The aetiology of idiopathic bronchiectasis, a lung disease where chronic inflammation and bacterial infection leads to progressive lung damage, is unknown. A possible role for natural killer cells has been highlighted previously. However, a role for adaptive immunity is suggested by the presence of CD4 and CD8 T cells in diseased lung tissue. Evidence of a human leucocyte antigen (HLA) class II disease association would further implicate a role for adaptive immunity. To establish if there is any HLA association, we analysed HLA-A, HLA-B, HLA-DQA1, HLA-DQB1 and HLA-DRB1 alleles in patients with idiopathic bronchiectasis and controls. Genomic DNA from 92 adults with idiopathic bronchiectasis and 101 healthy controls was analysed by polymerase chain reaction with sequence-specific primers. We found an increase in the prevalence of HLA-DRB1*01 DQA1*01/DQB1*05 genes in idiopathic bronchiectasis; that is, the HLA-DR1, DQ5 haplotype (odds ratio 2·19, 95% confidence interval 1·15–4·16, P = 0·0152) compared with control subjects. The association with HLA-DR1, DQ5 implicates a role for CD4 T cells restricted by these molecules in susceptibility to the progressive lung damage seen in this disease. This may operate either through influencing susceptibility to specific pathogens or to self-reactivity and requires further investigation.