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Extracts from 'Perspectives on Discrimination and Social Work in Northern Ireland'

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Text: F. Gibson, G. Michael and D. Wilson ... Page Compiled: Fionnuala McKenna

The following chapters have been contributed by the authors with the permission of the publishers. The views expressed in this chapter do not necessarily reflect the views of the members of the CAIN Project. The CAIN Project would welcome other material which meets our guidelines for contributions.

The following chapters are taken from:

Perspectives on Discrimination and
Social Work in Northern Ireland

by F. Gibson, G. Michael and D. Wilson (1994)
ISBN 1 85719 083 1 (Spiral Bound) 226pp

Published by:
Central Council for Education and
Training in Social Work (CCETSW) 1994

These chapters are copyright the authors 1994 and are included on the CAIN site by permission of the publisher. You may not edit, adapt, or redistribute changed versions of this for other than your personal use without the express written permission of the authors and the CCETSW. Redistribution for commercial purposes is not permitted.

Social Work
Northern Ireland

F. Gibson
G. Michael
D. Wilson





Definition and Statements of Human Rights

The European Convention for the Protection of
Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms
Universal Declaration of Human Rights
Conventions and Agreements
International Federation on Ageing
A Charter of Rights - Serious Mental Illness
A Charter for Disabled Citizens
A Bill of Rights

Profile of Northern Ireland

Starting Where You Are: Individual and Group Exercises

Card Sort Game
The Cricket Test
The Newspaper Game
The Placing Game
Twenty Questions: A Self-Positioning Exercise
A Walking Trail in Derry/Londonderry

Discrimination and Education

Discrimination and Employment

Discrimination and Women's Employment

Discrimination and Housing

Discrimination and the Administration of Justice
by Andrew Hamilton

Ethnic and Religious Minorities in Northern Ireland


Northern Ireland: Economic Growth and Political Absolutisms
by Norman Gibson



To qualify for the award of the Diploma in Social Work, the Central Council for Education and Training in Social Work (CCETSW) requires students to understand and be able to counteract the impact of discrimination and to demonstrate competence to practise in ethnically sensitive ways.

Social workers are responsible for identifying and responding to social need regardless of age, class, gender, sexual preference, disability, race or creed. They must therefore be able to work with many different people and in communities which may differ from the one in which they grew up.

In Northern Ireland the need for students to be sensitive to religious discrimination and to be able to challenge its various manifestations in appropriately effective ways has long been an aspiration which many social work teachers have found difficult to implement. This task is now even more urgent because of the explicit emphasis in recent public policy documents on "targeting social need" and "enabling the two sides of the community to live together".

For a number of years, the authors of this publication have attempted to address issues of discrimination in their social work teaching. This manual results from considerable work by themselves, other staff and students in the University of Ulster at Magee College and provides a valuable resource for tutors, practice teachers and students. It supplements CCETSW' s guidance and publications on race and is both welcome and timely.

Eleanor Simpson
Head of CCETSW in Northern Ireland

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A grant from the Central Council for Education and Training in Social Work provided the spur for the production of these training materials. This development money enabled us to employ Dorothy Wilson to help develop and expand various training exercises which we had been using for some years with undergraduate and postgraduate professional social work students in the University of Ulster. We have rewritten and expanded these exercises as well as introducing new ones. We have also drawn heavily on published sources in order to provide students with background information to help them place discrimination within the local context and we are most grateful to the authors and their publishers who have permitted us to use this material.

While not disregarding the contemporary important emphasis on issues of race and ethnicity emerging in social work education and training in Britain, we face in Ireland a different but equally destructive manifestation of discrimination. For us, our students and our social agency colleagues the daily challenge comes from living and working in a community deeply divided by religious difference. Daily we must face the seemingly endless litany of loss, death, destruction and bitterness caused by those from both sides of the community who are prepared to resort to violence as a means of achieving their political ends.

The pervasive values of the paramilitaries are inimical to social work. Yet the problems of division and discrimination, either as victim or perpetrator, are not monopolised by the men and women of violence. Everyone becomes contaminated in direct or indirect, in overt or subtle ways. None of us who live in Ulster are immune from either the causes or the consequences of discrimination which provide a seedbed in which violence flourishes. No one is allowed to be neutral.

If we are not already labelled by birth as belonging to one side or the other, "prod" or "taig", we shall quickly be so assigned by family, friends, clients and colleagues.

As social work educators we face the challenge of finding effective ways to make ourselves and our students willing to confront inherent and acquired prejudice, to examine both passive and active discriminatory behaviour, to increase our understanding, develop our awareness and work to develop both personal and professional attitudes which challenge the prevailing norms. Furthermore we need the courage to confront the common conspiracy of silence on these issues and to do this without denying or negating our own individual identity, or compromising social work values for the sake of personal survival and professional advancement. This is essentially the same challenge whether we be social work student, educator, practitioner or manager.

