A common enemy

Observations on prejudice by <strong>John O'Farrell</strong>

Kilkeel is a County Down fishing village with a history of community relations problems of a kind familiar across Northern Ireland. Predominantly Protestant and unionist, it is set in mostly Catholic and nationalist countryside, and every summer there are tensions over marches.

Recently, however, the young Catholics and Protestants of Kilkeel have found something they can do together: attacking immigrant workers from eastern Europe.

One weekend in May, according to the Belfast Telegraph, 30 locals fought a similar number of Lithuanians on the main street, and according to the Ulster Unionist councillor Henry Reilly it wasn't the first such clash. "It seems extraordinary that Protestants and Catholics have joined forces to fight Lithuanians in Kilkeel," he said. "There seem to be a lot of fights at weekends and I don't know the solution."

A study of attitudes in Northern Ireland has shown that Kilkeel is a symptom, not an exception. A quarter of those questioned for the Life and Times survey last year admitted that they were at least a little prejudiced against "people of minority ethnic communities" - well over double the figure from a similar study a decade earlier.

The survey found no significant differences in reported prejudice across categories of occupation, class, education, gender or whether respondents had lived abroad, but it did uncover a striking contrast between the two faiths. Between 1994 and 2005 the proportion of Catholics who reported being prejudiced rose from 9 to 18 per cent, while over the same period the equivalent figure for Protestants increased from 12 to 33 per cent.

When responses were broken down by political allegiance, the differences were even more clear. Respondents who supported unionist parties were noticeably more likely to say they were prejudiced than those who supported nationalist parties. Among supporters of Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party 46 per cent said they were prejudiced against ethnic minorities; among Social Democratic & Labour Party and Sinn Fein supporters the figure was roughly 20 per cent.

The survey should worry unionist leaders. For years there have been active links between loyalist paramilitaries and British racist groups such as the BNP and Combat 18, and those paramilitaries have been accused of orchestrating violence towards immigrants. But the new figures suggest this is not just a matter of the extremist fringe, and that "middle unionism" is implicated.

One explanation offered is that a disproportionate number of new immigrants live in Protestant areas, but that is hard to reconcile with findings that those who said they had daily contact with someone from a minority ethnic background were significantly less likely to report prejudice than those who said they never had any contact.

It is estimated that 30,000 workers from around the EU have arrived in Northern Ireland in the past decade, mostly taking jobs in agriculture, catering, construction and retail, and more are coming. As the 75 per cent who say they are not prejudiced might observe, good luck to them.

The Life and Times survey is at www.ark.ac.uk/nilt

This article first appeared in the 10 July 2006 issue of the New Statesman, The house of slaves