THE “lack of interest” shown by Britain and the Republic of Ireland in the North must be addressed for true progress to be made between the two islands LSE students heard this week.
A warning message of the "volatility" still residing in the North was given by Bryan Patten, Executive Director of the Washington Ireland Programme, while in the city for a St Patrick’s Day event held at the London School of Economics.
While tackling the topic of the future for Anglo Irish Relations, he claimed: “You can generally see the lack of interest in Northern Ireland from the UK. In particular in the leaders’ general election debates, which are coming up in the next couple of weeks, where it seems that the broadcasters have actually forgotten that Northern Ireland is part of the UK, you can see it.
“That sends an incredible message to unionists about how they are perceived and there are messages there which show that the Northern Ireland and British relationship is not as strong as it ever has been.”
Mr Patten heads up an organisation which sends 30 young Irish people to Washington DC each year to help form the “next generation” who will achieve a “peaceful, stable and prosperous future for Northern Ireland and Ireland”.
But he told guests at the panel discussion organised by the LSE Irish Society that this will not be achieved unless Britain and Ireland can decide what they want that future to look like.
“If you look at the Great Britain and Republic of Ireland relationship there is a huge amount of positivity; there is a reframing of that relationship, a very positive and important relationship, and economically, in terms of being a good partner, it’s hard to fault Britain,” he said.
“But when you think of the Northern Ireland relationship things are more complex and not quite so positive,” he added.
“The message I want to get out is that things are much more volatile today and things, however they change, are going to change, and that’s something we need to try to understand and engage with and try to think about what the consequences of that might be.”
He explained: “If you think about the Great Britain and Northern Irish relationship, I think Northern Ireland feels very much like the unloved partner, as part of the UK in general.
“And the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland’s relationship is interesting too. A lot of Republic of Ireland students are not actually interested in the North,” he claimed.
“We interview about 70 students a year for our placements and genuinely, for people who are really passionate about the island of Ireland, many have never even crossed the border - so there is an incredible lack of interest there.”
Regarding the future of the two islands, Mr Patten believes there is still much work to be done to ensure the stability of relations between them.
“Northern Ireland is the crux of the issue in the British Irish relationship and its one that we need to think about and deal with more positively,” he said.
“The challenge is what the vision for the Republic of Ireland engaging with Northern Ireland, or Great Britain engaging with Northern Ireland, is.”
He added: “It’s a challenge that needs to be addressed, but the only people who represent positive visions, to be honest, are in Northern Ireland - whether that be a vision for a stronger united Ireland or a stronger United Kingdom, they are coming from within the North.
“We now need to gain an understanding of what we want the island of Ireland’s relationship to be looking like and how that relates to Britain and I think that that’s a real challenge for us in British Irish relations.”