Britain and Ireland join forces to improve cultural, religious relations

The British and Irish governments have set up a joint organization called Anglo-Irish Encounter to improve understanding between the peoples of Britain and the Republic of Ireland.

Almost 100 leading educators, churchmen, and community workers from England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, and the Irish Republic met in Dublin recently for a two-day conference.

The theme was the promotion among young people of ''a greater respect for religion and cultural diversity.''

The keynote speech was delivered by Prof. James O'Connell from the Department of Peace Studies at the University of Bradford. In a wide-ranging paper on the cultural links between Britain and Ireland, Professor O'Connell argued that ''the peoples of these islands possess much in common as well as cherish individual distinctiveness. From the way in which they have historically come together, and now live in relation to one another, they own a sense of belonging.''

As the conference proceeded, however, it became clear that there is a wide communication gap.

Catherine McGahey, head girl of an independent school in South Wales, said that too little was known in British schools about what was happening in Northern Ireland. She said that a friend from overseas had written to ask her if she could hear the bombs exploding in Ulster. She said: ''The question shocked me, because I hadn't even thought about it.''

A number of speakers from Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic described the efforts to improve mutual understanding. Michael Killeen, a leading businessman from Dublin, is chairman of Cooperation North, which is bringing together people from both sides of the Irish border in joint ventures of an apolitical nature.

''We are finding that young people on this island are crying out for mutual contact,'' he said, ''and we intend to place even greater emphasis on the work of schools and young people next year.''

Basil McIvor, a Belfast magistrate, described the work of Lagan College and All Children Together charitable trust fund. They have established a school in Belfast where Protestant and Roman Catholic children are educated together. ''Children can arrive at an amnesty which diplomats would envy,'' McIvor said.

The most telling points of all came from the young people themselves. Jonathan Traynor from Belfast summed up the need for better understandidng between Protestants and Catholics when he said: ''Segregation is a breeding ground for ignorance and continued trouble. Extracurricular activity should be encouraged, and attempts at integration should be made in a way that they reach further down the educational scale.''

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