“The Troubles”, a period of conflict between Protestant and Catholic communities in Northern Ireland (1968-1998), claimed thousands of lives and left many more grievously injured. Following the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, a period of relative peace and progress has prevailed. Still, the trauma engendered and endured during this period has left lasting wounds, and citizens face ongoing challenges in reconciling their differences, recognizing their similarities, and developing a peaceful, thriving society. Social workers form a front line of engagement between sometimes wary and suspicious communities living shoulder-to-shoulder beside Peace Walls protecting one side from the other. This study promoted reflections by social work practice learning students and teachers on thoughts and feelings regarding delivery of social services to persons whose sectarian identities were different than their own.
Four focus groups were conducted with 11 social work practice learning teachers and 19 students in 2016. To facilitate both insider and outsider perspectives, the cross-national research team obtained ethical approval from U.S. and N.I. academic institutions. Sessions (two each with different cohorts of practice teachers and students) were audio-recorded and transcribed. A qualitative thematic analysis was conducted. Group discussions explored the application of mindfulness principles and stigma theory to participants’ tendencies to label, stereotype, distance from and discriminate against those whose sectarian identities differed from their own, and to consider the implications of those biases on their capacity to deliver compassionate social services. Core questions included: “If I really pay attention, what might I notice about his person or my reaction to him or her that I had previously missed”, “If I secretly feel judgmental or reactive to this person, how will that impact my ability to effectively respond to his or her rights or needs”, and “Rather than responding to this person (reactively), I will provide services (intentionally), with…dignity and respect. Examples….might include: ____”.
Coding by two analysts captured themes addressing mindfulness principles of awareness, acceptance, and action, manifested as forms of stigma and discrimination towards “the other”. Excerpts of participants’ observations revealed challenges in speaking candidly about long-hidden sectarian, classist, and racial fears, processes for managing latent and overt traumatic reactions to “the other”, motivations to alternately conceal or disclose charged feelings, and coping strategies for moving forward. Unanticipated themes included tendencies towards positive discrimination. Decisions regarding sharing one’s identity were complicated by motivations to dismiss, disclose, conceal, or focus on achieving functional outcomes, and by tendencies to mask or conceal one’s identity.
Conclusions and Implications:
Participants acknowledged internalized bias, and, with some hesitation, communicated it openly with peers. In the dynamic, highly politicized environment of Northern Ireland, social work education and service delivery must be guided by appreciation for complex trauma histories that span generations and are easily reactivated. Findings from this project are currently being applied to piloting of social work training modules among both constituencies throughout Northern Ireland.