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Centre for the Study of Conflict
School of History, Philosophy and Politics,
Faculty of Humanities, University of Ulster

Mixed Marriages in Northern Ireland frontispiece

Mixed Marriages in Northern Ireland

by Valerie Morgan, Marie Smyth, Gillian Robinson and Grace Fraser
Published by the University of Ulster, Coleraine 1996
ISBN 1 85923 042 3
Paperback 61pp £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

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Mixed Marriages in Northern Ireland
Institutional Responses

by Valerie Morgan, Marie Smyth, Gillian Robinson and Grace Fraser

Centre for the Study of Conflict
University of Ulster


Section One: Introduction and Background
Incidence of Mixed Marriage
The Impact of Mixed Marriage

Section Two: Methodology

Section Three: The Response of the Churches
The Attitude of the Churches - Historical Development of Positions on Mixed Marriage
Recent Developments
Remaining Problems - Local Church Responses
Community Responses
The Religious Upbringing of Children of Mixed Marriages

Section Four: The Response of the Education System
The Implications of the Structure of the Northern Ireland Education System
Practical Implications
The Planned Integrated Schools

Section Five: Residential Segregation and Public Housing
Residential Segregation
Mixed Marriage Couples and Public Sector Housing - Northern Ireland Housing Executive Policy and Procedures

Section Six: Conclusions
Background to Recommendations

Section Seven: Recommendations

Section Eight: References


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.

The Centre is very pleased to publish this new report on Mixed Marriages in Northern Ireland by Valerie Morgan, Marie Smyth, Gillian Robinson and Grace Fraser. The purpose of the research was to look closely at the whole range of past research findings on this subject and then to investigate the social and institutional context within which mixed (,or inter-faith) marriage exist and survive in Northern Ireland. In particular the problems and difficulties created for mixed couples with regard to religion, education and housing are examined and discussed in this report.

The Centre has recently published a number of other reports on topics such as Sport and Community Relations, Peer Mediation in Primary Schools, the Role of the Police, Parades in Northern Ireland, the Quaker Peace Education Project and Ethnic Residential Segregation in Belfast. This report on Mixed marriages is one of three new reports to be published at this time, the other two being on 'Education for Mutual Understanding' and on 'Ethnic Residential Segregation in Northern Ireland'. A full list of the Centre's publications is printed at the back of this volume.

Seamus Dunn
February 1996.

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As this report goes to press (February 1996) the Irish Republican Army (IRA) has just declared the ending of its eighteen-month cease-fire and has set off a bomb in London, killing two innocent people and wounding many more. The ceasefires called by the IRA and Protestant paramilitary groups in autumn 1994 had brought to an end a phase of violent conflict that had been going on in Northern Ireland for over twenty five years. For much of that time it provided one of the most visible and accessible models of inter-community, political violence in the world. As a result it attracted a considerable amount of international academic, governmental and media attention and one element of this attention has been that numerous aspects of the conflict have been examined by researchers. Many of the resulting studies, especially in recent years, have laid emphasis on the complexity of the conflict, the variety of levels at which it operates and the enmeshed nature of the different political, economic, social, religious and cultural strands. As a result, the impossibility of providing simple explanations and even less simple solutions has become increasingly apparent. One consequence is a growing awareness that even if further violence can be avoided, and formal political structures acceptable across the community can be negotiated, many years of effort will be needed to build cross community confidence and understanding.

The concern of this report is with one aspect of life in Northern Ireland that highlights many of the complexities and long term difficulties of the conflict here: that is the experiences of couples in 'mixed marriages'. To readers from outside the province, it is necessary to clarify that in Northern Ireland the phrase 'mixed marriage' is used to describe a marriage between a Catholic and a Protestant.

