A survey has found rising levels of prejudice against gays in Northern Ireland.

The research, conducted by the Equality Commission, found that 23 per cent of respondents said they would mind a gay, lesbian or bisexual person living next door, compared to 14 per cent three years ago.

It also found that the same number would mind living next door to a migrant worker.

Attitudes to travellers changed significantly. In 2005, 41 per cent of people said they would mind living next door to a traveller. This has now risen to 51 per cent. The same number stated they would mind if a close relative were to marry a traveller, compared to 38 per cent in 2005.

Six per cent said they would not want a disabled person as a neighbour, the same number who said they would not like to live next to someone with a different religion.

Almost one in six (16 per cent) said they would not want to live next to someone with a mental illness.

However, support for equality legislation in Northern Ireland was extremely high with 92 per cent of respondents agreeing there is a need for such laws.

Sixteen per cent of respondents said they had experienced some form of harassment or had been treated unfairly during the past three years because they belonged to a particular group.

Equality Commission chief Bob Collins said: “The findings suggest a hardening of views towards some people and also the complexities around those views. For example, in a similar survey in 2005, we asked about attitudes towards disabled people generally and received fairly positive responses. In this survey we have probed more deeply and found that those with mental ill-health were viewed more negatively than other groups of disabled people.

“Attitudes became more intense as the respondents considered closer social contact with the groups in question. So, in attitudes towards many groups, more people would mind having them as an in-law, than would mind having them as a neighbour or a work colleague. The most negative attitudes were expressed towards travellers. A substantial minority also responded negatively towards gay, lesbian or bisexual people and towards migrant workers.”

He added: “Surveys like this identify developing trends and they enable us to confront the challenge of changing attitudes. To do that everyone must recognise that differences can – and should – be respected and celebrated in a society that values shared living.”

The research used a representative sample of 1,071 adults aged 16 years and over.

Earlier this year, a Rainbow Project survey found that 64 per cent of homophobic incidents go unreported and 21 per cent of bi and gay men and 18 per cent of lesbian and bi women have been attacked in the past three years.

Nearly 40 per cent of the 1,124 respondents said they were worried about homophobic crime and the same amount, 39 per cent, altered their behaviour to appear more “straight.”