The challenge of teaching history in Northern Ireland.


This article sets out five of the challenges facing Northern Irish history teachers as they attempt to teach the history of a recent conflict to students in a society emerging from that conflict. It investigates the pitfalls that lie in wait for an ill-considered approach and suggests methodologies that could be employed to navigate through the maze of community sensitivities that relate to the recent conflict. In conjunction with this, the article considers the importance of history teaching in re-imaging and reimagining in a society that was previously torn apart by conflict.          

The Challenges of Teaching History in Northern Ireland


 This article intends to set out the main challenges facing history teachers as they attempt to teach sensitive, controversial and often contentious material in a post-conflict setting, framing lessons that allow students to explore and interrogate the multiple perspectives that attempted to explain the outbreak and duration of the conflict, while also encouraging students to analyse all the causes and consequences.

There are five main challenges. Understandably, in a society still emerging from conflict, for many within the community, dealing with the ‘legacy of the past’ is still a live issue. The teacher needs to be sensitive to the feelings and sensitivities of the community when framing lessons. Lessons need to aid reconciliation, healing and peaceful conflict resolution, rather than fuelling anger and prejudice. There is always a real danger that an ill-considered approach could cement innately prejudicial feelings towards the perceived ‘other side.’ Many aspects of the material have been a matter of dispute at the political level and within the local community. A whole vocabulary exists to describe previous involvement in the conflict, from people with conflict related convictions, politically motivated ex-prisoners or politically motivated former prisoners. [1] The simple use of ‘perpetrator’ and ‘victim,’ would have negative connotations to the political ex-prisoner, but for many of those deeply affected by the conflict, the notion that their loss could be justified politically, could prove offensive. And yet, almost twenty years on from the Good Friday Peace Agreement, the teacher needs to feel free to teach the whole story, introduce all explanations and disputes, because it is through the totality of the story that a full understanding is gained and reconciliation is founded. No stone should be left unturned and no subject should be considered taboo.


Thirdly, the teacher must ensure that the other significant stories that arose throughout the conflict are told, those who campaigned for peace, those who continued with life despite the Troubles and the very significant music scene that existed in Northern Ireland in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, extolling the young to embrace an, ‘alternative ulster.’ [2] Gordon Wilson lost his daughter in the Enniskillen Remembrance Day bombing, but he resolved to set up the Spirit of Enniskillen Trust to bring young people from the both communities together. [3] The band, Stiff Little Fingers,[4] extolled their fans not to waste their life.[5] The story of the young people of Belfast and beyond embracing the punk rock scene as an alternative to the life that existed on the bomb-affected streets is an important part of the whole picture, as music broke down barriers and created shared spaces.

It is also clear that ways need to be found to allow students from the different schools to discuss and discover together, whether through joint classes, internet collaborative classes or through joint interviews. One possible vehicle for real collaboration and a mechanism that would allow the students to discover together is the joint oral history interview. [6] The key aims of teaching the Troubles to classes must remain to promote reconciliation, break down barriers, encourage positive choices, enhance understanding and improve community relations. There has to be a sense of shared history and student dialogue in safe spaces for this to become a reality.

Finally, a key challenge for teachers is the vast amount of material that exists online. Ensuring that the students leave a course of lessons with the ability to fully locate the particular political spin that might underpin a visual source or video, to uncover the propagandistic twist, to test the sourcing and to synthesise conclusions based on multiple perspectives, is one of the most important lessons that they may learn for modern life.

These challenges are relevant to all societies emerging from conflict.

The Northern Ireland Educational Context

Northern Ireland emerged from thirty years of conflict in 1998. The Troubles led to the deaths of 3,600 people between 1966 and 1998. The story towards peace had many twists and turns, false starts and setbacks, but the overall story has proved one of remarkable success, given all that had went before.[7]

The 1998 Good Friday Peace Agreement noted that, ‘An essential aspect of the reconciliation process is the promotion of a culture of tolerance at every level of society, including initiatives to facilitate and encourage integrated education and mixed housing.’ [8] The Agreement was clear that the educational framework within Northern Ireland had to adapt and change to the new circumstances and the reference to integrated denoted an acknowledgement that largely segregated schools were not necessarily the ideal way to promote a culture of tolerance from a very early age.

