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The SDLP youth official who put Northern Ireland back on Obama’s radar

By Noel McAdam

Published 25/04/2016

George talks to his mum while sitting on his rocking horse in Kensington Palace
George talks to his mum while sitting on his rocking horse in Kensington Palace
Cliona McCarney is the vice-chair of SDLP Youth
The Duchess of Cambridge and Michelle Obama deep in conversation

The woman who put Northern Ireland on the agenda in Barack Obama's UK trip is a rising star in the SDLP, it has been revealed.

Cliona McCarney is the vice-chair of SDLP Youth, and said the US President's praise of the province as a "story of perseverance" was "groundbreaking".

It "set a real sort of challenge to young people in Northern Ireland that we can no longer demand and expect a better future. We have to build it ourselves", the 21-year-old Belfast woman added.

At an event with young people on the last full day of Mr Obama's visit on Saturday, Ms McCarney asked the President about the role the United States had played in the peace process and how this will continue.

Mr Obama said it required "forging a new identity that is about being from Northern Ireland as opposed to being unionist or Sinn Fein".

"This is a challenging time to do that because there is so much uncertainty in the world right now, because things are changing so fast, there's a temptation to forge tribal identities that give you a sense of certainty, a buffer against change," he said.

"And that's something our young people, they have to fight against, whether you're talking about Africa, or the Middle East, or Northern Ireland, or Burma.

"The forces that lead to the most violence and the most injustice typically spring out of people saying: 'I want to feel important by dividing the world into us and them. And that threatens me, and so I've got to make sure that my tribe strikes out first'.

"And fighting that mentality and that impulse requires us to begin very young with our kids."

The President also said Northern Ireland as a whole was "more important than any particular faction or any particular flag".

He said he was heartened by the growth of integrated education here.

"One of the things that you've seen in Northern Ireland that's most important is the very simple act of recognising the humanity of those on the other side of the argument. Having empathy and a sense of connection with people who are not like you," he said.

"One of the most encouraging things in Northern Ireland is children starting to go to school together and having a sense that we're all in this together, as opposed to it's us against them."

Miss McCarney said the President had shown a real interest in Northern Ireland.

She added: "What he said about integrated education as well was very interesting and another thing I really agree with."

Caolan Faux, from Newtownbutler, said Mr Obama was "everything you could have hoped for in terms of how he spoke".

"He gave the impression that he had time to spare on the people on the room, and I think that was a huge part of his success throughout his term in office," he added.

Belfast Telegraph

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