Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 16 September 2014

Teenager Hannah upstages Obama

Hannah Nelson, 16, speaks ahead of a keynote address delivered by U.S. President Barack Obama at the Waterfront Hall ahead of the G8 Summit on June 17, 2013 in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Later The President will join other leaders at the G8 Summit in Fermanagh.  (Photo by Paul Faith - WPA Pool/Getty Images)
Hannah Nelson, 16, speaks ahead of a keynote address delivered by U.S. President Barack Obama at the Waterfront Hall ahead of the G8 Summit on June 17, 2013 in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Later The President will join other leaders at the G8 Summit in Fermanagh. (Photo by Paul Faith - WPA Pool/Getty Images)
Hannah Nelson, 16, who spoke ahead of a keynote address from US president Barack Obama at Waterfront Hall in Belfast
Hannah Nelson, 16, spoke ahead of a keynote address by Barack Obama
Hannah Nelson, 16, spoke ahead of a keynote address by Barack Obama

It's not everyday you nearly upstage the most powerful man in the world.

But it was all in week's work for a shy teenage girl who captured the public imagination with a self-penned speech welcoming the US president Barack Obama and his wife Michelle to her home town.

"Good morning. My name is Hannah Nelson, I'm sixteen years old, and I'm from Belfast," she told 2,000 invited guests at the city's landmark Waterfront Hall. "I've been thinking about an important question. How do you make peace permanent in Northern Ireland?"

Hannah sat down to write her essay last Saturday, in a break from her studying. She entered it the next day in a competition run by the US Consul in Northern Ireland. On Wednesday, American officials telephoned her home in Knockbreda, a suburb of south Belfast, to tell her she had won. But what she had won, she still didn't know.

A meeting was quickly arranged for that evening at her school, Methodist College, where she was told she would be opening the show for the Obamas' first ever visit to Northern Ireland, ahead of the G8 summit.

The next day she finished the last of her GCSE exams. By Friday she was rehearsing for an address from the US President's own podium that would be beamed around the world. She was so nervous she hardly slept a wink over the weekend. "I'm a shy girl, who has never done this kind of thing before," she says.

Her message of reconciliation, the future and peace - echoing Obama's own trademark themes of hope and change - wowed the audience, assembled VIPs and an international media which clambered to speak with her afterwards.

"I just realised everyone is the same as me, peace is something we need to achieve in Northern Ireland," she said. "It is achievable and I just want to live in a society where we are safe and can be friends with everybody and there are no divisions. That's what I want so I decided I would try to write something about that."

Backstage the President and the First Lady settled Hannah's nerves with a handshake and a hug, small talk about holidays and reassurances about how much they liked her speech. The renowned Obama warmth clearly worked. When she took to the stage, dressed in the dark navy colours of her grammar school, and flanked by hundreds of school children just like her in their own uniforms, she delivered a polished performance.

Facing politicians and dignitaries in the gallery, including First and Deputy First Ministers Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness, she assuredly told them a new Northern Ireland was possible. People needed to overcome the past, and deal with their differences. "I was nervous before, now am I just excited about this situation. A situation I never thought I would be in," she said afterwards.

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