Obama hits the right notes in Northern Ireland

It may have been his first visit to Belfast since he entered the White House, but Barack Obama’s speech yesterday to an assembled audience at the Waterfront Hall hit all the right notes.

G8 speech

It may have been his first visit to Belfast since he entered the White House, but Barack Obama’s speech yesterday to an assembled audience at the Waterfront Hall hit all the right notes.

Addressing a hall made up mainly of school children, whilst realistic about the difficulties involved in maintaining peace, the President declared that what has happened in Northern Ireland has given “the entire world hope”.

And as if to provide the proof of the progress made in securing a sustainable peace agreement, pictures beamed around the world saw Sinn Fein President, Gerry Adams, holding the arm of DUP finance minister, Sammy Wilson, as they took part in the pre-Obama speech Mexican wave that reverberated around the hall.

The Irish Times dubbed the President’s speech a call to civic engagement. Noting that whilst a lot had already been achieved, the paper argued that just as much was still to be done, especially around securing a ‘shared society’:

“Mr Obama’s comments reflect a sense of urgency that the potential of the peace process needs to be developed and promoted. The North could offer warring factions elsewhere a blueprint, he said, and people were watching. And although commending the Northern executive and assembly for their commitment to a document ‘Building a United Community’ – circulated last month by first minister Peter Robinson and deputy first minister Martin McGuinness – it was faint praise.”

The paper concluded:

“Complacency and political exhaustion can destabilise settlements. The North has been transformed: its politicians share power, take responsibility for policing and justice and welcome world leaders. But there is a distance to go in creating healthy community relations. Addressing segregated education and housing are the most urgent. As Mr Obama said, these issues are ‘not tangential to peace’.”

In declaring meanwhile that Obama’s message of hope spoke to all in Northern Ireland, the Belfast Telegraph said of the speech:

“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.

The paper also pointedly concluded:

“Having experienced peace, imperfect as it may be, we now have more to lose than ever before.”

Yet whilst across the political spectrum President Obama’s speech received a warm endorsement, writing for the Irish Independent, one of its feature writers, Kim Bielenberg, has noted that the churches are unlikely to have taken well the attacks on segregated school.

She observed:

“While the Catholic and Protestant churches deserve credit for encouraging reconciliation during the Troubles it could be argued that they also perpetuated division.

“No amount of violence or inter-communal strife severed their lingering attachment to schools divided on religious lines.

“The bishops and more conservative members of their congregation will not welcome Obama’s remarks.

“The involvement of the churches in Irish schools remains politically contentious.”

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