This immediately raises one of the first problems encountered in this research, that of terminology. In other contexts terms such as 'inter-faith', 'cross-community' or 'inter-racial' are used to describe marriages in which the partners are from different religious, cultural or linguistic backgrounds, and marriages between members or nominal members of different Christian denominations are frequently not regarded as warranting a special description. But in Northern Ireland the term 'mixed-marriage' is normally used to describe a marriage between a Protestant and a Catholic1. On the other hand people in Northern Ireland who are actually partners in such marriages often find the 'mixed marriage' label unacceptable. However, there is no consensus amongst them on a preferred term; 'inter faith' is favoured by some ( Northern Ireland Mixed Marriages Association, n.d.) but rejected by others who do not wish to be identified in religious terms. Similarly the designation 'cross community' produces both favourable and unfavourable responses (Robinson, 1992). In this report the term 'mixed marriage' will be used simply because it is the one most familiar in the Northern Irish context and the one which the majority of those interviewed in the course of the study used throughout their discussions and descriptions.

Any attempt to examine the incidence and consequences of 'mixed marriage' in Northern Ireland illustrates how complex the question is, The intensity of the emotions which a marriage between a Protestant and a Catholic can evoke, and the scale of the ramifications which can affect the couple, their families and many religious, social and political groups and organisations, encapsulates the cross-currents and contradictions in the Northern Irish situation.

Of course marriage across cultural, religious or racial boundaries is not a phenomenon unique to Northern Ireland, and indeed the extent of the division between the partners may seem less than that encountered in many other contexts such as Christian - Jewish or Islamic - Christian marriages, or inter-racial/inter-ethnic marriages in countries such as the United States. Arising from analysis of such marriages across the world there is a considerable intemational literature which examines inter-faith and cross-cultural marriage in a variety of contexts (Barbara, 1989; Donnan, 1990; Tillion, 1977; Larson and Munro, 1990). This literature looks at such issues as the attitudes and responses of the individuals and families directly involved, the effects on family structures, and the implications for the upbringing of children. In addition there has been some consideration by researchers of the wider social repercussions as exemplified in the reactions of religious and civil institutions and their representatives.

Mixed marriage in Northern Ireland is less well documented. The studies that have been conducted consist mainly of accounts of the experiences of individuals and analyses of the formal positions of the churches (Morgan and Fraser, 1991; Robinson, 1992; Heron, 1977; Harris, 1972; Jenkins and Macrae, 1967; Lee, 1981; Lee, 1985; Leyton, 1975; MacFarlane, 1979; Masterson, 1973).

The research project on which this report is based has also been concerned with the impact of Catholic/Protestant marriage on individuals, but its primary aim is to place such personal experiences in a wider context by attempting to catalogue and understand the actions and reactions of the wider family group and of major social institutions such as the churches and the schools.

Incidence of Mixed Marriage

Before this can be attempted, however, some attempt should be made to establish the extent of 'mixed marriage' in Northern Ireland. In fact this has varied over time, geographically and in relation to social variables, so that the general figure of around 10% which has been suggested for the province as a whole is not very helpful and may not even be accurate. Compton (1989) had found that 3.6% of all marriages were mixed at the time of asking and that this rose to 6% when respondents were asked about religion of origin. Comparable figures from the 1991 Census (Compton, 1995) indicate that 2.3% of marriages in Northern Ireland were mixed. Details are not available for percentages relating to religion of origin. Analysis of four years of the Northern Ireland Social Attitudes data (1989, 1991, 1993, 1994) show a figure of 6%. However these Northern Ireland figures hide considerable variation across the province. Data obtained from the Catholic Diocesan office (Robinson, 1992) reveal that, in 1991, 20% of all marriages in the Down and Connor diocese were mixed; the comparable figure for the Armagh diocese was 4% and for the Derry Diocese it was 9%. Further analysis of the 1993 Northern Ireland Social Attitude data by area of residence reveals a variation of 8.4% in Belfast, 6.2% in the East of the Province and 2.2 % in the West.

