Love thy neighbour? Exploring prejudice against ethnic minority groups in a divided society: the case of Northern Ireland


This study was inspired by my personal history and experiences of Northern Ireland. I was born in London to Northern Irish parents and I frequently travel back to visit family there. I have long been intrigued by Northern Irish attitudes to both the sectarian divide and, more recently, towards their growing ethnic minority and migrant communities. More recently, my attention has been drawn to coverage in the Northern Irish media of growing hostility to minority communities there, expressed both as prejudice and outright violence. Although only a small minority of the Northern Irish population perpetrates the violence, it is clear that latent negative attitudes towards ethnic minorities are more widespread.

The Police Service of Northern Ireland report increasing numbers of racially motivated incidents and crimes since 2010, reversing a sustained fall in the previous decade. In 2013/2014 the number of racist incidents reported was 30.9% higher than a year earlier, even though reported sectarian incidents had fallen by 6.4% in the same period. These racially motivated incidents were predominantly concentrated in the capital, Belfast; similar trends are seen for those racially motivated incidents meeting the criteria to be considered criminal.

While Northern Ireland is not unique in experiencing considerable migration in recent years, what makes it different from the rest of the United Kingdom is that this is a recent phenomenon. Northern Ireland was, until relatively recently, ethnically homogenous. Geographical isolation and lack of employment opportunities excluded it from the post-war Commonwealth migration to Great Britain. Other than the small, long-established Jewish community, most migrants were Hong Kong Chinese, with a few doctors from the Indian sub-continent. The promise of peace after the Good Friday Agreement created better working conditions and this, coupled with EU expansion, brought a new wave of economic migrants into the region. Many were from Eastern Europe and initially they settled mainly in deprived, predominantly loyalist areas of Northern Ireland. This is in stark contrast to the post-war commonwealth migration to Great Britain in the mid-20th Century.

Northern Ireland is also different in terms of its weak political response to the changing nature of society and the emergence of racial tensions within its borders. The Race Relations Order was enacted only in 1997, 21 years after equivalent legislation was passed in Britain, and although modelled on it is widely perceived to be weaker and less strongly enforced. Added to this the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive has shown little interest in this issue; a search for written questions containing the index term “race relations” in Hansard found only 109 written questions since its establishment in 1998.

My study looked at attitudes to ethnic minorities in Northern Ireland among the majority population. It employed a widely used scale which asks people how accepting they are of Eastern Europeans and Muslims as a tourist in Northern Ireland, a local resident, a colleague, a close friend or a relative by marriage. This avoids the biases associated with questions such as “are you prejudiced”. It found that tolerance has declined between 2010 and 2013.

I was also able to identify certain factors that influenced these attitudes. Protestants, but not Catholics, who were more accepting in general, were more accepting of Eastern Europeans if they had frequent contact with them. Contact with Muslims by all groups in the majority population is also associated with greater acceptance of them.

People who are against mixed marriages between Protestants and Catholics, an indicator of sectarianism, are also more prejudiced against Eastern Europeans, but sectarian attitudes were even more closely linked to rejection of Muslims. Consistent with earlier research, Catholics were more tolerant of both minorities than Protestants.

Finally those with higher education, GCSEs, A Levels or a degree were more accepting of Eastern Europeans than those without qualifications. Those who were long term unemployed or who had never worked were less accepting yet socio-economic factors did not affect attitudes towards Muslims. In contrast, older people were more prejudiced against Muslims but age made no difference to prejudice against Eastern Europeans.

Beyond the main finding, that there is decreasing acceptance of Muslims and Eastern Europeans in Northern Ireland, the most important finding is that, while there are a number of similarities in factors associated with attitudes towards these minority groups, there are also some differences. The need for a nuanced approach to race relations applies more generally to the UK, given the diversity of ethnic minority groups in many places, but it is especially important in Northern Ireland because of its unique experience with migration, with two relatively distinct stages.

These findings have potential implications for the Stormont government. First, within a framework of anti-discrimination policies, the experiences of each minority group should be considered separately. Second, policies should also address specifically the greater levels of prejudice in the Protestant community. Third, there may be benefits from community initiatives that bring people together with the aim of initiating contact and breaking down barriers between the different communities, although subject to further empirical evaluation.

I believe that the unique nature of migration to Northern Ireland, coupled with growing ethnic and religious tensions there, make the case for more research that can offer a better understanding of what is going on in Northern Ireland. Even now, most academics are focussing almost solely on sectarian divisions and, other than a small minority (Robbie McVeigh’s body of research is worth noting here) they have all but ignored the subject of racial prejudice. This study is motivated by the need to conduct a clear and concise study of attitudes towards minorities, using robust and objective measures to study publically available and representative data with the hope that it will bring more interest on this topic and ultimately facilitate better community relations for all in Northern Ireland. 

More to the Stories


Having grown up in Belfast I am fascinated by the changing society, culture and landscape. I return regularly to both the North and South of Ireland to work on projects. Initially I was working with a journalist on a story on modern day slavery. On contacting the Migrant Centre of Northern Ireland I met with Jolena Flett. It became quickly apparent through our conversation that there was much more to migrants' stories than abusive working conditions although these are important to highlight. Jolena challenged me as to whether the story we were running was anything ‘new’ to the public’s front page. The phrase that kept on coming up in conversation was "these people are human beings", with the current crisis and migration from Syria, I think this is often forgotten.

