Our presidential challenge

barack-obama-belfast3 Lasting peace depends on Northern Ireland’s young people making responsible choices, Barack Obama told his Belfast audience. Peter Cheney and Fiona McQuade watched as the President delivered his remarks.

It was to a gathering of the post-Agreement generation that Barack Obama set out a message of hope and also a call to greater responsibility.

Pupils and students, a-buzz with excitement, made up around two-thirds of the Waterfront Hall audience. The President and First Lady held their full attention and likewise clearly connected with their crowd, on the sixth US presidential visit to Northern Ireland since 1995.

Hannah Nelson was a calm and clear spokeswoman for her peers.

“Permanent peace in our country is not just a simple dream for me as a teenager growing up today in Northern Ireland,” the shy Belfast girl told the large and silent venue. “It is a sincere, genuine aspiration.”

Hannah added: “There is no time like the present. Now is the time to start making permanent peace happen in Northern Ireland because we, the young people in this room, want and deserve to live in peace. Northern Ireland is my home but the reality is: it has a future.”

As the President remarked of the First Lady’s inspiring words: “She’s better than me.” Michelle Obama, speaking without a script, challenged her young audience to “leave behind the conflicts and prejudices of the past and create a bright future for us all.”

She spoke passionately of her husband’s early life, being raised by single mother, and the challenges that they both overcame. Success came down to honesty, hard work and giving everyone they met a “fair shake”. The First Lady encouraged Northern Ireland’s youth to build “our shared future with your passion and energy and ideas” and expressed the pride, optimism and belief she felt in each of her audience members.

Jokes and quips abounded early in Barack Obama’s keynote address.

The presidential “what’s the craic?” sparked the loudest laughter and applause of the morning.

The President also cast his mind back to the sacrifices that made the ordinary moments of this time extraordinary.

“That’s what your parents and grandparents dreamt for all of you,” he remarked, striking a serious tone.

“To travel without the burden of checkpoints, or roadblocks, or seeing soldiers on patrol. To enjoy a sunny day free from the ever-present awareness that violence could blacken it at any moment. To befriend or fall in love with whomever you want.

“They hoped for a day when the world would think something different when they heard the word ‘Belfast’. Because of their effort, because of their courage, that day has come. Because of their work, those dreams they had for you became the most incredible thing of all: they became a reality.”

Few conflicts in the world had seemed more intractable but, through the Good Friday Agreement, “clenched fists” had given way to “outstretched hands.”

A subtle theme of asking not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country rippled through his words. “We need you to get this right,” Obama stated. “And what’s more, you set an example for those who seek a peace of their own … You’re their proof of what is possible because hope is contagious.”

Repeatedly, he emphasised that young people must decide whether to be the good neighbour, to let their children play with those from other religious backgrounds, and to take a stand against violence and hatred.

His rhetoric soared as the conclusion approached: “We’ll need more of you, young people, who imagine the world as it should be, who knock down walls, who knock down barriers, who imagine something different and have the courage to make it happen. The courage to bring communities together, to make even the small impossibilities a shining example of what is possible.”

The way ahead lay in their hands but he had no doubt that a bright future beckoned.

“We will always be a wind at your back. And as I said when I visited two years ago: ‘I am convinced that this little island that inspires the biggest of things: this little island, its best days are yet ahead.’”

Diplomatically, Obama welcomed the shared future strategy and economic pact and called for more integration in education and housing.

The Assembly parties have strong differences over those issues and Catholic principals expressed disappointment as the President appeared to value the integrated sector over other school sectors.

Northern Ireland, as the President implied, can never take its peace for granted. Neither can such a small country always assume presidential attention.

In summary, Obama’s expectation is that Northern Ireland will depend less on external goodwill and take more responsibility for creating a better future.

G8 commitments cover tax and open government

In quieter surroundings, the G8 leaders met briefly at Lough Erne on 17-18 June. Despite the absence of agreement over the Syrian conflict, the G8 agreed that their countries would automatically share information to tackle tax evasion and restrict profit-shifting. Talks on the EU-US free trade deal were formally launched.

“Governments,” it added, “should publish information on laws, budgets, spending, national statistics, elections and government contracts in a way that is easy to read and re-use, so that citizens can hold them to account.”

The IF campaign was pleased that tackling hunger and its causes was at “the centre of the G8 agenda” and urged the UK Government to clear up “unfinished business” from the summit and “help end the scandal of one in eight people going hungry.”

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