the increasing importance of the voluntary sector. namely housing associations, in the provision of public housing. These developments notwithstanding, the Northern Ireland Housing Executive remains the main body responsible for public housing in Northern Ireland.

Residential Segregation
Northern Ireland was a residentially segregated society long before the outbreak of civil disturbance in 1969. An early study (Jones. 1956) found substantial segregation in Belfast. particularly in working class areas, and Barritt and Carter (1962) found segregation to be widespread in small towns and in rural areas. With the outbreak of violence in 1968 and 1969, Belfast and Derry/Londonderry in particular experienced street violence which directly resulted in many people fleeing their homes and seeking the greater safety of a politically or religiously homogenous area. Around this time, the first �peacelines� were built, and many more were erected subsequently. Residential segregation between Catholics and Protestants, as a social trend in Northern Ireland, has responded to the changing political climate in any given period or geographical area2.

Residential segregation has been seen either as a bad thing, which fosters and deepens division in an already divided society or as a mechanism for protecting the identity and culture of the segregated community. At the time of writing, those �peaceline� security fences still surround many urban communities, and there has been recent resistance to removing them, in spite of the peace process.

About half of the province's 1.5 million population live in areas more than 90 per cent Protestant or more than 90 per cent Catholic (McKittrick, 1993).

There is some evidence that, certainly until the time of the ceasefires in 1994, segregation was increasing and deepening (McKittrick, 1993; S myth, 1995). One of the most striking trends is the movement of Protestants out of the cities, and into the hinterlands of North Down and Ards in the case of Belfast. and Limavady and Eglinton in the case of Deny or Londonderry. In areas where housing is mixed, Boal (1982) has argued that,

mixed areas are particularly vulnerable to destabilisation. Vulnerabilily also appears to be generated by differences in ethnic tolerance levels between the two groups - Catholics being more accepting of numerical minority status in a neighbourhood than Protestants (Boal, I982 p. 274).

The pattern of residential segregation has meant that enclave communities -surrounded on all sides by the �other� community - have become a feature of urban life in certain areas such as North Belfast. Life in an enclave community poses particular issues for those who interact (or who have interacted) across the sectarian divide, such as mixed marriage couples. Many enclaves experience ongoing sectarian attack, and, paradoxically, communities which were established to improve the safety of residents can become sitting targets for such attacks. These attacks continued after the ceasefires. Murtagh (1993) points out that, in relation to the role of planners and housing administrators.

rather than engineering urban space in these areas, planners and housing administrators are often responding to social reality (Murtagh, 1993, p. 1).

However, the universal failure of planners directly to address issues of sectarian division in planning policy in Northern Ireland (Smyth, 1995) obscures their direct or indirect role in either maintaining or challenging existing divisions. Housing administrators have had a more direct involvement in housing allocation in a divided society and have necessarily taken the realities of segregation into account when designing and managing housing provision. However, some housing officials regard segregation as �self-regulating, thus avoiding the need for explicit policy on the issue.

Although segregation is also manifest in private sector housing, it is in segregated public sector housing areas that intimidation and violence has been at its worst. The stigma attached to living in a �bad� area is partly a class stigma. since �bad� areas are almost invariably public sector housing. Enclave areas in particular have been shown to experience untoward levels of social deprivation - higher than other non-enclave public sector areas (Murtagh, 1993). Within enclave communities, family and kinship ties are very close, and an injury to an individual can quickly become an injury to the entire community. Reasons given for remaining resident in an enclave area include close family ties, a refusal to be intimidated, a commitment and loyalty to the area. and, most significantly an inability to resource (financially) a move out of the area. Whilst some residents in segregated areas express regret at the loss of contact with the other community, the history of attack on such communities can meant that bitterness and anger at the other community surfaces from time to time. Virtually all segregated and enclave communities contain a small number of residents from the �other� community, and many of these are in mixed marriages.