Photograph by Allan Leonard for Northern Ireland Foundation

Photograph by Allan Leonard for Northern Ireland Foundation

After the meeting with Jolena I went away to think about how better to portray the lives of migrants coming to our country. Having grown up in Northern Ireland I have seen an enormous change in the population with new cultures coming in. It's fantastic. After some months I came up with the concept of the Belonging Project, which after a little discussion with Jolena we started. The main premise being to personalise the topic of migration, to remind the public that migrants are not a cohesive group aiming to invade the country and assimilate the population. These are fascinating individuals from cultures different from our own who can enrich our society, with new perspectives of the world.

The medium of the exhibition was to be still photographs and audio interviews. I had never done audio recordings before but I had seen this medium work fantastically in others work. This was to be a more reflective exhibition than video interviews. In audio interviews with still photographs you allow the viewer time to study the person visually, whilst experiencing them telling their own story in the audio track.

The project has been more successful than both I or the Migrant Centre of Northern Ireland had imagined. From very humble beginnings of five portraits in a makeshift gallery space in the Migrant Centre offices, we have gone to a touring exhibition round Northern Ireland and even being taken to the Southbank Centre in London as part of their Adopting Britain Exhibition. Libraries NI have provided a vital role in providing us with exhibition space in the community around Northern Ireland being the organisation to first discover us in our makeshift gallery night almost two years ago. We have been most helped by funding from a variety of sources without which the project could not have continued and grown. I am so pleased see the project continuing in a new and sustainable direction with the toolkit being launched as an educational resource to enlighten the public as to these valuable people who are joining our society.

The Project has achieved much more than I had ever hoped. Public education is obviously paramount to our mission, but there are many seemingly smaller effects that aren’t so obvious. The simple act of allowing these people to tell their stories and celebrate them in a public context is an enormous opportunity. Allowing them to speak with pride of their culture, and reflect openly on how their life has changed. There are many parts to different individuals stories which can be used to dispel misconceptions and stereotypes of ‘the migrant’, “I had a good life in my home country”, “I cried for the first two weeks”, “I was heavily pregnant with now way of communicating to the doctors and nurses that surrounded me”, “When I am in Portugal I miss Northern Ireland, when I am in Northern Ireland I miss Portugal”. These reflections are vital to humanising the individuals who choose to move to our country. Their reasons for moving are varied from fleeing conflict to simply looking for a better life for their family. Let's start treating these people as individuals not numbers on a government statistics table. We must be conscious to treat these people on an individual basis; just like our own society they are not all good and not all bad. But before we baton down the hatches let us find out who they really are.

The Beginning of Belonging


Migration is at the heart of the human experience. We know that throughout history, people have undertaken significant migrations that have shaped the world we now live in: journeys made in hope and exploration, as well as journeys made by force or as a last resort. Today, around the world, migration continues in its myriad forms, but the resistance many migrants encounter on arrival in a new place continues as well. The Belonging Project was created as an effort to shift public perception of migrant communities in Northern Ireland and generate opportunities for connection and acceptance amongst locals. While tensions between locals and migrants may arise for a variety of reasons, too often it is simply a lack of familiarity which gives rise to problematic stereotypes and misunderstanding between groups.

As Belonging’s first project coordinator, I witnessed its growth from three trial profiles to a collection of powerful stories, ready to take off as a traveling exhibition around the country. For Belonging’s early photo shoots, the staff reached out to our own networks, including many of the people who worked at or were affiliated with Migrant Centre NI (then the Belfast Migrant Centre). Once we had streamlined the photo shoot and interview process, we began working with community groups, including Women of the World in Fermanagh and the Belfast Friendship Club. We also reached out to English language courses at the University of Ulster and scheduled photo shoots during the classes. To generate further visibility around Belonging, we decided to give a preview exhibition of four portraits and their corresponding interviews during Northern Ireland Human Rights Week in December of 2013.

Looking back, the success of Belonging has come as less of a surprise and more of a reassuring affirmation of the human capacity for connection and empathy.

The preview exhibition connected Belonging to representatives from Libraries NI, who suggested a partnering to bring the exhibition to libraries around the region. Because libraries are spaces people naturally approach with open and curious minds, the partnership was an excellent fit. My tenure with Belonging ended just before the travelling exhibition began, but I did have the good fortune to return to Northern Ireland six months later and see the launch of Belonging at the Derry/Londonderry library. I was thrilled when I later heard the project would visit the Long Gallery at Stormont and the Belfast City Hall.

Looking back, the success of Belonging has come as less of a surprise and more of a reassuring affirmation of the human capacity for connection and empathy. At a time of heightened movement and desperation amongst international migrants, Belonging offers a heartening perspective on how migration can contribute to the formation of a society that is better because of its changes, not in spite of them. Belonging reminds us that our shared humanity actually lies in the rich diversity of our experiences, and that through embracing and exploring our differences, we can begin to find common ground.