Despite this significant entry into the Peace Agreement, Education within Northern Ireland remains largely segregated into mainly Protestant and mainly Catholic schools. There are also a relatively small number of integrated schools, catering for parents who wish to educate their children in this environment. [9]   Many reasons may partially explain why the religious educational divide remains in Northern Ireland, such as the current economic climate, parental support for current arrangements, lack of political agreement on the way forward and the fact that while there have been many significant voices indicating a real need for movement towards further integration, this has not materialised into focused pressure.

The current political and educational focus is on ‘shared’ education.[10] The Department of Education in Northern Ireland has outlined the social, educational and economic cases for pursuing shared education.[11] The document indicates the necessity of promoting the ‘interaction in learning between pupils from different community backgrounds,’ as one crucial way to, ‘break down barriers, nurture and improve community relations,’ amidst the background of a largely segregated education system. The Shared Education Programme (SEP) facilitates joint classes at post-16, so that students are educated together, choice and opportunity is maximised and barriers are broken down as students cross campuses. SEP also funds other schemes to allow schools to collaborate on different student projects.

The history teacher in Northern Ireland has a key role to play in teaching the history of the Troubles in a way that contributes to the above framework. History should allow the students to investigate the multiple perspectives arising out of the conflict and equip them with the tools to bust myths that arose out of the divided narratives, as well as afford them the opportunity to investigate ignored or avoided histories. Teaching history to Northern Ireland students holds the very important task of dealing with the ‘legacy of the past,’[12] in a sensitive and open way, delivering lessons that deal with victims, perpetrators, political actors, the impact of the conflict on the local community, the alternative perspectives that existed, while also including lessons that investigate the history of Northern Ireland within the wider historical and international framework. To fully meet the guidelines stipulated, ways should be found to teach history collaboratively to groups of students from several schools, so that genuine respect and understanding is fostered and community relations are improved significantly.

While this is not necessarily an impossible task, it certainly is a daunting one.

A sense of ‘our’ shared history?

 Between 2012 and 2023, the communities in Northern Ireland will have a series of commemorative events, to mark the 100th anniversary of historically significant events. Commemorative events will focus on the 1912 Solemn League and Covenant, the formation of the UVF, the First World War, 1916 and the Somme, the Easter Rising, the Partition of Ireland and the Formation of Northern Ireland, the Irish War of Independence, the Anglo-Irish Treaty and the Civil War that followed, before the final journey towards the formation of the Republic of Ireland began. A number of excellent resources have been created to help teachers navigate their way to 2023.[13]

The key element in all of this is to try and give all students in all settings the chance to challenge and ‘myth-bust’ as they explore each of the historical events.

Two separate historical narratives of ‘how we got to here,’ have always existed to represent the two main traditions in Northern Ireland. One hinges on the Plantation of Ulster, the Siege of Derry, the Boyne, the fight to stay in the Union, ‘the Ulster Crisis,’ and the brave sacrifice of the 36th Ulster Division at the Somme that led to the creation of Northern Ireland. The other depicts an Ireland conquered and repeatedly ravaged by the British and a long journey of Nationalist awakening and Gaelic Revival, that ultimately resulted in the beginning of the removal of the British from Ireland, a process hastened by the tragic and romantic self-sacrifice of the heroes of the Easter Rising in 1916.

The historical narratives formed, created a ‘mythical’ super-structure from which all understanding was founded. Not only could the separate states, North and South, build their national identity on different founding ‘myths,’ but also the paramilitary groups of the 1960’s and 1970’s could partially justify their campaigns, on the basis that they continued a struggle that had existed for centuries. This approach was not entirely credible, but as the conflict raged and as communities were further driven apart and fenced in, physically and mentally, street murals depicted aspects of the ‘separate’ founding ‘myths.’ Flags, colours and murals became important ways of announcing the allegiance of the community. The sense of ‘identity’ created should not be underestimated. There is also absolutely no doubt that this is a key reason why it is difficult for politicians to agree on ‘flags, parades and the legacy of the past.’ [14] Inevitably, there are a lot of contentious issues to resolve.

