For more than 30 years, the conflict in Northern Ireland pitted Protestants against Catholics over the question of whether to join Ireland or remain part of the United Kingdom. More than half of the population knows someone who was injured or killed in the “Troubles,” as the conflict is called.

Tania Tam and Miles Hewstone at the University of Oxford set out to discover what—if anything—might help foster forgiveness after such a long and bloody dispute. The researchers asked Catholic and Protestant university students from Northern Ireland to rate their attitudes and emotions toward members of the other religious group, their level of contact with that group, and their opinions about the importance and feasibility of forgiveness between the two communities.

Unsurprisingly, Tam and Hewstone found that students who showed the most anger toward their former enemies were the least likely to consider forgiving them. But the researchers also found that forgiveness is possible, and even likely, if the right steps are taken. Their analysis showed that simple human contact between groups led to lower levels of anger and more positive attitudes toward the other group—which in turn made them more likely to forgive past transgressions.

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The researchers also discovered that while anger made forgiveness less likely, fear actually made it more likely. Tam and Hewstone speculate, based on focus groups and other research they have conducted, that people of both communities are desperately afraid that the violence will re-erupt, and understand that mutual forgiveness is a critical step on the path to peace.

Their key recommendation is that peace efforts must focus on reducing anger by promoting one-to-one contact and other social and educational activities that might help each group see the other’s humanity. Then maybe, their results suggest, forgiveness will follow.

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