It is hoped that these materials will encourage us all to think more critically about these issues and behave more courageously in whatever personal and professional circumstances we are placed. Furthermore this challenge has to be confronted within the context of a deeply divided society in which it has become almost commonplace for small minorities to pursue their ends by actively planning and perpetrating violence which appears to be condoned to some extent by some sections of the population who have grown passive either through intimidation, threat or fear of threat, indifference or weariness. For some people to challenge the prevailing status quo may mean they expose themselves to actual personal risk which any social work teacher may choose to impose upon him/herself but which he/she cannot legitimately impose upon another.

These materials have been presented in this format to encourage their use in a variety of ways and in different contexts. The order of presentation is not sacrosanct. It is hoped users will commit themselves to serious study and will take, use, adapt, modify and develop the materials in ways which are most appropriate to their own particular educational, training or work situation. They are arranged in order to facilitate either individual independent study or work in small groups led by a trainer or enabler.

Separate notes have not been prepared for trainers or group leaders. There are no hidden agendas in any of the exercises. In these matters there are no clear distinctions between "teachers" and "students". All are equally subject to conditioning, to prejudice and to the need for self-examination, new learning and fresh beginnings.

Although prepared primarily for professional social work students we hope the pack may come to be widely used in all kinds of staff groups in field, residential and day-care settings in both the statutory and independent sectors. The level and complexity of the exercises should also lend themselves to easy modification so that they can be readily used with senior pupils in schools, further education colleges and the growing number of people undertaking various kinds of preparation for employment as care workers in the wider community.

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We are grateful to the following for permission to reproduce copyright material: Advisory Committee on Travellers for their reports; Blackstaff Press for John Hewitt's poems, "The Coasters" and "Once Alien Here"; John Hewitt for his poems "An Ulsterman" and "The Dilemma"; Century Newspapers for extracts from the Newsletter; Marie Fitzduff for extracts from Community Conflict Skills: A Handbook for Anti-Sectarian Work in Northern Ireland; Faber and Faber for Seamus Heaney's poems, "Traditions", "Punishment" and "Singing School"; the Fair Employment Commission for Northern Ireland for two case summaries; HMSO for various tables; The Irish Times for extracts; Newspaper Publishing PLC for extracts from The Independent; The Irish News; Longman for extracts from Degenhardt' s Treaties and Alliances of the World; Oxford University Press for tables and extracts from Smith and Chambers' Inequality in Northern Ireland, Oxford University Press Southern Africa for the chapter by Norman Gibson, Northern Ireland: Economic Growth and Political Absolutisms, first published in Giliomee and Gagiano' s The Elusive Search for Peace; and The Times and Robert Kee for news and editorial items.

Although many people have helped us in our work, we alone are responsible for the views expressed in this publication. In particular we wish to thank Sheila Dwyer, Paddy Gray, Huw Griffiths, Drew Hamilton, Alan Robinson and Marie Smyth for their help and encouragement.

Lorraine Brownlow and Maude Kelly showed great skill and patience in preparing the manuscript.

We would also like to thank the Central Council for Education and Training in Social Work and its staff, especially Eleanor Simpson, for encouraging us to be more public about our work on discrimination and social work in Northern Ireland and for supporting this publication.

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1. Legal Definitions


Section 5 (1) Government of Ireland Act 1920 states:

The Parliament of Northern Ireland cannot give a preference, privilege or advantage or impose any disability or disadvantage, on account of religious belief.
Section 23 (1) Northern Ireland Constitution Act 1973 states:
For those purposes a person discriminates against another person or a class of persons if he treats that other person or that class less favourably in any circumstances than he treats or would treat other persons in those circumstances.
There has been no judicial interpretation of the term "discrimination" contained in this Act. The understanding is that it refers only to direct discrimination in the sense interpreted by Lord Lowry (Armagh District Council v. Fair Employment Agency [1983]):
When the Act (FEA) uses the word "discrimination" or "discriminate", it is referring to an employer who makes a choice between one candidate and another, on the grounds of religious belief or political opinion; it is not speaking of an evidential disadvantage which is due to a difference between the religion of the employer and of the candidate, but of a deliberate, intentional action on the part of the appointing body or individual.. . Accordingly it can be stated that, although malice, (although often present) is not essential, deliberate intention to differentiate on the grounds of religion, politics, sex, colour or nationality (whatever is aimed at by the legislation) is an indispensable element in the concept of discrimination.
In 1969 the Northern Ireland Government established an Ombudsman, the Northern Ireland Commissioner for Complaints, whose remit covers
maladministration (in a broad sense) by local or public authorities including any form of alleged improper bias or discrimination on any grounds by a public body or authority against a citizen.
The Ombudsman (1978) himself described "maladministration":
It is clear that the definition can include not only faulty procedures, but also decisions or rules that are bad in themselves and. .. since the establishment of my two offices, the incumbents decided that it was open to them to conclude that a discretionary decision was so clearly bad or unjust that the decision constituted maladministration in itself. Such a conclusion is open to me in the present case, if I am satisfied that the evidence for it is very strong, so that a reasonable and unbiased person in possession of the full facts is bound to agree with me.

