Belfast Telegraph

Equality Commission findings show Government action is needed

By Michael Wardlow

Attitudes are important, as they have an impact on how we behave towards others in society. Attitudes, when negative, can result in prejudicial behaviours or discriminatory actions towards those we see as 'other'. It is for this reason that the Equality Commission carries out a regular survey of social attitudes in Northern Ireland.

The first thing anyone will notice is that more people than ever before told us their attitudes towards different equality groups had become more positive.

Fewer people reported negative attitudes towards different equality groups than in our equivalent survey findings in 2008 and 2011.

For us, the standout reductions in negative attitudes were those towards Travellers, lesbian, gay and bisexual people and trans people. We welcome the fact that a large majority (66%) of respondents said they thought there were no circumstances in which prejudice was acceptable.

It remains true that the actual lived experience of some people doesn't always mirror these results.

Our findings show that the top five groups that attracted the most negative attitudes were all related to race or nationality - Travellers, Roma, minority ethnic groups, migrant workers and asylum seekers and refugees.

These are the groups most likely to be on the receiving end of hate speech, broken windows, personal attacks, burnt-out houses and businesses and exploitation at work.

What can we deduce from this? Are people just more aware that an overt expression of prejudice is not 'the done thing'?

Or is it just that a small minority translate negative views into negative behaviours? Or is it because those of us who feel safe here don't have as much to fear from new and different realities?

We have many times highlighted the need to tackle prejudicial attitudes, behaviour and hate crime.

The survey findings underline the need for action at a government level to address racism within the workplace and society, to challenge negative attitudes towards Irish Travellers, eastern European migrant workers and other minority ethnic people, as well as lesbian, gay and bisexual people and trans people.

Let me be clear. The commission is not here to tell people what to think - the law is there to define people's freedoms, not their opinions.

When these opinions harden into hate speech, intolerance and aggression, that's when the problem starts.

The survey findings are a welcome sign of a softening of negative attitudes, and they challenge complacency. We need to talk about these issues, there is no place for silence. The job isn't done yet.

Dr Michael Wardlow is chief commissioner of the Equality Commission

Belfast Telegraph

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