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St Patrick could yet be unifying figure in Northern Ireland's struggle with the past

His deep faith and humility and his abhorrence of the violation of human rights are lessons for us all, says Martin O'Brien

Mention St Patrick's Day and what comes to mind? There will be a variety of answers, reflecting our respective views, interests, prejudices and concerns.

Some will stress the religious aspect. For as long as I can remember, there has been a Church of Ireland St Patrick's Day service at St Patrick's, Saul, near Downpatrick, where according to tradition, the saint died nearly 1,600 years ago.

In the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland, St Patrick's Day is a holy day of obligation, which means Catholics are obliged to attend Mass. Others will point to sport and schools' cup finals in rugby, Gaelic football and soccer.

Some will welcome the opportunity to "drown the shamrock" - particularly if they are engaging in Lenten abstinence.

In recent years in Belfast, the day - and sometimes days around it - has been marred by alcohol-fuelled anti-social behaviour by students in the Holyland area of the city, close to Queen's University.

This has distracted from the increasingly impressive efforts by Belfast City Council - since the first, tentative attempt in 2006 - to organise a St Patrick's Day parade and open-air concert that this island's second city can be proud of - despite the continued deep divisions exemplified by the recent election and the unhealed wounds of our recent history.

The yearly challenge for the council is to stage an authentic, yet non-triumphalist event that is as inclusive and welcoming as possible. An occasion to accommodate citizens wishing to celebrate for any number of reasons, ranging from a wholehearted affirmation of their Irishness to just having a good time on a relaxing day off; and tourists - whose numbers may be swollen this year by the weak pound - giving a welcome boost to our economy.

People may be dismayed by the breakdown at Stormont and worried by the economic and constitutional uncertainty over Brexit, but it is worth saying that the parade and subsequent concert that is taking place at Custom House Square today would have been unthinkable as recently as the early-noughties.

Now, it is true that Protestants and unionists are not turned on by St Patrick pageantry as Catholics and nationalists are, perhaps in part because the zero-sum nature of politics here determined that what was good for nationalists was bad for unionists and vice versa.

St Patrick's Day here came to be seen by Protestants as a manifestation of in-your-face nationalism, while Catholics saw it as an opportunity to celebrate their faith, culture and identity, with a growing emphasis on the latter two more recently.

If Nelson McCausland, a few years ago, was trying to present Patrick in a more inclusive light (and not just claiming him for Protestants and "Ulster") by talking up Patrick's evangelical fervour and rootedness in the Bible, describing him as "the Apostle of Ulster", he undermined his case by overlooking the call the saint himself said he received to convert pagan Ireland as a whole.

But Nelson's comments and some other straws in the wind suggest attitudes to Patrick may be changing and the level and growth of that change may reflect our maturity (or otherwise) and the likelihood of us getting out of the rut that we are in.

If we are ever to make real progress in making Northern Ireland work for all our citizens, that zero-sum axiom must be defenestrated and replaced by a win-win approach.

For that to happen, we must "give birth to trust", as Aidan Larkin, then an SDLP MLA and now a Columban missionary priest, told the first Assembly, not the Trimble-Mallon institution, but the short-lived Faulkner-Fitt attempt leading up to Sunningdale in 1973 - a political light year ago.

As it is St Patrick's Day, let's be unashamedly optimistic.

A potentially unifying figure, who would assist in the building up of trust, could be St Patrick himself - if only our politicians and the rest of us who elect them studied him, reflected on what he said to us and then embraced his Christian values of humility and perseverance, the former being particularly in short supply.

And not just on one side. Concrete manifestations of Patrick-like humility would go a long way to breaking the chains of mistrust.

You have only to take a brief look at Patrick's words and actions to see what I mean.

Much of Patrick is shrouded in myth and legend, including the story that he used the shamrock to explain the doctrine of the Trinity, or even that he banished snakes from Ireland.

However, most definitely not legend, or myth, are the two powerful, if occasionally opaque, written testimonies left by St Patrick, his Confession and his Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus, in which he lays out his deep faith, his striking humility and his abhorrence of the violation of human rights, something that he himself experienced when, as a 16-year-old, he was taken into slavery in Ireland.

These are not boring tomes, but commendably brief, semi-autobiographical documents, written in Late Latin, the language Patrick used.

They should be mandatory reading for everyone in Ireland and especially schoolchildren.

Patrick, the son of a minor churchman of noble stock in Roman Britain, came from either Cumbria, Wales, or the Severn Valley.

Scholars are not sure of the location of the village of Bannaventaberniae he refers to as his father's birthplace.

After six years as a herdsman, possibly on Slemish in Co Antrim, he was somehow reunited with his family in Britain.

He then receives in a dream a letter headed "The Voice of the Irish" and a call "We ask you, holy boy, come and walk once more among us."

He returned to Ireland, where Encyclopaedia Britannica says, "he journeyed far and wide, baptising and confirming with untiring zeal."

Patrick begins his Confession with the words: "I am Patrick, a sinner, the most rustic and least of all the faithful, the most contemptible in the eyes of a great many people."

Later, he writes: "Before I was humbled, I was like a stone lying in the deep mud. Then he who is mighty came and in his mercy, he not only pulled me out, but lifted me up and placed me at the very top of the wall."

Patrick's own conversion to Christianity is a mystery, because religion was not a big feature of his early upbringing.

But, reared on the western fringe of the Roman Empire, he took the Christian message to Ireland, the edge of the known world.

He is Ireland's primary patron saint, revered throughout our land, memorised around the whole world today in a way he could never have imagined.

And he was a Brit.

Another reminder of all the quirks and uniquenesses we share in these islands, alongside our God-given differences, that we must manage in a way Patrick would have wished.

Martin O'Brien is a journalist and communications consultant and a former award-winning BBC producer

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