The fate of peace: President Obama in Northern Ireland
by Allan LEONARD for Shared Future News
17 June 2013
My marriage is a transatlantic union between a Midwesterner and a Belfast-born Northern Irishwoman. Fittingly, my wife and I were delighted to receive tickets to hear another Midwesterner, President Barack Obama, at Belfast’s Waterfront Hall.
With DJ Pete Snodden playing music by American artists, and the 2,000+ crowd performing a Mexican wave, one could be forgiven for thinking a pop concert was in the works.
Speech by Hanna NELSON. Belfast, Northern Ireland. Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QkGOm42dxN0
Rather, Hannah Nelson, a 16-year-old student from Methodist College, gave an excellent speech on the serious business of making peace.
Her central point was that enduring peace can only come about through true respect for others, valuing each other as individuals, “… where it is not my religion that is important but my value as a person which is significant”.
She also said that it is her age group of teenagers who are the ones who must build relationships with people from different communities. For me and others, this should provoke us to examine what structures are preventing this from happening.
In regards to dealing with the past, Miss Nelson acknowledged the many “genuine stories” of our history, but they mustn’t pull us apart and stop us from moving forward.
In other words, we should be assured of our identities but not defined or prejudiced by them.
She concluded, “We, the young people in this room, want and deserve to live in peace. Northern Ireland is my home; it has a future.”
Speeches by Michelle and Barack OBAMA. Belfast, Northern Ireland. Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SoNyCkuRfdE
US First Lady, Michelle Obama, told the young audience that in just a couple of decades, they would be the ones in charge:
“Yes, you will be the ones shaping our shared future.”
She continued with personal stories of the inauspicious childhood experiences of her and her husband, when “people had told us not to hope for too much, or set our sights too high”.
The First Lady then described instead how the values they were raised with strongly influenced how they became who they are today. She defined leadership as rising above old divisions and treating people the way you want to be treated in return.
“You have the freedom of an open mind. You have a fresh perspective that can help you find solutions to age-old problems,” she said.
Furthermore, she advised the young people that the choices they make will determine “the kinds of communities you live in.”
“And standing here with you today, I have never felt more optimistic … We believe that you all have the ability to make a mark on this world that will last for generations to come.”
“We expect great things.”
President Obama entered from stage left to a standing ovation.
“Well, hello Belfast!”
Having lectured genealogists about 18th century Ulster migration to America, I was pleased to hear the President describe how 350 years ago, a ship set sail from the River Lagan for the Chesapeake Bay, filled with men and women who dreamed of building a new life in a new land:
“They helped us win our independence. They helped us draft our Constitution.”
The President then spoke of how so many of the qualities that Americans hold dear — perseverance, faith, taking responsibility for your own destiny — came from Ulster.
I felt a poignancy hearing this in Belfast — a type of return to the spiritual homeland of America’s political philosophy.
But there were good reasons why such folk left Ulster — the local intolerance and lack of accommodation driving good people away. I’m reminded of episodes of the BBC’s “An Independent People“, superbly narrated by William Crawley.
Can Ulster learn from its past, go for a second opportunity to embrace its own historical political authors?
Or as President Obama put it, so that our futures remain inextricably linked:
“That’s why I’ve come to Belfast today — to talk about the future we can build together.”
The President spoke of America’s track record and continued commitment to support the work for peace in Northern Ireland, citing economic initiatives, collaboration in science, energy and health care, and exchange programmes (where he singled out Sylvia Gordon of Groundwork Northern Ireland).
He described how young people he meets fills him with hope: “A generation possessed by both a clear-eyed realism, but also an optimistic idealism; keenly aware of the world as it is, but eager to forge the world as it should be.”
Specifically to the local audience:
“You are the first generation in this land to inherit more than just the hardened attitudes and the bitter prejudices of the past. You’re an inheritor of a just and hard-earned peace. You now live in a thoroughly modern Northern Ireland.”
He referred to the past, but in a perspective of family aspiration — “what your parents and grandparents dreamt for you … for a day when the world would think something different when they heard the word ‘Belfast’.”
The President put the choice of destiny to the current generation, “because there’s more to lose now then there has ever been”.
“We need you to get this right. And what’s more, you set an example for those who seek a peace of their own. Because beyond these shores, right now, in scattered corners of the world, there are people living in the grip of conflict — ethnic conflict, religious conflict, tribal conflicts — and they know something better is out there. And they’re groping to find a way to discover how to move beyond the heavy hand of history, to put aside the violence. They’re studying what you’re doing. And they’re wondering, perhaps if Northern Ireland can achieve peace, we can, too. You’re their blueprint to follow.”
This international application of Northern Ireland’s peace process has many advocates and detractors. I am of the school of thought that while every conflict is particular, conflict transformation contains common ingredients that help ensure success. For example, the themes of individual respect, reciprocity of treatment, and taking responsibility for your own future were all mentioned in the three speeches today.
It’s the recipe that varies upon circumstances.
Yet Professor Padraig O’Malley is right when he says that those who have dealt with deep societal conflict are in the best position to assist others in the same situation, while recognising that some are at different states of transformation.
Back to Northern Ireland, President Obama declared that the remaining issue of school and housing segregation is essential to peace. And that peace was about breaking down the divisions “that we create for ourselves in our own minds and hearts”.
The President made the comparison with American reconciliation post-Civil War, with segregated drinking fountains and lunch counters and washrooms for blacks and whites persisting for decades: “And someone who looked like me often had a hard time casting a ballot, much less being on a ballot.”
He spoke of America’s transformative process, where successive generations acquired ever progressive attitudes about race — “creating a new space for peace and tolerance and justice and fairness”. He challenged young people here to push their political leaders, to create a space for them, to change attitudes.