Within such a residentially segregated society mixed marriage couples face particular challenges in relation to their choice of home location. The couples who can afford to buy a home obviously have more choice than those dependant on public housing, and can elect to locate themselves within any one of a larger number and a wider range of areas, both segregated and mixed. That is to say, social class and economic status is a major determining factor in housing choice. As a result, the housing difficulties posed by a mixed marriage in a residentially segregated society can be more successfully managed because relative anonymity is the norm, and the nature of their marriage may not be a matter of immediate neighbourhood scrutiny. Couples who are dependant on public housing may not be able to escape such scrutiny. nor choose from such a range of options.

Mixed Marriage Couples and Public Sector Housing - Northern Ireland Housing Executive Policy and Procedures
The major issue which faces mixed marriage couples in the public housing market is that of segregation. Although Housing Executive policy from its inception was to encourage integrated housing, the reality of life in Northern Ireland has meant that people have chosen to live where they feel safe and secure, and for many that means living in segregated areas.

The requirement on the Housing Executive to be �fair in matters of housing administration creates a difficulty in dealing with individuals or groups in the population who have special needs. When asked about their policy in relation to mixed marriage couples, one Housing Executive official who was interviewed indicated that:

We don't have any specific policy as such; we have the same process for everyone.

The procedure for allocation of public sector housing is governed by a categorical prioritization programme. Category A allocation applies to people who are in urgent need of emergency housing. This includes people who are in urgent need of housing through intimidation or sectarian attack. those who have special health requirements or specific social need, key workers who are moving to take up jobs in local industry, or those who have had their houses vested for redevelopment. Category B allocation involves a points system, where points are awarded to applicants for housing on the basis of need. Applicants are awarded points for living in poor accommodation, for a lack of specific amenities in their existing accommodation, for the size of their family, or for age or special needs. It is only when the applicant is considering where they wish to live that the relevance of a mixed marriage arises. A Housing Executive official indicated how this might happen:

It�s maybe at this stage that the mixed marriage thing would come into it, because in the original application form, applicants are asked to choose three areas in which they would like to live, in order of preference. Obviously there are some areas where it would be completely inappropriate for these people to live, but we do have some mixed estates in the suburbs where we rarely have problems. Our housing officers obviously know where the best places might be for people, and as they get to meet up with them, they can normally advise and recommend accordingly.

It is clear that housing officers consider mixed housing and areas where there is less intimidation more appropriate for mixed marriage couples.

Really, I feel it boils down to correct staff training. We advise our staff well. so that they can deal with any problems appropriately. Giving everyone else the same choice can only be fair as long as you give them the advice to go with it (Housing Executive manager).

The system for dealing with mixed marriage couples seems somewhat ad hoc in nature. The opportunity to make well informed public housing choices and decisions depends on the knowledge of the individual housing officer and his or her ability to advise any given couple. One implication of the system as it stands is that couples in mixed marriages may have to move away from areas in which they have networks of relationships and family support. if those networks were in segregated areas. Whilst this may be necessary in order to establish a feeling of safety for the couple, it sets up a further potential problem of social isolation. If a mixed marriage couple wish to live in mixed public housing, the choice of areas where they could live is severely restricted in some parts of Northern Ireland.

Yet, during the interviews, some Housing Executive personnel suggested that sectarian division presented fewer problems to them that it used to:

Actually, as far as any hassles and problems are concerned nowadays, they're normally associated with the usual neighbour-type disputes like noisiness and building extension set cetera, rather than religion. It doesn't come into it now as much as it did in the past. There is much less in the way of Catholic- Protestant problems than there was in the seventies. Personally, I think peoples� attitudes to mixed marriage are changing.

Whether attitudes to mixed marriage are changing or not, it remains the case that mixed marriage couples who are seeking public housing face a difficult series of choices. They run the risk of intimidation of themselves or their relatives if they go to live in segregated areas. The choice for some couples may be between breaking with family ties in segregated areas in order to live in a mixed area where they may be more acceptable as a mixed couple, or choosing to remain living in a segregated area, risking intimidation and having to manage information about one partner�s identity in order to maintain family and neighbourhood ties. Where the anonymity of private housing is financially available to them, some couples will choose that option as a resolution to the dilemma, but for those dependant on public housing, the dilemma seems likely to remain.

