Abstract: The Legacy of the Troubles: Social Workers' Experiences of Political Conflict and Sectarian Violence in Northern Ireland (Society for Social Work and Research 24th Annual Conference - Reducing Racial and Economic Inequality)

The Legacy of the Troubles: Social Workers' Experiences of Political Conflict and Sectarian Violence in Northern Ireland

Friday, January 17, 2020
Independence BR H, ML 4 (Marriott Marquis Washington DC)
* noted as presenting author
Carol Tosone, PhD, Professor of Social Work, New York University, New York
Joe Duffy, PhD, Senior Lecturer, Queen's University Belfast, Belfast, United Kingdom
Jim Campbell, PhD, Professor of Social Work, University College Dublin, Ireland, Dublin, Ireland

While social workers have been dealing with the legacy of the Northern Ireland conflict for fifty years, few empirical studies have been carried out in this field.  One study revealed the experiences of social workers in dealing with violent contexts and the choices they made to help clients in this context(Campbell & McCrystal, 2005). More recently, ways of preparing students for practice in traumatological environments have been explored with a particular focus on engaging victims and survivors as educators in social work educational programs (Coulter et al, 2013; Campbell et al, 2013). The aim of the current study was to explore the experiences and long-term impact of The Troubles (1969-1998) on social workers living and working in Northern Ireland during the extended period of political conflict and sectarian violence.


A mixed method approach was used to achieve this aim and recruitment to the study was achieved through stakeholders in a range of social work agencies in Northern Ireland. An online survey was designed to elicit demographic, Likert scale responses and open text responses from social workers (n=103) who had practiced in the period before the signing of the Belfast Peace Agreement (1998). In addition. follow up interviews with a stratified sample (n=28) of this population occurred January through May 2018. Data was analyzed using SPSS to elicit descriptive, univariate and bivariate analyses, and Nvivo for the qualitative responses from both populations. Appropriate ethical approval was granted for the research.


The majority of respondents were women (75%), 50 years of age or older (73%), and with a lengthy job history (56% had 26 or more years of professional service). During the discharge of their professional duties, respondents reported witnessing or experiencing bomb scares (89%), bombings (87%), shootings (56%), road blocks (46%), and sectarian abuse (42%). Notably, 62% of respondents reported daily exposure to risk in carrying out their work responsibilities, particularly for those working in child protective services. Threats and violence originated from paramilitary and community members, as well as clients. Talking to others about their experiences (70%), debriefing with colleagues (66%), and supervision (32%) served as primary coping mechanisms. Key themes from the 28 qualitative interviews included: 1) mainitaining professionalism and ethical care of clients in the discharge of daily professional duties ("You just get on with it"); 2) value of peer support and agency-based supervision; 3) lack of preparation from professional education; 4) appreciation for the opportunity to discuss their own trauma narratives; and 5) continued intergenerational trauma and legacy issues.  


Social workers in Northern Ireland were exposed to high levels of multiple adversities where detachment from the wider violent and political milieu was reported as an important way of coping. Concern for client welfare and professional commitment was prioritized and helped these social workers to perform under extraordinary circumstances.