A Welling Up of Deep Unconscious Forces, Psychology and the Northern Ireland Conflict
Centre for the Study of Conflict
School of History, Philosophy and Politics,
Faculty of Humanities, University of Ulster

A Welling Up of Deep Unconscious Forces, Psychology and the 
Northern Ireland Conflict frontispiece

A Welling Up of Deep Unconscious Forces, Psychology and the Northern Ireland Conflict

by Ed Cairns
Published by the University of Ulster, Coleraine 1994
ISBN 1 85923 070 9
Paperback 29pp £4.00

Copies are available in bookshops or, by post, from:

Pat Shortt
Centre for the Study of Conflict
University of Ulster
Northern Ireland
BT52 1SA

T: (01265) 324666 or 324165
F: (01265) 324917
E: mp.shortt@ulst.ac.uk

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.

A Welling Up of Deep Unconscious Forces
Psychology and the Northern Ireland Conflict

by Ed Cairns

Centre for the Study of Conflict
University of Ulster



Social Identity Theory

Does Social Identity Theory apply to Northern Ireland

Is this Analysis of Practical Significance to Northern Ireland

The Contact Hypothesis

Changing Intergroup Boundaries

Summary and Conclusions



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. It has recently published a Register of Research on Northern Ireland which has been widely praised, and a termly newsletter on current research called Research Briefing.

This new series of six research reports and papers on aspects of the Northern Ireland conflict represents the results of recent work as well as a reprint of an earlier work still much in demand.

It includes the extensive evaluation work of Colin Knox and his colleagues on the Community Relations and Local Government initiative, a major experiment in the promotion and encouragement of inter-community activity through the medium of district councils; a ground-breaking report by Valerie Morgan and Grace Fraser (carried out in association with the Centre for Research on Women) called The Company We Keep: Women, Community and Organisations, on the role and influence and cross-community activities of women in small towns and rural communities; the first in a new series of reports on the concept and experience of alienation, called Protestant Alienation in Northern Ireland; the most recent Majority-Minority report (joining earlier reports on education and on employment/unemployment) this one by Martin Melaugh on Housing and Religion in Northern Ireland; a paper by Ed Cairns onPsychology and the Northern Ireland Conflict, one in the series of occasional papers written by distinguished scholars. Finally, a reprint of the much discussed report by Duncan Morrow and his colleagues on The Churches and Intercommunity Relationships first published in 1991.

A second new series of reports will be published in July 1994 on topics such as Geographical Segregation, Education for Mutual Understanding, Disability, Community Development and Peace Education.

Seamus Dunn
May 1994.

Return to publication contents


As my title suggests the main aim of this lecture is to discuss the role of psychology in relation to understanding the conflict in Northern Ireland. There is, I believe, general agreement among social psychologists that understanding conflict in general is an area where psychology has made a contribution and hopefully will continue to do so.

However I have to admit that psychologists in Northern Ireland were not always so confident about their role in understanding the conflict in Northern Ireland. Indeed it is true that Northern Ireland had to teeter on the brink of civil war and become the focus of the world's media before the interest of local psychologists was aroused (Cairns, 1987, p.13).

To understand this reluctance to get involved with research on the conflict one must take into account the general history of psychology as an academic discipline and in particular the status of social psychology within that discipline.

The history of psychology reveals that there has always been and continues to be a tension between those who see the discipline as a social science and those who see it as a biological science - or as the latter like to refer to it - between soft psychology and hard psychology.

This tension is probably more keenly felt in North America where social psychology has flourished particularly since the Second World War. Involvement in the war effort had opened up avenues for social psychologists to become involved in practical problems and after the war they turned their attention to what they saw were the main social problems in their society, particularly the racial problem. In the United Kingdom however the idea of psychology as a biological science dominated and indeed still does to this day.