At its formation, the Housing Executive adopted a policy of not monitoring the religious affiliation of its clients. This has meant that certain data on religion and housing was not available. However, this policy has recently been reviewed, and the Housing Executive now monitor the religion of applicants for public housing, including mixed households (Melaugh, 1994). This will allow a more detailed assessment of the impact of policy on the various groups in the future, including the impact on mixed marriage couples. Collection and analysis of this data will allow a clearer picture to emerge, and may well provide the basis for policy development around the specific public housing needs of mixed marriage couples.

Return to publication contents

Section 6: Conclusions

To describe the search for solutions to the Northern Ireland conflict as complex' has become little more than a platitude. Whatever their differences in attributing causes or propounding solutions, most politicians, activists and academics are agreed in the view that constructing a stable and equitable society will be a lengthy and difficult process. In large measure this results from a situation in which. over a period of almost three quarters of a century, all of Northern Ireland's political, social, economic and religious institutions have been affected by the fundamental cleavage in the society. Not only has every institution and organisation. along with all their individual members, been marked in some way by the division, but the resulting problems have been compounded by the interaction of the different elements. This paper has described some of the interfaces between mixed marriage couples. on the one hand. and the churches. the education system and the public housing authority. on the other. and this has provided clear illustrations of this interaction. What at first sight might appear to be primarily a religious issue for the individuals and their immediate families has ramifications which spread out to affect almost all aspects of the couple's life throughout their marriage.

A considerable volume of recent survey data and a number of qualitative investigations have suggested that, within Northern Ireland, there has been some increase in levels of cross community contact and some reduction in sectarian attitudes especially since the early 1980s. Many of these changes have emerged at local level and reflect developments such as the growth of women's groups and the establishment of community development projects. Whilst such initiatives may have begun to change people's everyday experience of life in Northern Ireland, it often seems that the formal structures of the society, for example the political parties, have been much more resistant to change. Examination of personal and institutional responses to mixed marriage does to some extent echo this emerging public/private. institutional/ personal split. However, the data gathered during this study also indicate that any attempt at generalisation inevitably oversimplifies the confusing and often contradictory trends in relationships between the two communities

Whilst some institutions and elements within institutions have, for a number of reasons, found it difficult to modify their structures, others have made very considerable changes. The major churches, as institutions, have edged their way towards a more sympathetic and individual response to the needs of mixed marriage couples and families. At the same time, however, some individuals, both lay and clergy, within these churches still find it difficult to accept what they see as dangerous compromises, while some of the smaller evangelical churches remain firm in their condemnation of mixed marriage.

The traditional education system, preoccupied since the mid 1980s with far reaching and seemingly endless general changes both in curriculum and management, has not yet found it possible to respond in any very organised way to the specific needs of pupils from mixed marriage backgrounds. And yet, education, operating initially outside the established structures, has been the base for one of the most potentially supportive developments for mixed marriage children and their families, that is the growth of integrated schools.

The Housing Executive was one of the first institutions to develop formal structures aimed at combating discrimination and improving community relations. However, its equity based system for housing allocation. whilst aiming to ensure fairness in access to housing, did not address residential segregation or the particular problems this poses for mixed marriage couples. The recent introduction of procedures for monitoring the religious affiliation of applicants for public housing may be a first step towards developing structures which take account of specific needs such as those of mixed marriage couples. Whether it will actually provide a base for developing supportive policies remains to be seen.

If the institutions investigated display variety and contradiction in their responses to mixed marriage, the reactions of individuals compound the complexity. All the structures and policies are to a degree dependant on the individuals who put them into practice. From the data gathered during this study, it is clear that. even when policy is developed centrally, local conditions and individual attitudes produce wide variations in how such general policy statements are interpreted and implemented at a micro-social level. There is therefore still tension and uncertainty in the interactions between mixed marriage couples and families, and the major public institutions in Northern Ireland. This anxiety is based on the fact that, even today, it is difficult to predict how a request for help, co-operation or support will be received. In some instances, such as in housing or mainstream education, the variation in response is due to a lack of specific policy; in others, such as religion, the variation may be due to local conditions and consequent differences in how policy is interpreted.

