Ulster TV's modest series may begin to change northerners' perception of the southern Irish

Something remarkable is happening on Ulster's television screens. UTV, the commercial station that serves the strife-torn province, has sent a camera crew and a Protestant clergyman south of the border to produce six half-hour documentaries about the Republic of Ireland.

The clergyman in question, it should be swiftly added, is not the Rev Ian Paisley, but the Rev John Dunlop, who is somewhat less paranoid about Dublin's irredentist desires than the demagogic leader of the Democratic Unionist Party.

Still, in the opening episode, the Rev Dunlop establishes an early affinity with the bulk of his audience - the Protestant majority of Ulster - by stating right at the outset: "Like many Presbyterians from Northern Ireland I was, and maybe still am, somewhat suspicious of what goes on south of the border."

Crossing the Borders, the resultant series, is not riveting viewing. The Rev Dunlop is a dour presenter and the production values are as low as we have come to expect from tightly budgeted regional television. But the series is like a singing dog. One is less impressed by the quality of his voice than with the fact that he is doing it at all.

There has long been a perception among Northern Ireland's Catholic minority that UTV is more pro-Unionist than the BBC. That feeling, mind you, hasn't stopped the inhabitants of West Belfast and the Bogside in Derry from watching the commercial station in great numbers. UTV enjoys one of the highest viewer shares of any ITV station - and it couldn't pull off that achievement by appealing only to Prods.

UTV wants Irish eyes on both sides of the border to smile upon its output. Its transmission signal reaches more than 60 per cent of homes in southern Ireland. Consequently, it now has an office in Dublin that is challenging Ireland's own national broadcaster, RTE, on the airtime sales front.

So this series, and several others like it, are commissioned not just because enlightened broadcasters want to do their bit to develop pan-Irish peace and understanding. UTV's decision to switch its focus southwards is driven by motives that are as much economic as ecumenical.

Still, for all the dourness of the Rev John Dunlop, it is a joy to see something on television that is trying to educate and inform Ulster Protestants about the contemporary reality of what they (but no one south of the border) would still anachronistically call Eire.

Martin McLoone, who lectures in media studies at the University of Ulster in Coleraine, tells me he is frequently shocked by the level of ignorance about the republic among students from a Unionist background. Even the best-educated young people in the province are, by and large, blissfully unaware of the new Ireland that has been forged by the economic, social and political change of the last two decades. Many still imagine that the south is as Seamus Heaney once described de Valera's Ireland: "pastoral, pure and papist".

With the best will in the world, there is only so much that UTV and BBC Northern Ireland can do within their limited regional budgets to correct this appalling misperception. Apart from news, current affairs and a few other factual documentary strands, both largely relay what the national networks in London decide to schedule.

UTV contributes little to the ITV schedule, and BBC Northern Ireland's contribution to the BBC Network is restricted to occasional dramas. Some of its work in this creative genre is impressive, but it does not do much to inform or educate the inhabitants of what Charles Haughey used grandly to call "these islands", about the epochal changes in southern Ireland.

The image of Ireland projected by the BBC is Ballykissangel, a pleasant enough Sunday evening drama about an English priest posted out to a parish in County Wicklow, but hardly an insight into the forces of secularisation that have stripped Ireland's Roman Catholic hierarchy of their traditional hegemony with disorienting speed.

The irreverent forces that have brought about post-Catholic Ireland are probably most cleverly conveyed by the Channel 4 sitcom Father Ted, but it would be folly to think that the crazy, dog-collared inhabitants of Craggy Island are going to give Ulster's Protestants a more balanced perception of their southern Catholic neighbours.

The most pernicious myth that needs to be scotched is that the citizens of the Irish Republic are yearning for unification. The truth is that rampant consumerism, not republican nationalism, is the new secular religion of southern Ireland. Put bluntly, more Dubliners are passionately committed to Manchester United than to a united Ireland.

It isn't just Ulster Unionists who need to tune into this reality. As we on this side of the Irish Sea ponder Britain's future relationship with the EU, it may be instructive for us to study an even smaller island on the edge of Europe that has positively embraced the ideal of integration without fear of losing its national identity.

The Irish are enthusiastic Europeans, not only when they are hosting the Eurovision Song Contest. Whether they will remain so when they cease to get six punts back for every one they contribute to the coffers in Brussels, is a highly debatable point.

But there is no debating the need for television viewers and voters throughout the UK to update their perceptions of the Republic of Ireland. And no debating the fact that enlightened and imaginative broadcasters are the people best placed to advance that objectiven

The fourth episode of 'Crossing the Borders' can be seen on UTV tomorrow at 10.40pm.

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