In Northern Ireland, hate begins early

Three-year-olds already show signs of prejudice, a survey finds

On a sidewalk in Belfast, a Protestant child shows off for a group of bored journalists waiting for the Northern Ireland Secretary of State, John Reid, to emerge from a meeting.

"If I had a gun, I'd shoot Gerry Adams," the 6-year-old boasts. Adams is the leader of Sinn Fein, regarded as the political wing of the Irish Republican Army, which has sworn to forge a single, united and independent Ireland.

"Why shoot Gerry Adams?" someone asks. "Because he's a Catholic and all my family hates Catholics" says the child, twirling a baton colored red, white and blue – the colors of the British flag.

A few feet away his mother, taking in some rare Belfast sunshine, smiles approvingly.

The episode offers a glimpse of the problems Northern Ireland faces in its upcoming generation. Recent research shows that the province's two communities, far from being reconciled to each other as part of the ongoing peace process here, are gradually drawing further apart.

A survey in June, carried out for the University of Ulster, showed that prejudice between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland begins early, even before children start school.

Most Catholics regard themselves as Irish, or republican, wanting closer links with Dublin, while Protestant loyalists are determined to retain the constitutional link with London.

The survey found that Catholic and Protestant children at age 3 already dislike the cultural icons of the other tradition. Ninety percent of 6-year-olds in both communities showed an understanding of the political significance of flags, while one in five understood the meaning of rival sectarian football teams.

Among the respondents was a Catholic 4-year-old who didn't like Protestants because they were "bad people" and said all Protestants wanted to kill Catholics. A Protestant 6-year-old told the survey's authors that Catholics were "bad" and "smashed windows."

International observers, especially from the US, often suggest that the answer to such division might be integrated education, with Catholic and Protestant children taught together (although in Northern Ireland itself, only the small, centrist Alliance Party promotes this as a solution).

At present, more than 95 percent of Northern Ireland's school-children attend segregated schools. Historically, Catholic schools – based on neighborhood/parish boundaries – taught Catholic students, and Protestant children attended public schools.

Frances Donnelly of the Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education, says, however, that desegregation is not a panacea. "It's an important part of the solution, but our children go back to segregated housing and their parents work in segregated work-places.... Once they go through the school gates, many other powerful influences get to work."

Those influences are reflected in almost a year of incessant conflict between Protestant and Catholic communities. But though the death toll is down – seven so far this year, compared with roughly one a week before the 1994 cease-fires – real reconciliation between the two communities has yet to take root.

According to Dr. Peter Shirlow, senior lecturer in human geography at the University of Ulster, 64 percent of Belfast residents think that "intercommunity relations have deteriorated since the IRA and loyalist cease-fires."

Dr. Shirlow's latest research, published this summer, follows a study in 1999 of parts of working-class north Belfast, where he found that the number of residents who worked in integrated workplaces had fallen from 75 percent to 33 percent over the previous 10 years.

Around 80 percent of residents, he discovered, would not even do their shopping in areas they regarded as the "other side's" territory.

For the past 12 years, the British government has funded the Community Relations Council (CRC), which seeks to foster respect between the Protestant and Catholic traditions through financial support for cross-community projects.

Some critics say, however, that different tactics are needed. Brian Feeney, a lecturer in education at St. Mary's College, Belfast, and author of the book "Sinn Fein – a Hundred Turbulent Years," urges a tougher approach, in which "sectarian words and acts should be outlawed here in the same way that incitement to racial hatred is outlawed in Britain."

Shirlow says one problem is that the peace process feels to some Protestants like defeat. "There is no one within unionism telling Protestants they are winning, that the Good Friday [peace] Agreement [of 1998] was good for them and that it maintains the union," Shirlow says. "They can't celebrate it because they are too concerned about the eventual disintegration of the link with Britain."

Billy Hutchinson, who served prison time for crimes committed while he was a loyalist paramilitary fighter, and who is now a Protestant Unionist member of the Northern Ireland assembly, says concerns about sectarianism unfairly focus solely on the Protestant community.

"Catholic sectarian attitudes are alive and well, although Sinn Fein try and deny it." Mr. Hutchinson says. "The difficulty is that the nationalist community has yet to recognize its own sectarianism."

Shirlow suggests harnessing the experience of those best able to challenge sectarianism in their communities – including ex-members of the IRA and of the loyalist paramilitaries, such as Hutchinson. He acknowledges that there might be a public outcry if former prisoners were to receive large amounts of public money but adds: "Many of them have educated themselves out of sectarianism and have the credibility in their areas to lead others away from it."

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