2. Sociological Definitions

Key Reference

Fitzduff, M. (1988) Community Conflict Skills: A Handbook for Anti-Sectarian Work in Northern Ireland. Cookstown, Community Conflict Skills Project.


Prejudice is an opinion held in advance about something, someone or some group without good reason or adequate knowledge or experience ... Prejudice is about feelings and beliefs and it can influence our perception. There is a good deal of evidence to show that what we believe actually influences the way we see an event, i.e. people are not usually prejudiced because of what they see or hear, but will see or hear people/events differently because of what they believe. (Fitzduff)
Prejudice is composed of a mixture of truth and myth which has been passed on to us from others and which we have also directly experienced. It becomes part of our "common sense", or our ideology. After the Second World War, UNESCO brought together an interdisciplinary group of the world's best scientists to examine the concept of race. They concluded that for all practical social purposes, "race" is not so much a biological phenomenon, as a social process by which physical attributes of particular races are ascribed. Myth can become reality, because we have expectations of people. The very act of "labelling" a person can cause the individual to behave in the expected way; e.g. always telling Travellers that they mean trouble provides the young adolescent Traveller with no incentive to keep out of trouble.

Stereotyping is what happens when we so simplify our prejudgments about a certain group of people that we subsequently see all members of that group as having certain (usually negative) traits, e.g. seeing all women as over-emotional, all men as aggressive, all Russians as powermongers, all people living in N. Ireland as spongers. It is very difficult for us to avoid stereotyping as our culture, our media, and often our politicians encourage stereotypes.

In N. Ireland, people belonging to the two main religio/politico groups normally have relatively fixed stereotypes about one another. Studies have shown that Catholics in N. Ireland saw Protestants as power holders, bigoted, loyalist, murderers, etc. Protestants saw Catholics as priest-ridden, breeding like rabbits, superstitious etc. Both groups saw themselves as fine, decent people, but saw each other as bitter and brainwashed. (O'Donnell quoted in Fitzduff)

Stereotypes are usually composed, as are prejudices, of a certain degree of truth and falsehood. It is probable that some Catholics do depend very much for guidance in their lives on priests, and that some Protestants see it as their right and duty to retain power in N. Ireland. But stereotypes impose these characteristics on all individuals regardless of the degree, or particular truth of the allegations.

Prejudices and stereotypes are mainly concerned with feelings and attitudes. Feelings are nurtured through our childhood, community and society, and are often, by the time we reach adulthood, instinctive. (Fitzduff)

Discrimination is what happens when a prejudice is translated into behaviour. It can occur at an individual level between two people, or at an institutional level, when institutions become structured against certain other group/s of people.

One can be a conscious or an unconscious agent of discrimination. Even if one does not consciously discriminate, very often our membership of a ruling group can make us an unconscious agent of discrimination. Our behaviour can also be discriminatory in its effect, even though not in intention. (Fitzduff)

Sectarianism (or Sectarian discrimination) is discrimination that is based on grounds of religion. In N. Ireland, while there are a few Protestant Nationalists, and some Catholic Unionists, religious affiliations have become so intertwined with political aspirations that sectarianism usually refers to discrimination that occurs between the two main religio/politico groupings. (Fitzduff)


Racism is discrimination that is based on grounds of race. This involves arbitrarily designating individuals or group as belonging naturally to a particular "race". This may be done by categorising people according to colour or their mental or moral behaviour, e.g.

- all Africans are black

- all Indians are sly

- all Irish are dirty.


Sexism is discrimination that is based on grounds of sex. This involves arbitrarily assigning certain characteristics to individuals because they are female, e.g.

- all females are flirts

- all females are emotional.

Features of Discrimination

All discrimination of whatever kind shares similar features.

(a) it can be individual, group or institutional;

(b) it can be direct or indirect, overt or covert;

(c) it is based on the belief that one group is inferior;

(d) it involves power relationship - the "superior" group or individual is in the ''up" position;

(e) the problem becomes focussed on the "inferior" individual or group and not on the "superior" individual or group, e.g. Traveller problem, homosexual problem, women not being able to take a joke;

(f) individual identity is lost to group identity, e.g. Mrs Brown is not seen as a married woman, with a particular history, but as a married woman who might get pregnant or have to stay off work to look after children, and who is generally unreliable.

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CAIN contains information and source material on the conflict and politics in Northern Ireland.
CAIN is based within Ulster University.

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