CUSP, Psychology, Social Psychology

When the walls come tumbling down? OU psychologists are exploring how to dismantle interface barriers between Protestant and Catholic communities in Belfast


In a recent article, Professor John Dixon of the School of Psychology and Counselling at the Open University, and collaborators, have addressed the issue of the removal of interface barriers in Northern Ireland. They have sought to evidence some of the social and psychological factors that may predict resistance to interface barrier removal and thus to better understand how to promote social change in Northern Ireland.  


Interface barriers – physical structures such as walls and fences designed to keep communities segregated – were first constructed in Northern Ireland in 1969 at the beginning of a period of intensifying sectarian violence known locally as ‘The Troubles’.  Early barriers were built by the British Army and consisted of relatively makeshift barriers designed to limit conflict between the city’s nationalist communities (mainly comprising Catholic residents) and neighbouring loyalist communities (mainly comprising Protestant residents). These early structures were intended as temporary measures.  As ‘The Troubles’ unfolded, however, the number of interface barriers increased, and many became established as permanent features of the defensive architecture of Belfast, Northern Ireland’s capital city.

In the years following the 1998 Good Friday agreement, which officially brought Northern Ireland’s era of political violence to an end, peace walls multiplied in number, with some walls also increasing in height and length. Their continuing role in maintaining divisions between Catholic and Protestant communities has been emphasized by both academic researchers and policymakers. Indeed in 2013, on a state visit to Northern Ireland, no less a figure than Barack Obama urged that the removal of peace walls was essential for the country’s political future, issuing the following challenge: “…whether you reach your own outstretched hand across dividing lines, across peace walls, to build trust in a spirit of respect – that’s up to you.”

Current policy

Since then, the Northern Ireland Executive has announced ambitious plans to dismantle the over 100 interface barriers located in Northern Irish cities by 2023. A small number of barriers have already been successfully removed. However, progress has been complicated by evidence that a substantive – and perhaps growing – number of residents may not support their removal, particularly those living close to interface boundaries. If they are to succeed, then government plans to remove them clearly require massive and continuing levels of community support; as such, understanding why someresidents are resistant to social change is an important question.

The article: 

Dixon, J., Tredoux, C., Davies, G., Huck, J., Hocking, B., Sturgeon, B., Whyatt, D., Jarman, N. & Bryan, D. (2020). ‘When the walls come tumbling down’: The role of intergroup proximity, threat and contact in shaping attitudes towards the removal of Northern Ireland’s peace walls. British Journal of Social Psychology. DOI:10.1111/bjso.12370


Institutional structures of segregation typically entrench social inequality and sustain wider patterns of intergroup conflict and discrimination. However, initiatives to dismantle such structures may provoke resistance.  Executive proposals to dismantle Northern Ireland’s peace walls by 2023 provide a compelling case study of the nature of such resistance and may thus provide important clues about how it might be overcome.  Drawing on a field survey conducted in north Belfast (n = 488), this research explored the role of physical proximity, realistic and symbolic threat, and past experiences of positive and negative cross-community contact on Catholic and Protestant residents’ support for removing the walls. Structural equation modelling suggested that both forms of contact and proximity were significantly related to such support and that these relationships were partially mediated by realistic threat. It also suggested that positive contact moderated the effects of proximity. That is, for residents who had more frequent positive interactions with members of the other community, proximity to a peace wall had a weaker relationship with resistance to their removal than residents who had less frequent contact.

You can find more information about the article here

You can read about John Dixon’s research here







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