Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 2 August 2014

Obama's message of hope speaks to us all

Yesterday saw the start of the G8 summit in Fermanagh but the day was all about Barack and Michelle Obama. It confirmed yet again that Northern Ireland has a special place in American politics. Sure, it might be slipping down the ranks of importance since the heady days of the Clinton administration, but that is as much to do with the relative success of the peace process as it is with diminishing interest in the White House.

Both the President and First Lady in their speeches to an audience of young people in the Waterfront Hall in Belfast – and Michelle is a formidable orator who can give her husband a real run for his money – were diplomatic, encouraging and willing to give insights into their personal family histories to show that changing attitudes in divided societies is not an easy task.

Perhaps the President's speech lacked the intensity of previous White House addresses to the people of Northern Ireland, but he made his points without raising hackles. His task was to encourage the audience to raise its expectations for the future, for the young people to persuade the current generation in power to give new dynamism to the peace process and to assure them that America would be behind those committed to securing a lasting peace.

He acknowledged that peace can come dropping slow, but pointed out that should not mean that initiatives to facilitate change should also be slow in coming. And his repeated references to the peace walls and the need to demolish both the physical and mental barriers in our society was a polite pointer to the sort of process he envisages and which is needed.

The President also reminded us that breaking down the barriers of sectarianism and hatred is not just a job for political leaders, but for every individual in the community. And he pointed out that segregation in housing and education only help to encourage division. His later visit along with Prime Minister David Cameron to an integrated primary school in Enniskillen was perhaps another diplomatic hint of the sort of progress he would like to see to enable young people to learn to live together.

Was he saying that the Executive's shared campus idea doesn't go far enough and that it is only when children of all traditions learn together from the same curriculum in the same classroom on a daily basis that we can perhaps start to break down the divisions in people's minds and hearts which perpetuate hatred and suspicion?

Yet the President accepted that politicians here have shown courage in reaching compromises which were not always popular with their constituencies. They have helped to set in train a peace process which is encouraging to other regions currently experiencing conflict, but, as Mr Cameron also accepts, perhaps they need to speed up the process. Having experienced peace, imperfect as it may be, we now have more to lose than ever before.

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