It might have been anticipated that over the period of the current 'Troubles', heightened community tension would have led to a reduction in the rate of mixed marriages, but in fact over the last 25 years the incidence has fluctuated considerably, and there seems to have been some increase since the mid 1980s. For example figures relating to the number of 'mixed marriages' celebrated in Catholic churches in the diocese of Down and Connor (including Belfast) suggest that the proportion grew during the late 1960s and early 1970s, reaching 25 % of marriages in the diocese in 1971. Subsequently, in the late 1970s, during the most violent phase of the Troubles, the figure fell before rising again to about 16% in the late 1980s (Lee. 1994). Interpreting such data is, however, somewhat problematic since there have been other social changes during the period, such as an increase in civil marriages and in couples choosing to live together without marrying, which may also have affected the pattern.

Detailed information about the socio-economic status of individuals within mixed marriages is not available. There have, however, been suggestions that mixed marriage is predominantly a middle class phenomenon although one analysis of the census data (Lee, 1981; Lee, 1985) indicates that 'the likelihood of intermarriage varies very little by the occupational level of the husband ... (although) ... The tabulation does indicate, in line with ethnographic reports, that intermarriage is very rare where the husband is in a farm-related occupation' (Lee, 1994). Information from those mixed marriage families who send their children to integrated schools suggests that the partners in mixed marriages contracted from the mid 1980s onwards come from a very wide spread of socio-economic backgrounds (Morgan et al., 1991)

The Impact of Mixed Marriage

Analysis of the data collected in this study suggests that the effects and impacts of mixed marriage can be generalised in terms of a series of interfaces along each of which a marriage between a Catholic and a Protestant generates mismatches which illuminate and replicate many of the underlying tensions in Northern Irish society. The most important arenas in which these are played out are the family and the religious community; however, the policies and actions of other agencies such as the education system may become major factors at specific points in the development of the marriage. 'The mismatches can be expressed in a number of ways, for example as structural tensions between the church and the individual, or as emotional dichotomies between the happiness of the couple and the unhappiness of the families. There are also contrasting feelings of having a secure identity within a new relationship and having no clear place in wider social circles; of belonging, and yet being isolated and rejected.

In order to explore these tensions the main sections of this report will examine the interactions between mixed marriage couples and families, and the churches, the education system and public housing authorities. Whilst this division into discrete sections makes analysis easier, two major reservations must be made clear.

Firstly, it is important to bear in mind throughout that the influence and impact of political, religious and social institutions in Northern Ireland interact with and affect each other and are not independent variables. Secondly, when this study was being planned it was thought that a number of other branches of government, and a number of other public bodies including divisions within the social services and the media - would have policies and patterns of behaviour likely to be influential with regard to mixed marriages. During the course of the research, however, it became clear that a considerable number of organisations did not have a policy, or any organisational response, with regard to mixed marriages. For example, social workers responsible for adoption services indicated that, since each prospective adoptive parent was assessed individually, there was no general response or policy for couples in a mixed marriage who wished to adopt a child. Similarly, discussions with media representatives indicated that stories and issues were normally assessed on a pragmatic one-off basis. and so the question of a policy or institutional response to mixed marriages was not applicable. The question of media responses to mixed marriages, therefore, needs to be treated in an a posteriora manner through the collection and analysis of stories and presentations, out of which it might be possible to construct an implicit or assumed set of attitudes and responses to mixed marriage. This sort of approach, while of considerable potential interest, would necessitate content analyses of radio, TV and print media coverage and this is a time-consuming and long-term process.

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Section Six: Conclusions


To describe the search for solutions to the Northern Ireland conflict as complex' has become little more than a platitude. Whatever their differences in attributing causes or propounding solutions, most politicians, activists and academics are agreed in the view that constructing a stable and equitable society will be a lengthy and difficult process. In large measure this results from a situation in which. over a period of almost three quarters of a century, all of Northern Ireland's political, social, economic and religious institutions have been affected by the fundamental cleavage in the society. Not only has every institution and organisation. along with all their individual members, been marked in some way by the division, but the resulting problems have been compounded by the interaction of the different elements. This paper has described some of the interfaces between mixed marriage couples. on the one hand. and the churches. the education system and the public housing authority. on the other. and this has provided clear illustrations of this interaction. What at first sight might appear to be primarily a religious issue for the individuals and their immediate families has ramifications which spread out to affect almost all aspects of the couple's life throughout their marriage.