In the context of Northern Ireland. where violence and constitutional instability have had deep-rooted and largely unmeasured social and community consequences, it is a matter of some delicacy how sensitive and profoundly intercorrelated issues - such as mixed marriages - are understood, interpreted and dealt with. It is therefore of great importance that recommendations in regard to change and development make considerable efforts to take account of sensitivities and anxieties, if they are not to do more harm than good.

Background to Recommendations
To begin with we are of the view that, for those involved in all the anxieties and procedural uncertainties of organising a mixed marriage, it is important - as far as possible - to reduce confusion and avoid difficulties and worries. With regard to the major churches - as institutions - it would help a great deal if they were to be proactive in ensuring that current agreed policies and procedures for conducting mixed marriages are well-known and easily available, preferably in printed form. This would include not just references to and descriptions of procedures and steps to be taken. but also the availability of forms of counselling, ideally agreed among the churches. This would relate not just to the two people wishing to be married, but also to their families: and not just to the events before and during the marriage, but also to the many recognised and trying events and decisions following the marriage.

This proposal would also help to sensitise those clergy and laity who are unsure about recent developments. As always, such an approach, must be developed sensitively and strategically, and with consultation and discussion. There is the particular danger that the wrong kind of publicity can help to provoke resistance in some quarters.

With regard to the institutions and structures of education, it would add considerably to the easing of the problems which some parents and children experience, if the issues and difficulties of mixed marriages were taken account of in some aspects of school management, and within appropriate parts of the curriculum. The form of church services used in the school, the content and structure of assemblies, the locations of school visits, the arrangements for clerical counselling, and so on, should all be sensitive to and aware of the increasing incidence within the society of children from mixed marriages. Children ought not to be subjected to judgements - even implicit judgements - about the ways in which their parents have chosen, in good conscience, to live their lives.

The curriculum themes of 'Education for Mutual Understanding' and 'Cultural Heritage' are particularly apposite locations for the promotion of understanding and thinking about the reality of mixed marriage. Obviously age is an important variable in considering the suitability and congruence of material and topics in this area. Among older pupils it would seem important to discuss the relevance of mixed marriage to a society where the wider social and political divisions parallel perfectly the religious divide. The range of issues and questions is very wide and could include: the significance and possible impact of such developments with regard to Northern Ireland society in general and the conflict in particular; the set of moral imperatives within which any discussion of marriage is placed; the possible long-term consequences of a continuing growth of numbers of mixed marriages; the impact of such growth on church membership, attendance and belief systems.

It is also important to be aware that there is not as yet any unanimity of view about mixed marriages, their within-church (or indeed between-church) legitimacy or how to deal with the short to medium term issues with which they present us. The recommendations that follow are written with an awareness of these difficulties and so are not presented as final or definitive views on the matter. There is, we believe, a continuing need for discussion, debate and deliberation. We also believe that these processes of necessity force us to reflect on the significance of mixed marriage in any understanding of what constitutes a good and healthy society or democracy.

Return to publication contents

Section 7: Recommendations

  1. The major churches should continue the development of dialogue on the provision of support for mixed marriage couples and families, and should strengthen the structures through which such support is provided.

  2. Each of the major churches should ensure that all clergy receive training in work with mixed marriage couples and families, either in their initial preparation for ordination or as part of on-going training.

  3. The laity within the churches should he given clear information about the position of their church and the ways in which it ministers to mixed marriage couples and families. Clear simply stated published materials would provide a useful resource.

  4. Where individual clergy or congregations do not feel able, for whatever reason, to support a mixed marriage couple. for example by participating in a marriage service, there should be clear procedures in each church by which the couple can be referred to clergy who are able to support them and who have experience of problems associated with mixed marriage.

  5. The training of teachers, both at pre-service and in-service levels, should include discussion of the needs of parents and children from mixed marriage families and the problems they may encounter in the education system.

  6. Consideration should be given to ways in which pupils, especially older secondary level pupils, can be made aware of and sensitive to these issues. This might be possible through the EMU or Cultural Heritage aspects of the curriculum, or through programmes which specifically address controversial issues.

  7. Since a considerable number of children from mixed marriage families attend integrated schools, these schools have a body of experience in supporting the pupils and handling sensitive situations. It would be valuable if this could be formalised and shared with teachers in the controlled and maintained schools.