Nevertheless, significant aspects of ‘our’ shared history have been explored in the context of the First World War. For different reasons, the shared experience of World War One was neglected until recently. The fact that many Nationalists fought in British Regiments in the First World War did not fit in with the emerging post-war Republican narrative. In recent years, the Irish Government has began to commemorate the Irish fallen in the Great War and there are many interesting projects that seek to ensure that Remembrance has a distinctly ‘shared’ element, such as an ongoing project to research the ‘Forgotten Gaelic Volunteers,’ who died in the 1914-18 conflict. [15] Equal numbers of Ulster Volunteers and Irish National Volunteers joined up when World War One was declared and they fought in many theaters from Gallipoli, the Balkans and on the Western Front. In the end, given the horrific losses that accrued, what remained of the 16th Irish and 36th Ulster divisions fought together in the final campaigns of the war.

Schools, including my own, have successfully been able to work collaboratively with another school, across the segregated educational divide, to create a project that encourages the students to investigate and discover the ‘shared’ nature of the First World War and how commemoration of this conflict is important to the whole community in Ireland. Allowing students to ‘myth-bust’ in relation to the First World War has also led to students being able to investigate aspects of the Easter Rising together. Of course, this is within what is now a well documented, accepted and supported area of shared history, but it is an excellent introduction to the events that led to the Partition of Ireland and the consequences that followed.

It serves as an introductory chapter, before tackling the more contentious ‘Troubles.’

The History Teacher’s Dilemma and ‘the legacy of the past.’

 Teaching the history of the Northern Ireland conflict cannot be entirely divorced from contemporary political developments and the mood ‘on the streets.’ It lies with the political realm to deliver an environment that is conducive to dealing with the ‘legacy of the past.’ The teacher has to be absolutely aware of community sensitivities and deeply held views in relation to teaching particular topics. The teaching of controversial and divisive history cannot be delivered in isolation from current events and an environment that can alter from moment to moment, as was seen with the so called, ‘flags protest,’ where sections of the Unionist community protested against Belfast City Hall’s decision to only fly the Union flag on designated days. [16]

In dealing with victims of the Troubles, the teacher has to choose from a variety of narratives that span all the direct and indirect consequences of conflict, without opening up a class dialogue that simply blames ‘the other side.’ Dealing with the impact of the Troubles on businesses and Northern Ireland’s image in the world, before dealing with the immensely sensitive issues of those who died and were disabled by the conflict may be one approach. Some schools may find it impossible to deal with the motivations and perspectives of those who the supporting community consider to be the key, ‘perpetrators.’ It is also absolutely clear that for many, ‘The Troubles aren’t History yet,’ as one report was titled.[17] Teachers have to be acutely aware that the history they are teaching in a segregated setting does not fuel deeply held stereotypes, rather than promote reconciliation and a fuller understanding. In this, it goes without saying that the teacher must be self-aware and guard against offering an opinion on sensitive events. It should be remembered that for many teachers, teaching the history of ‘their’ times may prove extremely challenging and poignant, and there are deep scars that affect many in the community, parents and grandparents who might find aspects of the lesson material unacceptable.

Another plausible hypothesis might find some students disengaged as they see the Troubles as something that has little to do with this generation, twenty years on, whereas others, the ‘Youtube’ generation, may access material that fits their already fixed mind-set. Students must also be constantly reminded that, while very few were totally unaffected, there were sections of both communities who totally rejected the conflict. Many campaigned against it and for peace.[18] An ‘Alternative Ulster’ always existed.[19]

Keeping all of this at the forefront of the mind demands that all lessons must be thoroughly planned, thought out fully and examined for potential flaws. Detailed guidance to teachers has been published on Teaching Controversial Issues in Northern Ireland.[20] There is also a very powerful model provided for teaching difficult subject material, one created in response to the 7/7 attacks in London in 2005, Miriam’s Vision. This provides an approach that is relevant to teaching history, where the material covered still resonates and stirs deep emotions today.[21] The Northern Ireland history teacher, in whatever setting, has to consider how to move from the long-term causes and the many consequences of the conflict to deal with the more controversial and divisive material that many have, understandably, avoided until this point.