A considerable volume of recent survey data and a number of qualitative investigations have suggested that, within Northern Ireland, there has been some increase in levels of cross community contact and some reduction in sectarian attitudes especially since the early 1980s. Many of these changes have emerged at local level and reflect developments such as the growth of women's groups and the establishment of community development projects. Whilst such initiatives may have begun to change people's everyday experience of life in Northern Ireland, it often seems that the formal structures of the society, for example the political parties, have been much more resistant to change. Examination of personal and institutional responses to mixed marriage does to some extent echo this emerging public/private. institutional/ personal split. However, the data gathered during this study also indicate that any attempt at generalisation inevitably oversimplifies the confusing and often contradictory trends in relationships between the two communities

Whilst some institutions and elements within institutions have, for a number of reasons, found it difficult to modify their structures, others have made very considerable changes. The major churches, as institutions, have edged their way towards a more sympathetic and individual response to the needs of mixed marriage couples and families. At the same time, however, some individuals, both lay and clergy, within these churches still find it difficult to accept what they see as dangerous compromises, while some of the smaller evangelical churches remain firm in their condemnation of mixed marriage.

The traditional education system, preoccupied since the mid 1980s with far reaching and seemingly endless general changes both in curriculum and management, has not yet found it possible to respond in any very organised way to the specific needs of pupils from mixed marriage backgrounds. And yet, education, operating initially outside the established structures, has been the base for one of the most potentially supportive developments for mixed marriage children and their families, that is the growth of integrated schools.

The Housing Executive was one of the first institutions to develop formal structures aimed at combating discrimination and improving community relations. However, its equity based system for housing allocation. whilst aiming to ensure fairness in access to housing, did not address residential segregation or the particular problems this poses for mixed marriage couples. The recent introduction of procedures for monitoring the religious affiliation of applicants for public housing may be a first step towards developing structures which take account of specific needs such as those of mixed marriage couples. Whether it will actually provide a base for developing supportive policies remains to be seen.

If the institutions investigated display variety and contradiction in their responses to mixed marriage, the reactions of individuals compound the complexity. All the structures and policies are to a degree dependant on the individuals who put them into practice. From the data gathered during this study, it is clear that. even when policy is developed centrally, local conditions and individual attitudes produce wide variations in how such general policy statements are interpreted and implemented at a micro-social level. There is therefore still tension and uncertainty in the interactions between mixed marriage couples and families, and the major public institutions in Northern Ireland. This anxiety is based on the fact that, even today, it is difficult to predict how a request for help, co-operation or support will be received. In some instances, such as in housing or mainstream education, the variation in response is due to a lack of specific policy; in others, such as religion, the variation may be due to local conditions and consequent differences in how policy is interpreted.

In the context of Northern Ireland. where violence and constitutional instability have had deep-rooted and largely unmeasured social and community consequences, it is a matter of some delicacy how sensitive and profoundly intercorrelated issues - such as mixed marriages - are understood, interpreted and dealt with. It is therefore of great importance that recommendations in regard to change and development make considerable efforts to take account of sensitivities and anxieties, if they are not to do more harm than good.

Background to Recommendations

To begin with we are of the view that, for those involved in all the anxieties and procedural uncertainties of organising a mixed marriage, it is important - as far as possible - to reduce confusion and avoid difficulties and worries. With regard to the major churches - as institutions - it would help a great deal if they were to be proactive in ensuring that current agreed policies and procedures for conducting mixed marriages are well-known and easily available, preferably in printed form. This would include not just references to and descriptions of procedures and steps to be taken. but also the availability of forms of counselling, ideally agreed among the churches. This would relate not just to the two people wishing to be married, but also to their families: and not just to the events before and during the marriage, but also to the many recognised and trying events and decisions following the marriage.