In the early 1970's this background presented problems for local psychologists who wanted to apply psychology to the conflict in Northern Ireland. To begin with psychologists in Northern Ireland had no experience of trying to apply their discipline to social problems. Secondly what social psychology there was available in psychology in general, was largely Northern American social psychology, dominated by an individualistic (as opposed to a social) framework - a point that I will return to later.

Despite these inauspicious beginnings, as I said earlier, I feel it is now safe to say that psychology has reached a point where it can claim to have made a modest contribution to understanding the conflict here and I would argue is now positioned to make an even greater contribution in the future.

In this lecture of course there is not time to cover everything accomplished by psychologists in Northern Ireland over the last 25 years and so I will be concentrating on two areas in particular:

first the way in which psychology has contributed to a better understanding of the conflict here, particularly through theoretical developments;

second at a more practical level, ways in which this approach may provide insights into improving methods to promote reconciliation and peace.

As well as looking at the contributions which local researchers have made to understanding these apparently local problems, I also want to suggest how we in Northern Ireland can benefit from an understanding of social psychological research in general.

This means of course that I will be concentrating on academic work only and even then this will be a fairly narrow sweep of the field omitting mention of the contribution made by many psychologists who work in applied areas such as the health services the educational field and of course the civil service.

It also means that I will be omitting one of the major areas where local psychologists such as Frank Fee, Liz McWhirter and my colleague Ronnie Wilson have made a significant contribution -understanding the impact of the conflict on the people (adults and children) of Northern Ireland, especially the impact on their mental health (for recent review see Cairns & Wilson, 1992).

However I want to focus on psychological research and thinking on the causes of conflict for two reasons.

First because this is a topic which I believe can have an impact on the way people at all levels of Northern Irish society think about what is happening here and secondly because how we think about the conflict is in turn is related to the way in which we seek to contribute to the search for reconciliation.

But first some theoretical background. In the late 1960's and early 1970's psychological explanations for intergroup conflict tended to be ideas based largely on Freudian thinking and tested mostly by researchers from the USA. These theories contained ideas often loosely based on the notion of the displacement of aggression. Originally the idea was that individuals would deal with their aggression by displacing it outward on to other individuals and it was believed that this same process also applied to intergroup relations with the groups chosen to receive this displaced aggression inevitably weaker groups.

From this basic idea others have derived theories to explain intergroup conflict involving unconscious process such as projection and scapegoating or more complex schemes involving the development of a particular personality type central to which is authoritarianism which in turn is related to outgroup hostility.

Put simply these theories see the attitudes and behaviour of people towards outgroups as 'ways of working out individual emotional problems in an intergroup setting'. (Tajfel, 1978). A sort of sophisticated group form of 'kicking the cat'!

These views of intergroup conflict based on some form of individual pathology became very popular, especially after the Second World War, when people were trying to come to terms with the horrors of the holocaust. In the 1970's however European psychologists in particular began to be disenchanted by these ideas as explanations for intergroup conflict. While acknowledging that they might play a role in explaining interpersonal conflict their problem was how to directly extrapolate from interpersonal aggression or conflict to intergroup conflict.

What these social psychologists pointed out was that intergroup conflict does not involve random collections of individuals who somehow come to act in unison because they all happen to be in a similar psychological state. Instead they suggested that it was impossible to explain the uniformities of masses of individuals if we start with laws governing individual behaviour.

For psychologists in Northern Ireland the Freudian based theories provided some particular problems. Perhaps the most important of these was that they suggested that the primary explanation for intergroup conflict is psychological. However, anyone who lives in Northern Ireland knows that other factors such as religion, history, demography, politics and economics also play a role in the conflict here.

This meant that when an alternative view of intergroup conflict which did not psychologize the problem in this way became available psychologist here embraced it willingly and moved from a North American to a more European perspective as they adopted what is known as Tajfel's (after the originator Henri Tajfel) Social Identity Theory (Tajfel & Turner, 1986).

Return to publication contents

© CCRU 1998-1999
site developed by: Martin Melaugh
page last modified:
Back to the top of this page