By Anne Cadwallader
BELFAST – Children in Northern Ireland as young as 3 are able to identify symbols as being linked to either loyalist or nationalist cultures, according to a Ulster University report published last week.
The findings are contained in research carried out by academics for the British-government funded Community Relations Council. The report, “Too Young to Notice? The Cultural and Political Awareness of Three to Six-Year-Olds,” is a study of the attitudes of pre-school children.
By the age of 6, 69 percent can identify flags and parades as belonging to one side or the other. Cultural differences become more noticeable after the children have started school.
The report recommends encouraging children from aged 3 up to experience different cultures, and to understand the negative effects of sectarian stereotypes.
Written by the University of Ulster’s Dr. Paul Connolly, professor Alan Smith and Berni Kelly, the report is based on data from interviews of 352 children drawn from 44 schools across Northern Ireland.
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One of the report’s findings is that Catholic children were twice as likely to state that they did not like the police at 3 years of age.
Protestant children were twice as likely than their Catholic peers to prefer the Union Jack flag than the Irish tri-color. Catholic 3-year-olds were again nearly twice as likely to say that they did not like Orange Order marches.
Overall, just over half of all 3-year-olds were able to demonstrate some awareness of the cultural/political significance of at least one event or symbol. This rose to 90 percent of 6-year-olds.
The children’s responses were analyzed to identify any explicitly sectarian and/or prejudiced comments that they may have made about the other main religious tradition.
“In some ways, the fact that the family and local community have an influence on the attitudes of young children is obvious — especially when we consider events such as those surrounding the Holy Cross Primary School,” Connolly said. “However, it does highlight the fact that we cannot simply expect schools to solve the problem alone. Unless we can develop community relations strategies with children that also include the family and local community then they are going to be of very limited success”.
“As regards school, the most significant finding from the study is the rapid rate of increase in the proportions of children making sectarian comments by the ages of 5 and 6.”
The report also recommends that day care and pre-schools find ways of engaging and working closely with parents and the local community and, where appropriate, connecting with community relations and cultural diversity initiatives in the wider community.
Britain’s Northern Ireland secretary of state, John Reid, described the report as “deeply depressing” and accused adults who encouraged bitterness and hatred of “a form of child abuse.”
“More than 30 years on from the beginning of the Troubles, many of our young people continue to be abused by the violence, the sectarianism and the hatred that is all too evident in our society,” he said.
“We see it in our classrooms: senseless attacks on schools remove our children’s right to education. Yet a small minority of mindless thugs continue to vent their hatred in this way.
“We see it in our communities: young people left physically maimed, and mentally scarred for life, by paramilitaries. The ‘hard men,’ who claim to be defending their communities, are simply cowards who want to impose their own rule.”
“Within just a few years, some of these toddlers will grow up to be encouraged on to our streets to throw stones, and petrol bombs at their peers from the other side.
“We even see them paraded at press conferences to show off their injuries, allegedly caused at the hands of the police. Doesn’t anyone ask what they were doing in a street riot in the first place?
“Seeing children and young people, abused in this way, sickens me to the core. Not only are they the victims of personal attacks, or attacks in schools, but all too often they are encouraged to put themselves, and other people at risk, and to go out on to our streets to injure and to hate.”