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Community and Conflict
in Rural Ulster


Dr. Brendan Murtagh
School of Social and Community Sciences
University of Ulster


This Summary Report has been published by
the NI Community Relations Council
6 Murray Street
Belfast BT1 6DN

March 1997

The full research report will be published by
the University of Ulster









This report summarises a programme of research into community relations in mid-Armagh. The sorts of social processes that created fourteen peacelines in Belfast do not stop at the green belt, and this research aimed to see what effect, if any, they had on rural communities with a tradition of high conflict. The research used analysis of secondary data, household surveys and qualitative interviews to build up a picture of life in the countryside.

Population Change and Community Stability

Since the early 1980s, some peripheral rural areas in Northern Ireland have experienced population increase and South Armagh has been no exception. This change has had an important impact on the communities living in the middle part of the County. The relaxation of planning controls explains much of, what has been, a largely Catholic increase in population. As the Catholic population has increased, the proportion of Protestants living near the border has steadily declined. In the decade of the 1980s, the proportions of Catholics living in Keady has increased by one-half a percent a year whilst in Tandragee in the North of the County, the proportion of Protestants increased by one- third of a percent a year. There are also important differences between the population structure in that, Catholics tend to have a younger age profile, higher fertility rates, a larger than average family size and therefore a greater opportunity for self-renewal. The relative increase in the Catholic population to the South of the County and Protestant population to the North has therefore had important effects in the towns, villages and countryside in the middle of Armagh. It is these consequences that this research is mainly concerned with.

Life in Small Town Ulster

The first part of the research examined the consequences of change, community attitudes and prospects for the future in a small town in the area with a survey of 202 households. The names of places have been changed to allow respondents to speak freely and openly about their true attitudes and so we refer to the to the study area as Oldtown.

The town, located near the border with the Irish Republic, is roughly two thirds Catholic and one-third Protestant. However, Protestants were more likely to have lived in the village for a longer period of time and were more likely to describe the village as Protestant (76%). However, they were conscious that the area was becoming more Catholic and 61% felt that the town would be more Catholic in the future. Nearly one-half (47%) of Protestants however wanted to retain a town mostly of their own religion and this contrasted to one-quarter (25%) of Catholics who preferred a Catholic town.

The research also showed that Protestants and Catholic had very different experiences of the violence and potential agendas for resolution of the conflict. For example, 29% of Catholics felt that the town was more violent than other areas of Northern Ireland compared to 53% of Protestants. Moreover, Protestants felt that decommissioning paramilitary weapons (82%) was the key to progress whilst Catholics prioritised more sensitive policing (76%).

Community attitudes in small town Ulster therefore needs to be understood in the context of the experience of living through violence, perceptions of ethnic sustainability and the extent to which demographic change is not detrimental to the link between community and place. In Oldtown, the recent history of Protestants is an important backcloth for attitudes and behaviour:

"We saw our friends and relatives killed here and the people who did it or set them up are still walking around free ... and can 't be touched. It s very hard to talk of community relations when these people are given protection" Oldtown resident.

Life on the Rural Interface

The focus of the research narrowed to consider life in two small villages to the east of the study area.A total of 55 people were interviewed in Whiteville" a predominately Catholic village and Glendale", a mainly Protestant village. l)espite the fact that the villages were one mile apart, there was relatively little contact between them. Again the different histories of the two communities have a telling impact on relations, contact and perceptions of identity between them.

Ten workmen leaving the factory in Glendale where ambushed and killed in 1976 and shortly afterwards the factory closed, the local UDR base was destroyed by a massive bomb in 1983, the local post office and primary school closed last year and the local Orange Hall was burned in 1995. This catalogue direct and indirect events has important implications for the local institutions upon which any community needs to survive and sustain its population As with Oldville, a high proportion of residents (50%) want to see the Protestant identity of the village maintained and this contrasts to Catholics living in Whiteville who were more likely to have preferred an integrated population profile (62%).

The most enduring impact of community differences on behaviour is in the way people interact through daily activities such as shopping and going for services. The diagram below shows where people from the villages go for shopping for every day (convenience goods), for larger domestic products (comparison goods), GP services and entertainment.This shows that people in Catholic Whiteville travel mainly to Newry, the biggest town in the region, for most of their shopping and service requirements. Indeed, there is some evidence that people will travel across the border for entertainment purposes. This contrasts strongly with the residents of Protestant Glendale, who look to mainly Protestant towns to the North of the region such as Markethill, Portadown and Armagh for the same service.

Life and the Land

The final part of the research looked at life and the open land. In particular, it emphasised the limited extent of land exchange between members of the two religions. This is not a unique to Armagh and studies in County Antrim showed that of the 529 exchanges of property in Glenravel ward in the 29 years between 1958 and 1987 only 13% happened across the religious divide.1

Our research highlighted the way in which an institutional system has built up to maintain these patterns. Therefore, there is often separate auctioneers, solicitors and estate agents dealing with Protestant and Catholic land exchange thus ensuring that there is relatively little seepage' between these dual land markets.

This contrasts with the close working relationships between farmers on a day to day basis. For instance, the tradition of sharing labour and machinery at peak times of the agricultural year, the normal exchange of livestock and produce at local 'marts' and even letting land on long leases or 'conacre' are all well established practices in the County. However, the transfer of land ownership is neither widely practiced nor accepted within each religious grouping.

Implications of the Research

The research has helped to highlight the extent to which religious dlifferenccs are strongly acted out in rural areas with very different perceptions of identity and experiences of the violence, territorial behaviour and ownership of land all signaling the importance of feelings of belong to particular areas and places.

Many of the problems confronting communities in rural areas result from relative shifts of population combinedl with the hurt and fear of violence. Community reconciliation has an important role to play in identifying and describing the nature of problems in these localities. In this way, there is a clear link between community relations and community development as the former can only proceed effectively if emotional andl practical security and long term confidence can be secured for that community.

However, it is also about regenerating communities and this respect government generally and rural development agencies in particular have a central role to play. Targeting resources and programmes at areas and issues that will enhance the community opportunities, for those marginalised in the violence, is a major and often under-looked task. Decisions taken for rational policy reasons can have disastrous impacts on communities such as the closure of the primary school in Glendale. These types of decisions must be taken within the wider context of efforts to restore community confidence andl stability in highly vulnerable areas The benefits to rural society, the resolution of conflict and the quality of peoples lives can not be undlerstated.2

1 Kirk,T. (1993) The Polarisation of Protestants and Roman Catholics in Rural Northern Ireland: A Case Study of Glenravel Ward, Unpublished Ph.D. Thesis, Queens tiniversity, Belfast.

2 This research was funded by the Central Community Relations Unit with support from the European Regional Development Fund. It was also part-funded by the Community Relations Council. The funders and all those who contributed to the research are gratefully acknowledged.

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