How Social Workers Have Dealt With Violence Social Work Essay

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The aim of this assignment is to identify the role of the Social Worker during the Northern Ireland Troubles and how this role has evolved and changed as a result of the conflict. To identify perspectives and show how Social Worker's can help victims and survivors of the Troubles.

I will begin by giving a brief account of what The Troubles are. I will identify how understanding psychological theory and perspectives can help in regards to understanding the troubles and the mental illness effects of it. I will then identify what the Social Worker's role has been during and after the Troubles, and will identify the needs of victims and survivors of the conflict. Concluding with what can be done in the future for better practice and understanding of needs.

The Troubles in Northern Ireland are hard to define and even harder to justify the history in such a short assignment. So the next few paragraphs are a summary of the Troubles and are not meant to be a detailed account of over thirty years of violence.

The struggle of the Troubles consisted of decades of violence between two communities; the Protestant (Unionist) Community and the Catholic (Nationalist) Community. The origin of the conflict is somewhat debated on both sides, but the main theme for the cause of the Troubles was the nationalist resistance to the British government's rule in Northern Ireland as well as the discrimination shown to them by a Unionist Majority. (

It was Paramilitary groups who distinguished the violence and escalated it to a national level by involving individuals to choose "one side or the other". One of the main aims of the Provisional IRA (a nationalist side) was to end British Rule and become a United Ireland, integrating with Southern Ireland for one overall country. The British Army and the Police became involved in the violence around the same time, who claimed they were neutral and there for the protection of citizens in Northern Ireland, but were seen as unwelcome and conspiring with the Unionist Paramilitaries, in particular the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) against Nationalists. The Ballast investigation by the Police Ombudsman confirmed that the British Forces and in particular the RUC, did collude with loyalist paramilitaries ( during these times.

After approximately Thirty Years of violence, over 3,600 deaths, 40,000 injured (Manktelow, 2007) and hundreds of thousands emotionally affected, ceasefires were reluctantly introduced. These required most paramilitary forces to decommission armed weapons and the former Royal Ulster Constabulary be reformed into the PSNI (Police Service of Northern Ireland) with the introduction of equality in employment for both communities within the Police Service. The most recent peace process became better known as the Belfast Agreement of 1998, this set up Political structures and policy requirements for peace building in Northern Ireland (Manktelow, 2007) but with Northern Ireland remaining part of the United Kingdom until a majority vote chooses otherwise (

There were many events in the Troubles history that were significant in the conflict, usually events which produced the most tragedy and death, such as Bloody Sunday, The Hunger Strikes or one of the last large scale acts of violence; The Omagh Bomb. But what remains apparent is how the Troubles still affect people today despite the Belfast Agreement being ten years old this year. The Social and Political effects of the Troubles still seem evident in Northern Irish society, including segregation in housing, education and identity. As well as the psychological affects researched in studies of social identities and the concept of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) of the Troubles.

The Psychological Cost of the Troubles

As well as the Physical effects of the Troubles, psychological effects such as mental illness remain one of the main factors that should be approached in social work practice; this will help understand the impact the Troubles had on a population. The initial physical conflict may have , but the psychological affects still remain apparent in research and analysis. Some forms of psychological effects include depression and anxiety, but one of the main factors is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD); it is a particular form of anxiety that may occur following exposure to a traumatic event (McDermott et al., 2004). In a study of mental ill health of victims of Troubles related violence during the 1980's one fifth of the sample analysed suffered from PTSD for longer than three months (Loughrey et al,. 1988 cited in Manktelow, 2007). According to Carson 1997 there are five categories that may influence an individual's response trauma and in particular PTSD; these are biological factors, developmental stage at time of trauma, severity of trauma, social context and past and future life events (McDermott et al., 2004). The principal intervention employed in PTSD was Cognitive Therapy, this aimed to modify a person's reaction to a certain event, and this was done by analysing negative assessments associated with the event and its aftermath (Manktelow, 2007).

The impact of the Troubles on children growing up in Northern Ireland has been widely debated with a range of negative affects being identified but severity of affects being disputed. It is now accepted that children and adolescents as well as adults may experience PTSD after being involved in a disaster. According to Pynoos and Nader (1993) children, similar to adults, respond to trauma with the full array of PTSD Symptoms (Hayes and Campbell, 2000). In recent years however it is now brought into question the coping and resilience of children, and the adjustment to conflict (Muldoon, 2004).

Some of the coping mechanisms identified by psychologists towards coping with trauma claim that victims of the Troubles, to preserve mental well being will adopt one of three ways; To deny the existence of the conflict, to distance themselves from the violence, or to habituate the violence into their everyday lives and see it as normality (Manktelow, 2007). Coping may also be affected by the level of social support available, research by Dillenburger et al., showed that individuals who were able to talk openly to family members and friends were more able to cope with traumatic experiences. (Dillenburger et al, 2008). Another positive impact on coping also seemed to be societal change and in particular the introduction of the Good Friday Agreement, which brought with it changing patterns and lower levels of violence (Dillenburger, 2008), although a critique of this would indicate that although this may have helped with some individuals of the troubles, for others it would have increased anxiety and depression, especially with the introduction of the early release of prisoners (Dillenburger, 2008).

Despite all the education and knowledge that surrounds the psychological effects of the troubles, with mental illness and emotional support needed, social worker's are generally not well trained to deal with this (Campbell and Healey, 1999). This will be analysed in the next section which deals with the role of social workers and the needs of victims and survivors of the troubles.