  8. A number of schools outside the integrated sector, in particular some voluntary grammar schools, have considerable numbers of pupils from 'the other' section of the community or from mixed marriage backgrounds. In these cases, consideration should be given to developing a school policy to support such pupils. It might be valuable if one or more members of staff had specific responsibility in this area.

  9. The Housing executive should use the data now being collected on religious affiliation of housing applicants to monitor levels of segregation in different areas: this could constitute a basis for developing a policy both on allocating housing to mixed marriage families and on responding to any problems which such families encounter.

Return to publication contents


Click on the icon to return to the text reference.

1. The term Catholic is used in this report as a short-hand for Roman Catholic. and Protestant is used as a generic term for members of the Church of Ireland, Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, and so on. Both terms are also used occasionally to denote people who were born into one of these two religious traditions whether they are still practising members or not.

2. A recent highly detailed and historically summative study of the subject of ethnic residential segregation in Belfast in particular, and in Northern Ireland generally, has been published in two volumes by the Centre for the Study of Conflict (Doherty and Poole, 1995; Poole and Doherty. 1996).

Return to publication contents


Barbara. A. (1989) Marriage across frontiers, Clevedon: Multilingual Matters Ltd.
Barritt, D. P. and C. F. Carter (1962. 1972) The Northern Ireland Problem, 2nd ed.. London: Oxford University Press.
Boal, F. W. (1982) �Segregating and Mixing: Space and Residence in Belfast�, in F. W. Boal and J. H. N. Douglas (eds.) Integration and Division: Geographical Perspectives on the Northern Ireland Problem, London: Academic Press.
Bruce Steve and Fiona Alderdyce (1993) �Religious Belief and Behaviour�, in Stringer, P. and G. Robinson, Social Attitudes in Northern Ireland 3, the Third Report, 1992-1993 Edition, Belfast: Blackstaff Press.
Compton, P.A. (1989) �The Changing Religious Demography of Northern Ireland: Some Political Implications�, Studies Vol. 78, No. 4, pp. 393-402.
Compton, P. (1995) Demographic Review Northern Ireland, Research Monograph 1. Belfast: Northern Ireland Economic Council.
De Bhaldraithe. E. (1988) �Mixed Marriages and Irish Politics�, Studies, Vol. 77, No. 307, pp. 284-298.
Doherty, Paul and Michael A. Poole (1995) Ethnic Residential Segregation in Belfast, Coleraine: Centre for the Study of Conflict, 116 pages.
Donnan, H. (1990) �Mixed Marriage in Comparative Perspective: Gender and Power in Northern Ireland and Pakistan�, Journal of Comparative Family Studies, Vol. 21. No. 2, pp. 207-25.
Dunn, S. (1986) �The Role of Education in the Northern Ireland Context�, Oxford Review of Education. 12, 3, pp. 233-242.
Dunn, S. (1991) �The Social Context of Education in Northern Ireland�, European Journal of Education, 26, 2, pp. 179-190.
Farren. S. et al. (1992) Students Together and Students Apart: a Study of Student-Teachers� Attitudes in Northern Ireland. Coleraine: University of Ulster, 145 pages.
Gallagher, A. M. and S. Dunn (1991) Contact and Integration among Protestant and Catholics. in P. Stringer and G. Robinson. eds.. �Social Attitudes in Northern Ireland. 1990-1991 Edition�. Belfast: Blackstaff Press.
Harris, R. (1972) Prejudice and Tolerance in Ulster: a Study of Neighbours and �Strangers� in a Border Community, Manchester: Manchester University Press.
Heron. A. (1977) Two Churches one Love, APCK.
Jenkins, R. and J. Macrea (1967) Religion. Conflict and Polarisation in Northern Ireland, unpublished ms.
