Although now in a period of peace after years of violent intergroup conflict, known as ‘the Troubles’, Northern Ireland continues to experience difficult intergroup relations and societal segregation between the Catholic and Protestant communities (Jarman, 2005; Balcells, Daniels & Escribà-Folch, 2016). Allport’s (1954) contact theory is often championed as a solution to problems arising from the conflict in Northern Ireland and other forms of religious or ethnic conflict worldwide. Despite the largely segregated education system which persists today, efforts to increase positive interaction between young people in the two communities, such as short-term school-based contact initiatives, and Integrated schooling, have been developed (Hughes & Loader, 2015). Most recently the ‘Shared Education Programme’ was introduced, in which pupils from traditionally religiously distinct schools move between schools for classes in particular subjects (McAleavy, Donegan & O'Hagan 2009). However, negative emotional preconceptions of contact may persist, limiting the potential benefits of initiatives such as Shared Education, where segregated schools collaborate for certain subjects. Alternative interventions such as imagined contact (Turner, Crisp & Lambert, 2007a) and extended contact (Wright, Aron, McLaughlin-Volpe, & Ropp, 1997) have also been shown to improve intergroup attitudes and may increase the efficacy of face-to-face contact.
The overall aim of the research was to investigate how to effectively apply imagined and extended contact interventions to reduce prejudice and encourage contact between young people in Northern Ireland, specifically in preparation for Shared Education. This PhD research was structured into three stages, culminating in the final widespread testing of school-based interventions based on theories of imagined and extended contact. The preliminary stages included an interview and focus group study, intervention design and pilot intervention testing, which gathered information to aid in this final testing study. Although the results of the main study were largely inconclusive, the process of investigating the application of indirect contact theories as interventions within this context generated innovative information on intergroup relations in Northern Ireland, and how to utilise indirect contact interventions effectively with young people.