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Billy King


Nonviolence News


Each month we bring you a nonviolence training workshop based on the experience of the Nonviolent Action Training project and INNATE.

Exploring Northern Ireland divisions
a short exercise

[Click here to view print version]

Reducing complicated situations to their essential elements without making things simplistic can be a difficult task. For example, explaining the Northern Ireland situation and conflict through 800 years of history is necessary at a certain stage of learning but can reduce an audience who are not yet ready to grapple with it to a situation of information overload.

One simple way to introduce the conflict in Northern Ireland to people not familiar with it is to do it as a role play. The following is for a simple ‘fighting pairs’ role play where one person takes the identity of a ‘Catholic’ and one the identity of a ‘Protestant’.

This exercise can also be used with people from Ireland or Northern Ireland but in this case it is essential that both individuals in a pair play both roles, and participants are more likely to be able to easily add additional ‘facts’ as weapons in their ‘discussion’. Otherwise, just to play the role of ‘my’ side may simply reinforce prejudices and feelings which ‘I’ already have.

1. Copy the following description of both roles for each participant (or adapt it as you feel appropriate). One way of doing this is to copy them onto A4 paper and cut to A5 so that the ‘Protestant’ description is on one side, the ‘Catholic’ description on the other (this requires having one description on the top of one side, and the other on the top of the reverse as you photocopy). You can alter the description for both if you feel it is appropriate. When you give each person in the group a copy, emphasise that the roles given are archetypes – real people may have a different and more complex set of beliefs. Allow people time to read the two descriptions and/or read them out.

2. You can, if you like, have a short non-verbal or ‘one-verbal’ stage where the pair engage with each other but only using the one word, ‘no’ with each other (with only changes in inflection and volume, as well as body language). This is more a short exercise in negative, non-verbal communication and need only run for a minute or so. Get the pair to change roles and do it again. You can hold analysis of this exercise until after the next.

3. The pair engage verbally with each other on the issues of importance to each other in the roles. There may be inequality in the role play if one person is rather better informed about Northern Ireland than the other but emphasise that they should primarily stick to the role they are given; they can express how they feel, why they are dissatisfied with ‘the other party’, what their dream is for the future, and so on. Let this run for 5 or more minutes or until it seems to be running out of steam. Run it a second time, probably for a shorter length, with the roles reversed – the ‘Protestant’ has become the ‘Catholic’, and the ‘Catholic’ has become the ‘Protestant’. It is important to allow participants to experience both roles.

4. Allow participants to do initial sharing in their pair; how did it feel being one or the other, and did they identify with one party more than the other? If they did the ‘no’ part of the exercise, what did they feel they were saying ‘no’ to? What were the awkward, difficult questions or comments they had to deal with in either role? You could allow 5 – 8 minutes analysing in pairs (you can also judge when people are running out of steam) before coming back into plenary and take people’s most important points.

5. A useful way of ending analysis is to brainstorm a list of ‘unanswered questions’ which may point the way for further sessions and discussion, as well as indicating the level of information and interest in particular areas among the participants.

6. You can also brainstorm a list of ‘What people in the situation need to move beyond conflict’. Who would provide for these needs, how would they be provided?

7. While actually doing the role play, including introductions, can be done in under half an hour, the following discussion and analysis (including 5 and 6 above) can take much longer, e.g. half a day or even longer, but the basic exercise and analysis might take an hour and a half.

8. The way of exploring ‘two sides’ in this exercise is particularly effective in looking at a complex, long-running conflict such as that in Northern Ireland but can be used on other divisive issues as well.

9. Further resources which may be of use in the above context include ones from Community Dialogue ( at ) which has produced a series reducing divisive issues in Northern Ireland to their essential elements.

Northern Ireland – A Protestant
You’re a Protestant born and living in Northern Ireland. You see your way of life and, indeed, life itself, as being under threat from republicans. You feel Protestants and Loyalists have made all the sacrifices in the Troubles and you feel your community has gained nothing in any agreements made (e.g. Anglo-Irish Agreement 1985, Good Friday Agreement 1998) but has rather lost further ground – it’s always the Prods who lose out. Catholic communities usually get a better deal from the state and more funding, and fair employment legislation is biased against Protestants – just look at the ridiculous 50:50 recruitment for the PSNI/Police Service of Northern Ireland.

The British government, who should be looking after your concerns, is untrustworthy and does not live up to its word or its commitments, it seems more interested in placating republicans than protecting and involving your community. You feel you’ve no one to rely on except your own efforts and you feel that to prepare for the future is an uphill task because you have your ‘back to the wall’. This is your home, it has been for centuries, where else can you go? You feel your British, Ulster culture is under threat as shown by Catholic protests against Orange marches – it just goes to show how much republicans hate your culture.

You live in an area which is all-Protestant and you have little contact with Catholics, many of whom you regard as being out for what they can get – they take everything they can from the state but give no loyalty in return. You’re sick and tired of Catholics bellyaching and moaning about their rights and you wish they would just go away and be quiet. The fact that Sinn Féin, the political wing of the murderous IRA (which even under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement should have got out of existence half a dozen years ago), has been in government in Northern Ireland – and is likely to be again if the British and Irish governments get their way – causes you more than unease, it makes you feel sick.

Northern Ireland – A Catholic
You are a Catholic living in the Six Counties of the north of Ireland. Your ancestors have been here for millennia and yet you feel treated as if you have had no rights; things which Protestants take for granted have been denied to you, you feel – Catholic unemployment is still much higher than Protestant unemployment, for example. Despite the end of the Stormont ‘Protestant Parliament for a Protestant People’ in 1972, and direct rule from Britain, you feel the forces of the state still treat you in a fundamentally different way to Protestants. Whether things will be different in the long term following the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 – which itself has run into rocky ground through unionist intransigence – remains to be seen.

There have been some changes over the years but you feel the fundamental nature of the state has not changed; it remains a British state where an Irish identity has to struggle to make itself heard or maintain itself. When it comes to the crunch the state backs down before loyalists if it has the chance, as has happened so often with Orange marches. And yet Catholics were prepared to compromise on their historical goals to participate in the Good Friday Agreement.

You live in an area which is all-Catholic and you have very little contact with Protestants, many of whom you see as triumphalist, anti-Catholic, and intolerant of other people’s rights. You’re sick and tired of Protestant loyalists who attack or kill Catholics, refuse to consider Catholic grievances seriously, and are unwilling to share their power. You wish most Protestants would realise you’re no longer willing to be treated as second class citizens. They (the Prods) keep raising the bar for an Assembly at Stormont – any excuse to deny real equality and power for Catholics.

Copyright INNATE 2016