This proposal would also help to sensitise those clergy and laity who are unsure about recent developments. As always, such an approach, must be developed sensitively and strategically, and with consultation and discussion. There is the particular danger that the wrong kind of publicity can help to provoke resistance in some quarters.

With regard to the institutions and structures of education, it would add considerably to the easing of the problems which some parents and children experience, if the issues and difficulties of mixed marriages were taken account of in some aspects of school management, and within appropriate parts of the curriculum. The form of church services used in the school, the content and structure of assemblies, the locations of school visits, the arrangements for clerical counselling, and so on, should all be sensitive to and aware of the increasing incidence within the society of children from mixed marriages. Children ought not to be subjected to judgements - even implicit judgements - about the ways in which their parents have chosen, in good conscience, to live their lives.

The curriculum themes of 'Education for Mutual Understanding' and 'Cultural Heritage' are particularly apposite locations for the promotion of understanding and thinking about the reality of mixed marriage. Obviously age is an important variable in considering the suitability and congruence of material and topics in this area. Among older pupils it would seem important to discuss the relevance of mixed marriage to a society where the wider social and political divisions parallel perfectly the religious divide. The range of issues and questions is very wide and could include: the significance and possible impact of such developments with regard to Northern Ireland society in general and the conflict in particular; the set of moral imperatives within which any discussion of marriage is placed; the possible long-term consequences of a continuing growth of numbers of mixed marriages; the impact of such growth on church membership, attendance and belief systems.

It is also important to be aware that there is not as yet any unanimity of view about mixed marriages, their within-church (or indeed between-church) legitimacy or how to deal with the short to medium term issues with which they present us. The recommendations that follow are written with an awareness of these difficulties and so are not presented as final or definitive views on the matter. There is, we believe, a continuing need for discussion, debate and deliberation. We also believe that these processes of necessity force us to reflect on the significance of mixed marriage in any understanding of what constitutes a good and healthy society or democracy.

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Section Seven: Recommendations

  1. The major churches should continue the development of dialogue on the provision of support for mixed marriage couples and families, and should strengthen the structures through which such support is provided.

  2. Each of the major churches should ensure that all clergy receive training in work with mixed marriage couples and families, either in their initial preparation for ordination or as part of on-going training.

  3. The laity within the churches should he given clear information about the position of their church and the ways in which it ministers to mixed marriage couples and families. Clear simply stated published materials would provide a useful resource.

  4. Where individual clergy or congregations do not feel able, for whatever reason, to support a mixed marriage couple. for example by participating in a marriage service, there should be clear procedures in each church by which the couple can be referred to clergy who are able to support them and who have experience of problems associated with mixed marriage.

  5. The training of teachers, both at pre-service and in-service levels, should include discussion of the needs of parents and children from mixed marriage families and the problems they may encounter in the education system.

  6. Consideration should be given to ways in which pupils, especially older secondary level pupils, can be made aware of and sensitive to these issues. This might be possible through the EMU or Cultural Heritage aspects of the curriculum, or through programmes which specifically address controversial issues.

  7. Since a considerable number of children from mixed marriage families attend integrated schools, these schools have a body of experience in supporting the pupils and handling sensitive situations. It would be valuable if this could be formalised and shared with teachers in the controlled and maintained schools.

  8. A number of schools outside the integrated sector, in particular some voluntary grammar schools, have considerable numbers of pupils from 'the other' section of the community or from mixed marriage backgrounds. In these cases, consideration should be given to developing a school policy to support such pupils. It might be valuable if one or more members of staff had specific responsibility in this area.

  9. The Housing executive should use the data now being collected on religious affiliation of housing applicants to monitor levels of segregation in different areas: this could constitute a basis for developing a policy both on allocating housing to mixed marriage families and on responding to any problems which such families encounter.

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1 The term Catholic is used in this report as a short-hand for Roman Catholic. and Protestant is used as a generic term for members of the Church of Ireland, Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, and so on. Both terms are also used occasionally to denote people who were born into one of these two religious traditions whether they are still practising members or not.

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