62. After almost four decades of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland, which claimed more than 3,500 lives, there seems now to be hope for a shared future. The Special Rapporteur welcomes the statutory duty for public authorities in carrying out their functions relating to Northern Ireland to have due regard to the need to promote equality of opportunity between persons of different religious belief. She was informed of promising initiatives which seek to cross the sectarian divide among the Christians, both at the political and grassroots levels. However, there remain several contentious areas such as inequalities along denominational lines in the labour market, housing, education, policing and criminal justice agencies.
63. The Special Rapporteur shares the concerns raised by the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights that the educational structure in Northern Ireland continues to be heavily segregated on the basis of religion, despite the increased demand for integrated schools. Furthermore, Catholic staff is underrepresented in the Police Service of Northern Ireland, the prison service and other criminal justice agencies. In this regard, the Special Rapporteur welcomes affirmative actions strategies to ensure that these agencies can recruit a more representative workforce. She would like to recommend that such measures should also address adequate representation of all religious or belief communities.
64. The Special Rapporteur is alarmed about reports that schoolchildren in Northern Ireland are often targets of abuse or physical attacks owing to their school uniforms or their itinerary to school, which are deemed to identify their religious affiliation. The Government has a duty to protect children against such attacks and should adopt the best interests of the child as a paramount consideration in all legislation and policy affecting children throughout its territory. In legislation on offences aggravated by hostility it may be advisable to refer not only to actual religious belief but also to the accused’s perception of the religious, social or cultural affiliation of the targeted individual or group. The Special Rapporteur was told that sectarianism is deep-rooted in many minds; apparently even in casual conversations people try to seek indications - such as residence, education or support for a specific football team - about the religious affiliation of their interlocutor. In terms of prevention, the Special Rapporteur recommends schools to raise awareness, stimulate debate and encourage people to discuss the root causes of sectarian tensions and what role they can play in challenging religious prejudice. In this regard, football clubs throughout the United Kingdom may also have a role to play in dealing with the sectarian behaviour of their own or visiting fans.
65. The Special Rapporteur would like to emphasize that tackling the sectarian polarization in Northern Ireland should not lead to disregarding the situation and concerns of religious minorities, for example with regard to physical attacks against their members, the siting of non-Christian places of worship and religious education in schools. Furthermore, the low number of followers of some minority faiths in Northern Ireland seems to make adherence to their dietary or worship practices difficult. Consequently, the Government needs to ensure that those wishing to worship, either individually or in community with others, are facilitated in doing so.