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The Measurement of Sharing and Separation in a Divided Society: The Case of Northern Ireland


  • Paul Nolan

    (Dr Paul Nolan, Peace Monitoring Project, Belfast)


In April 1998 the political parties in Northern Ireland, working in tandem with the British, Irish and American governments, arrived at a peace accord that brought a 30 year violent conflict to an end. Or so it seemed at the time. The euphoria of the moment temporarily clouded the fact that, below the political high wire, the two antagonistic communities, the Protestants and the Catholics, were still going to have to live together and find ways of building a shared society in the schools, the workplaces and the neighbourhoods where people live out their daily lives. The poetry very quickly turned to prose, and instead of creating a shared society Northern Ireland seems at times to have evolved as a ‘shared out’ society, with social goods and resources divided up on a one-for-me, one-for-you basis. That has led some to characterise the new post-conflict dispensation as a form of ‘benign apartheid’ where the two communities maintain a wary peace by keeping their distance from each other, with high degrees of self-segregation in the school system, in housing settlement patterns and in social and cultural pursuits. If this is so and patterns of division are in fact deepening, then there may be at best what is sometimes called a ‘cold peace’ , that is, peace without reconciliation. At worst, the cycles of violence which characterise Irish history may turn once more and the current absence of violence may turn out to have been no more than a generational truce. The signs however do not just point in one direction. For every indicator that signals division there is another that suggests a new form of rapprochement is slowly taking shape, that under the canopy of the new constitutional arrangements a more tolerant and accommodating society is emerging. For the observer the difficulty lies in deciding which trend is the stronger. One respected political scientist has summarised the current situation as follows: There are radically opposing views among experts on whether, ten years on, the settlement has reduced or increased sectarianism, as to whether it has crystallised or softened opposing views, and as to whether it has solidified or moderated opposing blocs, or perhaps even begun to transform them (Todd, 2010:88). Which view is more plausible? Evidence can seem to point in both directions. Like those Escher drawings where the figures ascending a staircase appear mysteriously to be descending at the same time, both tendencies can be observed to occur together. This paper will explain how a research project known as the Peace Monitoring Report has been set up to explore the state of the Northern Ireland peace process, and the difficulties it has faced in trying to establish an interpretative framework that can analyse data drawn from many different sources – political, economic, social and cultural. It will outline the results of the first study, and show how in education policy it has been economic forces that have driven an agenda to facilitate sharing between Protestant and Catholic schools.

Suggested Citation

  • Paul Nolan, 2012. "The Measurement of Sharing and Separation in a Divided Society: The Case of Northern Ireland," Working Papers 2012/38, Maastricht School of Management.
  • Handle: RePEc:msm:wpaper:2012/38

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