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Thursday, November 11, 1999 Published at 19:15 GMT

UK: Northern Ireland

Religious prejudice 'infecting toddlers'

The study says children are aware of the significance of certain colours

Children in Northern Ireland start to develop negative feelings towards church leaders of other faiths by the time they start school, according to a new study.

Dr Paul Connolly of the University of Ulster suggests that the seeds of sectarianism are sown when children are barely out of nappies.

He says some two-year-olds are aware of groups like the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the IRA.

The academic's book - Community Relations Work With Pre-School Children - also says many children understand the political significance of certain colours by the time they start school.

Dr Connolly's findings will be discussed later this month at a conference in Belfast as delegates from political, community and education backgrounds try to develop ways of eliminating religious prejudice.

'No overnight solution'

The social studies expert believes prejudice becomes increasingly ingrained as children grow up.

And he says it would be advantageous to nurture better relations between Catholics and Protestants from an early age.

But he warned it would be unrealistic to believe that education programmes for pre-school children would solve Northern Ireland's generations-old problems overnight.

"If it is agreed that some pre-school children are at least capable of developing certain sectarian attitudes and behaviours, then it is important that a community relations strategy ... can aim to prevent it from developing and effectively challenge it when it arises," he said.

"By getting them young, it is often argued, we can stop the vicious circle by which sectarianism is learnt and passed on from one generation to the next.

"However, it is clear that we need to develop much more realistic expectations."

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Dr Paul Connolly

University of Ulster

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