The Social Worker's Role in the Northern Ireland Troubles

As previously discussed, the Troubles were personified by intense violence which traumatised individuals, families and communities (Fay et al, 1999 cited in Campbell and Pinkerton, 2002), but for Social Work this brought about a new era, and new structure to the occupation, employment was expanded and a new professional status given to the job with the introduction of new health and social service boards (Campbell and Pinkerton, 2002). These boards achieved the aim of separating statutory health and social services from the segregation felt by the rest of the country from discrimination and sectarianism. This provided staff with the ability to detach from wider society and remain impartial with non-sectarian status (Campbell and Pinkerton, 2002). This was a unique profession that could remove identities in a Social Work setting for the ability to care and carry out a job for service users.

However there was a price to pay for the success of such practice; either Social workers retreated from engagement with society, subsequently losing openness and responsibility (Campbell and Pinkerton, 2002), or values were tested and the professional role compromised with the pressure from family and friends to show group solidarity, and therefore the "other side" being perceived as the enemy or wrong (Cohen 2001 cited in Ramon et al, 2006). Ramon et al argues that "while it is easier for most people in the context of a political conflict to treat the victims of one's own social group with the respect and care they require, it is much more difficult to adopt a similar stance towards members of the other social group(s) in the dispute. Thus, the desirability and feasibility of the separation of the professional, the personal and the political dimensions in the lives of social workers is seriously questioned within the context of political conflict" (Ramon et al, 2006)

Smyth and Campbell (1996) claim that training social workers to be anti-sectarian is so difficult because of fear and prejudice that operates subtlety within any group of students brought up in Northern Ireland (Campbell and Healey, 1999). But dealing with such views is vital for social work practice, if social workers do not recognise them; "there is a fear that thoughts and behaviours will enforce silences and prevent opportunities for reconciliation and/or normalise the ways of functioning in an abnormal context" (Campbell and Healey, 1999).

So with sectarian views being evident throughout Northern Irish society, how do social worker's tackle these for an efficient and effective service for users? What seems to be fundamental in Social Work practice is to challenge our own views and feelings on sectarianism, to be self aware and a reflective practitioner. To develop skills and enforce anti-discriminative policies and legislation that were introduced to challenge sectarianism and discrimination.

Since the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 there has been a need to deal with past traumas of the conflict and to identify the needs of victims and survivors. The emphasis of this within a social work setting is to promote multidisciplinary teamwork and the involvement of a mixture of Health and Social Services that will lead to a better approach to trauma (Campbell and Healey, 1999).

The Needs of Victims and Survivors

A victim is defined as "The surviving physically and psychologically injured of violent, conflict related incidents and those close relatives or partners who care for them, along with the close relatives or partners who mourn their dead" (OFDFM, 2002, 1.2)

Research shows that despite a Social Work presence in Northern Irish society during the Troubles, the needs of victims were largely unmet for many years (Manktelow, 2007). The main support victims relied on was that of family and friends. Those without extended family support had to cope as best they could on their own, and according to Manktelow, 2007 this gap should have been filled by the social work services. So why wasn't this the case? During the 1980's Social Work was an occupation designed to be routine rather than creative, corrective rather than developmental, and targeted on individuals rather than their social surroundings, this reflected the boards priorities during this time (Campbell and Pinkerton, 2002). Group representatives criticized the statutory health and social services for failing to acknowledge or provide services for the psychological and emotional effects of the Troubles, on health and well being (Manktelow, 2007). It has only been in recent years where specialist trauma services have been introduced to provide the necessary skills and training to deal with such trauma(Manktelow, 2007).

There are a number of explanations into why social worker's failed to identify the needs of victims and survivors during the troubles, and suggest that professionals had to consider their own safety and needs, as well as service users. Secondly, as the affects of the violence had been ignored by all aspects of the community as a simulation of normality, the consequence of this was ignoring any effects the violence brought (Manktelow, 2007). Also services provided by the state were seen as part of the problem, as the state itself was not accepted by parts of the Northern Irish community (Manktelow, 2007).

So as the needs of victims have been identified, such as dealing with the effects of trauma, anxiety and stress, how can these needs be met? What seems to be apparent is the existence on non-statutory services in helping support victims deal not only with trauma, but with human rights and justice (Manktelow, 2007). Post-ceasefire has also had a significant effect on helping victims, for the first time individuals feel open and free to talk about past experiences and debate the topic of political violence (Manktelow, 2007), this can have a significant effect on recovery as specific needs can be met just from this. Social work and statutory services also have a part to play in providing support to victims, such as counselling and mediation and the skills to do this effectively (Manktelow, 2007). As Northern Ireland is still very much segregated community based services are highly recommended.


So with the Belfast Agreement being a decade old this year, it brings with it a new understanding of the needs of victims and survivors of the Troubles. The need for voices to be heard, and reconciliation required, to remember the suffering and acknowledge the problems victims face. Social work plays an important role in this, by getting the voices heard and responding to them (Campbell and Pinkerton, 2002). By applying values such as anti-discrimination, anti-oppressive practice, social justice and rights, social work can strive to change opinions and views, to play an important role in providing effective social services.

The aim of this assignment was to identify and describe how social workers have dealt with the effects of political violence and to discuss ways in which they can help victims and survivors of the conflict. Social worker's have dealt with the effects of political violence by trying to stay impartial and anti-sectarian throughout their job. They try to remain neutral and hide personal identities, so not seem discriminatory against their service users, but also for their own protection. Social workers help victims by providing a range of skills, knowledge and values to their practice, despite being seen as working for the state and this being perceived as part of the problem. As well as statutory services, there is also a range of voluntary organisations who are dedicated to identifying needs and supporting victims of the Troubles. What is still needed though is more community integration and community services available, as most of the services provided are still segregated.