The teacher then has to consider, in conjunction with colleagues from other schools, how to deliver an aspect of this programme within a ‘shared’ setting. A key goal must remain, at the very least, to create mechanisms of collaboration or develop further the online communicative capacity to allow students from all the educational sectors to investigate a range of themes in a ‘safe space.’ Only the whole community working in partnership with each other can break down the psychological and physical barriers that were created by the conflict. Inevitably, a central element of this wider project is the work that is carried out in all schools with their respective students.

Rebranding, Re-imaging and Reimagining Northern Ireland

 The rebranding of Northern Ireland has been largely a success story. It is now largely famous, ‘for tourism, not terrorism,’[22] as well as Golf and Game of Thrones.

In relation to the rebranding project, an interesting discussion continues in relation to murals and street art. Given the fact that murals in Northern Ireland often depict paramilitary groups and sectarian messages, there has been a raging debate on how this fits in with the re-imaging of Northern Ireland. Are they really tourist attractions? [23] This debate is placed again within the whole argument on, ‘the legacy of the past.’ It is impossible to re-image without the consent of the local community and, at times, this consent has been given. [24] At other times, there has been a negative reaction against attempts to impose a re-imaged reality. A lot of recent news has focused on controversial paramilitary images being repainted in various localities.[25] [26] At the same time, there have been a lot of interesting montages and images going up in recent years that depict subjects that are historically relevant to the local community.[27]

The history teacher in Northern Ireland has to be fully aware of political developments, events on the street, the ever-developing community dialogue and consciousness and the demands of the specified curriculum to deal with the ‘legacy of the past’ in a sensitive and balanced way, while exploring possible collaborative links with other schools. The history teacher should empower and allow the students to investigate all the angles, to question everything and gain the tools to interpret all the information. Success will be measured by how well schools equip their students to reimagine and refashion a Northern Ireland with a different future. Then, we can consign the history of the Troubles, the murals and the dilemmas, to a purpose built open-air museum.[28] Finally, it will then be possible to treat the past conflict as history.


[1] From Prison to Peace: Learning fro the experience of political ex-prisoners, 15.

[2] The Film Good Vibrations tells the story through the memoir of Terri Hooley.

[3] The story of Gordon Wilson:

[4] Documentary on Stiff Little Fingers:

[5] Stiff Little Fingers – Wasted Life:

[6] Various oral history projects exist such as Civic Voices:

[7] For an extensive online background to the Troubles:

[8] The Agreement, Reconciliation and Victims of Violence, 18.

[9] For a history of integrated education:

[10] Shared Education:

[11] Sharing Works: A Policy for Shared Education, 6.

[12] BBC Northern Ireland has made their landmark resource, Legacy A Collection of personal testimonies from people affected by the Troubles available to all teachers in Northern Ireland.

[13] Creative Centenaries:

[14] Flags, parades and the legacy of the past:

[15] The GAA Volunteers who went to war:

[16] The Flags Dispute:

[17] The Troubles aren’t history yet:

[18] The Peace People:

[19] Stiff Little Fingers – Alternative Ulster:

[20] Northern Ireland Curriculum:

[21] Miriam’s Vision:

[22] In a typical ‘Norn Iron’ (Northern Ireland) accent, both words can sound the same, which may create occasional confusion.

[23] Professor Bill Rolston on Murals:

[24] The removal of a South Belfast Mural:

[25] The repainting of an East Belfast Mural:

[26] Belfast Telegraph Opinion:

[27] Images on the Donegall Road:

[28] Interview with Heidi McAlpine:

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