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Poverty is the root from which prejudice grows

David Cameron outlined his plans for what he called the 'Big Society' in a speech in Liverpool earlier this month.

But while journalists and politicos grapple with the Prime Minister's inchoate vision for a society of volunteers, closer to home the sterling work of one of Northern Ireland's more successful third-sector projects was being honoured.

At Stormont, in front of the First Minster and deputy First Minister, the South Belfast Roundtable on Racism collected the Community Cohesion Award for promoting integration and interculturalism.

Founded in 2004, in response to a series of vicious racist attacks in south Belfast, the Roundtable brings together minority ethnic groups and local communities, political leaders and representatives of statutory bodies.

Its various activities - from friendship clubs and education programmes to the annual Inclusion festival in south Belfast - all share a common aim: to promote good relations and tackle racist attitudes.

As was noted at the recent Intercultural Achievement Awards, the South Belfast Roundtable, and groups like it, operate as a social 'glue', bonding divided communities.

The motives behind Cameron's Big Society may be suspect, but the need for such glue in Northern Ireland is as great as ever.

The unwelcome images from the recent Twelfth weekend were graphic proof that many communities remain fractured and divided.

The reality is that intolerance remains a significant problem, more than 10 years after the Good Friday Agreement.

Sectarianism and racism remain features of life for many, in Belfast and beyond. Many of the youths involved in the so-called 'recreational' rioting in areas such as Short Strand, the Markets and Ardoyne have grown up in isolated, impoverished communities with little or no exposure to the sectarian 'other'. Young people are also more likely to hold sectarian attitudes: a recent study found that some 41% of 16 to 25-year olds described themselves as prejudiced, compared with 31% of the population as a whole.

But this prejudice is not only confined to Catholic and Protestant difference. In spite of the best efforts of groups like the South Belfast Roundtable, in the last number of years racism has become an increasingly prominent problem.

Last June, the eyes of the international media were firmly fixed on Belfast following the expulsion of 22 Roma families. These families were forced to flee their homes after an orchestrated series of racist attacks.

Within a week, most of the Roma had returned home, leaving the rest of the world to talk about how, here, 'racism is the new sectarianism'.

Doubtless, such glib comments are sensationalist and unhelpful, but behind the headlines racism is a growing problem. In 2008/09, the PSNI recorded 990 racial incidents - a new high.

Northern Ireland is far more diverse than ever before: in 2000-2001 there were only 534 minority migrants; by 2005-06 this figure had risen to 12,225.

Last August, Sammy Wilson tendentiously accused anti-racist groups of exaggerating the scale of racist attacks in Northern Ireland to secure funding.

Twelve months on, it is clearer than ever what is needed.

Time, energy and resources (the latter conspicuous by their absence from Cameron's lofty ambitions) are needed to tackle the root causes of sectarianism and racism - poverty, alienation and joblessness.

Otherwise, the gains of the last 15 years risk being lost to ignorance, intolerance and blind hatred.

Peter Geoghegan’s A Difficult Difference: Race, Religion and the new Northern Ireland is published by Irish Academic Press