Belfast, Northern Ireland, June 24--(AP) Roman Catholic and Protestant children start learning to fear and loathe each others' communities as young as 3 years old, a newly published study found Tuesday, blaming parents and Northern Ireland's religiously divided school system. "The surprising thing is how quickly these attitudes start to be expressed, almost as soon as they can talk," said Paul Connolly, lead author of the report based on questioning of 352 children aged 3 to 6. "You could imagine children drawing some of these distinctions at age 10, not 3."

Connolly's research team found that boys and girls from the British Protestant and Irish Catholic sides of society are absorbing their communities' prejudices by age 5, when they enter elementary schools that keep them almost entirely segregated in two separate systems. Only 4 percent of primary-age children in Northern Ireland are educated in religiously mixed schools. "Our results, frankly, condemn the overall structure of Northern Ireland society," said Connolly, a University of Ulster sociologist. The Englishman, who lives in religiously polarized north Belfast with his wife and three preschool children, says they'll soon face tough choices about finding "neutral" schooling.

The study, conducted by the University of Ulster, was commissioned by the government-funded Community Relations Council, which tries to promote better relations between the communities. The survey at 44 elementary schools and nurseries throughout Northern Ireland involved showing children pictures and objects, and asking them what they knew about each and whether they liked or disliked them. Subjects with sectarian connotations included Irish and British flags, Protestant Orangemen parading, different soccer teams' uniforms, and Catholic girls in an Irish dancing class.

The approach mirrored a 1999 study of the attitudes of Israeli and Palestinian children, which was commissioned by Children's Television Workshop in New York. The makers of "Sesame Street," the workshop produced an Israeli-Palestinian joint television venture in Arabic and Hebrew, in which peaceful coexistence was key.

As with the Middle Eastern research, the Northern Ireland report concluded that youngsters in divided societies need specially designed educational packages to counteract the parochial prejudice of their immediate environment. "If young children are encouraged to appreciate and respect diversity then they may well be less likely to develop negative attitudes in the future," the report concludes. "It is certainly far better than simply leaving children to learn about other communities from their peers."

This was the first study of its kind in Northern Ireland to analyze the opinions of the extremely young. Other research in the past three decades of political-religious turmoil has focused on older children, and particularly the trauma they have suffered from witnessing violence.

Connolly said he hadn't expected the youngest children to draw clear tribal distinctions, but some 3- and 4-year-olds already did - and added derogatory commentary unprompted. He said many more interviewees probably held back sectarian opinions, because they were talking to strangers. "I like the people who are ours. I don't like those ones because they are Orangemen. They're bad people," the report quoted one 4-year-old Catholic girl as saying when shown a picture of the Protestant organization on parade. "Catholics are the same as masked men. They smash windows," suggested a 4-year-old Protestant girl, when discussing whether she knew what a Catholic was.

Connolly said the two groups of children expressed statistically significant preferences when presented with the red, white and blue British flag versus the Irish tricolor of green, white and orange. Among 3-year-olds, 64 percent of Catholics already preferred the Irish flag, while 59 percent of Protestants favored the British. "The fact that we've got 3-year-old children developing attitudes like this shows that you shouldn't dump all the responsibility on the divided schools. Some responsibility clearly lies with the family and local community," Connolly said.

But he said the divided schools appeared to exacerbate sectarian opinion. "The proportion of children making overtly sectarian statements rises exponentially in ages 5 and 6, the two first years of formal schooling," he said.

Another part of the survey found that Catholic children preferred Irish names - Seamus, Fionnuala and Sinead - while the Protestants disliked those in comparison with Protestant-preferred names: Craig, Alison and Stewart. This tendency increased with age.

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