Does segregation work to prevent ethnic violence? This question has been at the forefront of the partition debate in Iraq, and it is also currently relevant for Syria and Israel as well as for other countries undergoing conflict along ethnic or religious lines. At first glance, segregation might seem a straightforward method to prevent or stop violence between communities, but we can only know if it works by looking at the data.
In a recent article published at the Journal of Peace Research, we study subnational variation of low-intensity ethnic (also called sectarian) violence in Northern Ireland. Current low-intensity sectarian violence in Northern Ireland comprises attacks against individuals or groups using physical force, threats, verbal abuse, or intimidation; it also includes riots, public disorder, and damage to property.
We are particularly interested in the effect of segregation of the Catholic and Protestant communities. In extreme cases, peace walls have been built to separate the two groups. In our research, we use an original dataset of incidents of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland from 2005 to 2012 (the data is collected by the Police Service for Northern Ireland). Our dependent variable measures the recorded number of incidents of sectarian violence in a given ward (a subnational territorial and administrative unit) and year. The map below reveals the large existing variation across wards, according to which in some wards violence can reach a maximum of 78 incidents in a year, while 7% of wards have had no incidents during the time period studied. Interestingly, and contrary to what one might anticipate, low-intensity violence does not concentrate in the same exact areas where violence occurred during “The Troubles”, the armed conflict that plagued Northern Ireland between 1968 and 1998.
Contemporary violence between Catholics and Protestants is most intense in areas where both groups have similar sizes and are in contact with one another. This can happen within wards, but also between wards. High levels of violence occur in very homogeneous wards (e.g. predominantly Catholic wards) that border very homogeneous wards of the rival group (e.g. predominantly Protestant wards). This happens even if these wards are separated by peace walls. Areas of contact between segregated communities are particular hot spots because both sides are jockeying to increase the amount of territory under their control and because groups fear losing preeminence to the rival group. These interface areas are seen as disputed spaces in the context of a zero-sum competition over territory and social resources. Catholics and Protestants use violence in order to claim control over these pieces of territory and enhance individual physical safety – additionally, this both establishes and protects areas where groups can safely express their identity, symbols, and traditions. Further, group proximity creates opportunities for violence by increasing the viability of attacks, as targets are more visible and accessible and encounters more likely.
Overall, our micro-level study of contemporary interethnic violence in Northern Ireland suggests that segregation and physical separation of groups is generally not a solution to ethnic violence. By impeding regular interaction, segregation worsens intergroup trust and increases threat perceptions. Threat perceptions ignite into violence in the interface areas where the two groups meet. Notably, we find that violence takes place between segregated communities even in the extreme cases in which physical barriers are built to completely separate the groups, which makes the existence of these barriers seem quite futile. Our findings speak of a particular case, Northern Ireland, but these are lessons that should easily travel to other settings where segregation between communities is being considered as a possible solution to violence.
Laia Balcells is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Duke University and Niehaus Visiting Associate Research Scholar at Princeton University. Lesley-Ann Daniels is a PhD student at the University of Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona. Abel Escribà-Folch is Associate Professor at the Department of Political and Social Sciences at Universitat Pompeu Fabra.