At least America had an agreed constitution and bill of rights for its young activists to rally round. Northern Ireland’s conflict has deep roots in contested national and state loyalties.
But who says Northern Ireland’s future has to be defined by an absolute dichotomy? Regardless of jurisdiction, for centuries our history has been intertwined, so why shouldn’t our future? And perhaps the Good Friday Agreement, reached 15 years ago, provides some sort of codification of what I call “the civic rules of the game” — a means of conducting ourselves beyond political institutions.
As the President said, whether we deal with the past and face the future together isn’t something we have to wait for elected representatives to do. Rather, each and every one of us can be agents of change now:
“Whether you are a good neighbour to someone from the other sides of past battles — that’s up to you. Whether you treat them with the dignity and respect they deserve — that’s up to you. Whether you let your kids play with kids who attend a different church — that’s your decision … And whether you reach your own outstretched hand across dividing lines, across peace walls, to build trust in a spirit of respect — that’s up to you.”
“The terms of peace may be negotiated by political leaders, but the fate of peace is up to each of us.”
Now is the precise time for us to determine our own fate for peace.
Speech by Hannah NELSON:
Good morning. My name is Hannah Nelson, I am 16 years old and I am from Belfast. I have been thinking about an important question: How do you make peace permanent in Northern Ireland?
Permanent peace in our country is not just a simple dream for me as a teenager growing up today in Northern Ireland. It is a sincere, genuine aspiration. I believe that enduring peace can only come about through true respect for others. We have a right to express and celebrate our diverse cultures.We all have an obligation to value each other as individuals.
As a 16 year old I don’t want to live in the past, I want to live for the future. I want to live in a country where it is not my religion that is important but my value as a person which is significant. It is important that we all have a unique identity. A choice in life to chose who and what we want to be. We are growing up in a world where we are taught to be tolerant. To live peacefully we must put this into practice.
We must accept our differences if we are to move forward. I think that my age group should be the focus. We are the ones who must build new relationships with people from different communities. Barriers need to be broken down. If we are to take away prejudice from young people’s minds, we can create a society that can get on together.
A peaceful society. Northern Ireland is my home. The reality is it has a past. Often in Northern Ireland we hear about our past. People have many genuine stories and they are definitely what make our history so important.
But truthfully, we should not let the past pull us apart and stop us from moving forward. Somehow we need to make a brighter future: a future that builds bridges and brings people together. We need to work together, not apart. We need to listen to each other and we need to compromise. Most importantly, we need to value each other.
Peace is not easy. And it takes a lot of work to make it happen. I think that it is easy for some to sit back and just hold on to the past. For peace to be an actual reality however we all need to take responsibility in the present. Our past, our future. It is all about time. It is in the present time that we really need to be responsible, accountable people; and live to make a better future for ourselves.
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.
* * *
Speech by Michelle OBAMA:
First of all, let me thank Hannah [Nelson] for that very bold and wonderful introduction. And of course I want to thank all of you for being here today.
It’s such a pleasure to be here in Belfast. As you might imagine, whenever we travel to places like this or anywhere in the world, we’ve got a pretty packed schedule. We’re meeting with presidents, prime ministers, first ladies. We’re visiting historical sites and attending state dinners. My husband is spending hours trying to make progress on global issues, from trade to international security.
But wherever we go, no matter what’s on our plate, we always do our best to meet with young people, just like all of you.
In fact, you all might just very well be some of the most important people that we talk to during our visit. Because in just a couple of decades, you will be the ones in charge.
Yes, you will be the ones shaping our shared future, with your passion and energy and ideas.
So when I look around this room, I don’t just see a bunch of teenagers. I see the people who will be moving our world forward in the years ahead. And that’s why we wanted to be here today.
Let me tell you, when I was your age, I never dreamed that I’d be standing here, as First Lady of the United States. I know that my husband never thought he’d be President, either. Neither of us grew up with much money. Neither of my parents went to university. Barack’s father left his family when Barack was just two years old; he was raised by a single mom. And all along the way there were plenty of people who doubted that kids like us had what it took to succeed. People had told us to not to hope for too much, or set our sights too high.
But Barack and I refused to let other people define us.
Instead, we held tight to those values we were raised with — honesty, hard work, a commitment to our education.
We did our best to be open to others, to give everyone we met a fair shake, no matter who they were or where they came from.
And we soon realised that the more we lived by those values, the more we’d see them from other people in return. We saw that when we reached out and listened to someone else’s perspective, that person was more likely to listen to us. We’d treat a classmate with respect, they’d treat us well in return.
That’s sort of how we became who we are today. That’s how we learned what leadership really means. It’s about stepping outside your comfort zone, to explore new ideas. It’s about rising above old divisions. It’s about treating people the way you want to be treated in return.
And as young people, you are all in a very powerful position, to make some of those same choices yourselves. You have the freedom of an open mind. You have a fresh perspective that can help you find solutions to age-old problems. And with today’s technology, you can connect with young people from all over Northern Ireland and all around the world.
So, right now, you got a choice to make. You got to decide how you’re going to use those advantages and opportunities to build the lives you dream of. Because that decision will determine not only the kinds of people you’ll become, but also the kinds of communities you live in, the kind of world we’ll all share together.
And standing here will all of you today, I have never felt more optimistic. Let me tell you, because time and again I’ve seen young people, like all of you, choosing to work together, choosing to lift each other up, choosing to leave behind the conflicts and prejudices of the past, and create a bright future for us all.
That’s what’s so powerful about your generation. And again, that’s why we’re here today. Because we want you to know that we believe in each and every one of you. That’s exactly why we’re here. We believe that you all have the ability to make a mark on this world that will last for generations to come. So we are so proud of you.
We expect great things.