Could St Patrick join Titanic as Northern Ireland tourism brand?

At First Minister's Question Time on Tuesday, Peter Robinson talked about Northern Ireland taking its place in the world, demonstrating a new confidence and expectation.

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Image caption Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness visited Dubai and India to promote Northern Ireland

Mr Robinson was reflecting on his recent joint trip with Martin McGuinness to India and Dubai.

He recalled meetings with travel journalists and declared he had found a "massive interest" in Northern Ireland as a destination, highlighting the buzz created by our local golfing prowess.

All well and good. Despite the critics who regarded the plethora of coverage of the Titanic centenary as in bad taste, up at Stormont ministers are proud of the £90m Titanic centre and believe they have handled what is undoubtedly an important tourism "brand" in an appropriate way.

So what are the "brands" which Northern Ireland can rely on to touch a chord with people far beyond these shores?

There is no doubt the Titanic is right up there, even if the level of attention might not be so intense as the centenary recedes.

The Giant's Causeway is our only world heritage site, now on track to be complemented by its new visitor centre.

When the Troubles were at their height, even the most cautious suggestion they might be exploited for tourism stirred huge controversy.

But although there's been no agreement on a "Troubles museum" (something which has been discussed for many a long year), there is no doubt, when you take a black taxi or open-top bus tour around Belfast, or trip over yet another delegation from another conflict zone visiting Stormont, that "Troubles tourism" is a part of the local offering.

What else might stir foreign interest? Golf, certainly, and maybe some of our literary or cultural heroes, say Van Morrison, CS Lewis and Seamus Heaney.

There's "the Twelfth" - undoubtedly a spectacle, although marketing it as "Orangefest" poses its own particular challenges.

I am sure I have missed out some key local brand, and I am more than happy to take on board any other suggestions.

But last on my list is St Patrick.

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Image caption The St Patrick's Centre in Downpatrick is facing funding problems

King Billy may have tens of thousands of people marching close to home, but St Patrick prompts more than six million people to take to the streets all around the world.

Whatever you think of the excesses of the 17 March international green beer extravaganzas, there is no doubt that St Patrick has the instant recognition factor.

Which is why it is so sad that the Downpatrick St Patrick's Centre is experiencing such difficulties.

Long-running saga

Set beside the multi-million pound budget of the Titanic centre, the tens of thousands being sliced off the centre's budget by Down District Council seems minuscule.

Anyone who has looked at the Downpatrick newspapers in recent months knows the centre's funding has been a long-running saga.

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Image caption Chicago is one of many world cities which marks St Patrick's Day

There is more than a suspicion that it has been treated as a political football between the local SDLP and Sinn Fein groups.

If so, that would be a shame as, like Titanic, the St Patrick brand should really be cultivated centrally rather than left to councils like Down and Armagh to stake out their different claims.

Back in October, South Down MP Margaret Ritchie published a plan for maximising the impact of St Patrick on tourism.

She argued that, having been Ireland's greatest import, the saint should now be a great export as "a premier Christian heritage tourism product throughout the world".

Maybe what St Patrick needs is a good commemoration.

Ms Ritchie says he started his work in Ireland in 432 AD. So we have only 20 years left to finalise the 1,600th anniversary celebrations.

That should be long enough even for Stormont officials to work out how to foster this unique saintly selling proposition.

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