Racism is a significant problem in Northern Ireland, the most comprehensive independent study of local attitudes to race has discovered, writes Olga Wojtas.
Researchers Paul Connolly and Michaela Keenan, of Ulster University's department of sociology, interviewed more than 1,250 people about their attitudes to racial and ethnic groups.
There is a popular belief that sectarianism is so dominant in the province that racism is not a concern. But Dr Connolly and Dr Keenan found that people were almost twice as likely to express racial prejudice as sectarian prejudice. "It explodes the myth that people in Northern Ireland are so busy hating each other that they haven't got time to hate anybody else," Dr Connolly said.
A significant majority appeared to hold positive and liberal attitudes towards race relations as a general principle. For example, 83 per cent supported the need for effective equal opportunities policies for ethnic minorities for jobs and housing. And 87 per cent believed pupils should be taught about ethnic minorities' traditions and cultures.
But a substantial minority had much more negative views when asked about issues that might affect them person-ally.
More than a third would not want an Asian, African Caribbean or Chinese person as a work colleague. One in four said they could not accept them as a neighbour, and two in five said they would not accept them as a close friend.
About twice as many people said they would be unwilling to accept or mix with people from ethnic minorities as said they were unwilling to mix with members of the other main religious tradition, be it Catholic or Protestant.
Dr Connolly said only about 1.5 per cent of the Northern Ireland population was estimated to be from ethnic minorities. "There are no good solid figures available. We will have to wait until the next census. But there are estimates that the largest group is Chinese, about 8,000, and about 1,400 travellers. Travellers are the pariahs in Northern Ireland."
Some 40 per cent said the travellers' nomadic lifestyle should not be supported by the government, while 57 per cent would not accept travellers living locally, and 66 per cent would not accept a traveller as a colleague.
Dr Connolly said attitudes seemed to have hardened in recent years. In a 1995-96 study, 32 per cent of people said they would not accept a Chinese person as a relative by marriage - this had now increased to 53 per cent.
Dr Connolly admitted that he was depressed by the findings. "Racism is part of the fabric here. I was surprised by the levels, such as one in three people who wouldn't want an ethnic minority colleague at work. That's quite alarming."
Northern Ireland was in a unique position as far as racial equality was concerned, he said. It had lagged behind the rest of the United Kingdom, and until 1997 did not even have the Race Relations Act. But there is a new Equality Commission in the province, covering gender, race, religion and disability.
Public authorities had to produce an equality scheme for its approval, promoting social inclusion.
"What we are finding in Northern Ireland, refreshingly, is that the government is quite keen to take on this issue. We are in a positive time when policy-makers and service providers have an interest in moving forward," said Dr Connolly.
The report, the first of five to be published over the coming year, is funded by the government's inter-departmental social steering group.
Dr Connolly and Dr Keenan propose that public authority equality schemes should include a specific section on promoting good race relations, with the equality commission spearheading a broader education campaign to promote racial awareness and understanding.
The researchers propose the Housing Executive should set up community relations initiatives between travellers and local residents to build up trust and understanding, and that schools should teach children about other cultures and traditions and increase their awareness and understanding of the problems of racism in society.
Copies of the full report are available from the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency, Social Policy Branch, McAuley House, 2-14 Castle Street, Belfast BT1 1SA. Cheques for Pounds 10 (including p&p) should be crossed and made payable to the Department of Finance and Personnel.