While it causes a thrill to see Obama in town, lockdown bloated security hassle and all, visits by presidents, prime ministers and even popes are now subject to the law of diminishing returns. Timed to deliver a powerful boost the fledgling peace process in 1995, Bill Clinton’s impact at the City Hall was bound to be hard to beat. Obama had a less visionary message to deliver to the obligatory “youth,”- that at least you have a different context to work from and while politicians can set the framework “now it’s now up to you.” As a more astringent character than Bill Clinton, Obama was the right man to deliver it.
On this island Obama has almost nothing at stake in Ireland north or south. His inevitable dropby in Belfast on the way to G8 in Fermanagh was a first – and surely only- visit, in contrast with Clintons’ (plural) abiding fascination with us and our golfing facilities. George Bush came twice, to give peace and politics a nudge one visit being a Hillsborough summit on Iraq. These visits seemed more about doing a favour to Tony Blair although bizarrely, he did come out of retirement in 2010 to warn David Cameron not to harm the political balance by trying to do a deal with the Ulster Unionists just before the election that brought the coalition to power.
Did President Obama inspire? Whatever was said in the tv newsbabble it was obvious that from time to time in his wandering discourse, he lost his audience. The teenagers seemed more puzzled than amused by the “O’Bama” schtick.
Northern Ireland was set firmly in an all-island context without a single nod to the UK, his hosts at Lough Erne. The local notes found for him were not always quite in tune, like “Dam” Mary Peters and Seamus” Hayney” (you couldn’t imagine Clinton fluffing that one). Though full marks for navigating “Máirtín Ó Muilleoir” (Martin Miller), Sinn Fein’s new Lord Mayor of Belfast. Irish amour propre though will have taken a hit at two references to “this liddle island”. But one passage in particular struck home as it resonated with his own experience.
This was not another case of Obama’s rhetoric outrunning reality, the phenomenon that has become a hallmark of his presidency. He made a real attempt to address the grind that is the daily lot of Northern Ireland community relations. Striking a personal chord with him as a former community organiser in Chicago was his references to Alexandra Park “the only park in Europe to have wall running through it” and his name check of “Sylvia Gordon.. the director of an organization called “Groundwork Northern Ireland” _(although she was unaccountably absent). This added force to his appeal to begin tackling a sunning sore.
After she came home,( from a fact finding visit to the US), Sylvia rolled up her sleeves here in Belfast – and decided to do something about Alexandra Park. Some of you may know this park. For years, it was thought to be the only park in Europe still divided by a wall. Sylvia and her colleagues knew how hard it would be to do anything about a peace wall, but they reached out to the police and the Department of Justice anyway. They brought together people from across the community anyway. Together, they all decided build a gate to open that wall. And now, people can walk freely through the park and enjoy the sun – when it comes out – just like people do every day in other parts of the world.
As long as more walls still stand, we will need more Sylvias. We will need more of you – young people who imagine the world as it should be, and bring a community together to make it happen – who make even the small impossibilities a shining example of what’s possible. That, more than anything, will shape what Northern Ireland looks like 15 years from now and beyond.
This approach is a hallmark of Obama the ultra-cautious politician. Nothing like Ronald Reagan’s Tear down your wall Mr Gorbachev” but opening a gate in a wall may make impossibilities possible.
His handlers may not have realised that his frank appeal in favour of integrated education is not a statement of the obvious. What brought me up short was: “(Peace ) is about a sense of empathy, it’s about breaking down the divisions we create for ourselves in our own minds that don’t exist in any objective reality“
Oh yeah? Will supporters of a “Catholic ethos” or opponents of Irish as a language of instruction agree? Can we dismiss the rival nationalisms just like that – not objective reality?
A shared future cannot exist in a political vacuum and it is hardly the role of US Presidents to fill it. That is the job for locals when the presidents and prime ministers depart. Our local politicians should finally give a rest to their inflated claims for what they should stop calling a ” peace process.” and stick to “politics.” Yes, we can still command an hour or two of international attention in our own right. But Obama’s appearance at the Waterfront , heart warming courtesy though it was, can only be seen as a second order event. The holding of the G8 summit in Fermanagh is a less personal but more significant gesture of support for where Northern Ireland has reached today.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London