Jones, E. (1956) �The Distribution and Segregation of Roman Catholics in Belfast�, Sociological Review, Vol. 4. pp. 167-89.
Judd, E. P. (1990) �Intermarriage and the Maintenance of Religio-ethnic Identity - a Case Study: the Denver Jewish Community�, Journal of Comparative Family Studies, Vol. xxi. No. 2, pp. 251-265.
Larson, L. B. and B. Munro (1990) �Religious Intermarriage in Canada in the 1980s�, Journal of Comparative Family Studies, Vol. 21, No. 2.
Lashley, F. J. (1991) in Hastings, A.. ed.. Modern Catholicism: Vatican II and After, London: SPCK
Lee. R. M. (1981) Interreligious Courtship and Marriage in Northern Ireland, Unpublished PhD Thesis, University of Edinburgh
Lee. R. M. (1985) �Intermarriage, Conflict and Social Control in Ireland: the Decree Ne temere�, Economic and Social Review, Vol. 17, pp. 11-28.
Lee, R. M. (1994) Mixed and Matched - Interreligious Courtship and Marriage in Northern Ireland. Lanham: University Press of America.
Leyton, E. (1975) The One Blood: Kinship and Class in an Irish Village, St Johns, Newfoundland: Newfoundland Social and Economic Studies, Institute of Social and Economic Research.
MacFarlane, G (1979) �Mixed Marriage in Ballycuan, Northern Ireland�, Journal of Comparative Family Studies, Vol. 10, No. 2, pp. 191 - 205.
McKittrick, D. (1993) �Apartheid Deepens on Streets of Ulster� The Independent on Sunday, 21 March 1993, p. 5.
Masterson, J. G. (1973) �Cousin Marriage in Ireland� in D. F. Roberts and E. Sunderland (eds.), Genetic variation in Britain, London: Taylor and Francis.
Melaugh, M. (1994) Majority Minority Review 3: Housing and Religion in Northern Ireland, Coleraine: Centre for the Study of Conflict, University of Ulster, pp. 89-90.
Morgan, V., S. Dunn, Ed Cairns and G. Fraser (1991) Breaking the Mould: the Roles of Parents and Teachers in the Integrated Schools in Northern Ireland, Coleraine: Centre for the Study of Conflict, University of Ulster.
Morgan, V., S. Dunn, Ed Cairns and G. Fraser (1993) �How do Parents Choose a School for Their Child? An Example of the Exercise of Parental Choice�, Educational Research, Vol. 35, No. 2, pp. 139 - 148.
Murtagh, B. (1993) Planning for Sectarian Interface Areas - Survey Reports. Vols. 1-6, Jordanstown: Centre for Policy Research, University of Ulster.
Northern Ireland Mixed Marriages Association (NIMMA) (Not dated). Mixed Marriage in Northern Ireland, Belfast: NIMMA.
Poole, Michael A and Paul Doherty (1996) Ethnic Residential Segregation in Northern Ireland. Coleraine: Centre for the Study of Conflict. 290 pages.
Robinson G (1992) Cross-community Marriage in Northern Ireland, Belfast: Centre for Social Research, The Queen�s University.
Smyth. M. (1995) Sectarian Division and Area Planning: a Commentary on The Derry Area Plan 2011: Preliminary Proposals. Derry: Templegrove Action Research. Ltd.
Stringer, P. and G. Robinson (1991) Social Attitudes in Northern Ireland 1. the First Report, 1990-1991 Edition. Belfast: Blackstaff Press.
Stringer, P. and G. Robinson (1992) Social Attitudes in Northern Ireland 2, the Second Report, 1991-1992 Edition, Belfast: Blackstaff Press.
Stringer, P. and G. Robinson (1993) Social Attitudes in Northern Ireland 3, the Third Report. 1992-1993 Edition, Belfast: Blackstaff Press.
Stringer, P. and G. Robinson (1994) Social Attitudes in Northern Ireland 4, the Fourth Report, 1993-1994 Edition, Belfast: Blackstaff Press.
Tavard, G. (1991) �Ecumenical Relations� in Hastings. A., ed.. Modem Catholicism: Vatican II and After. London: SPCK.
Tillion. G. (1977) �Interview with A. Barbara�, in �France-Culture� broadcast.
Whyte, J. (1990) Interpreting Northern Ireland. Oxford: The Clarendon Press.

Return to publication contents

© Centre for the Study of Conflict and the Author(s)
Last Modified by Martin Melaugh :

Back to the top of this page