Obama strikes a note of realism in making a cautious appeal to open a gate in the peace walls before tearing them down

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.

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  • Ruarai

    “This was not another case of Obama’s rhetoric outrunning reality, the phenomenon that has become a hallmark of his presidency.”

    Brian, care to unpack that claim?

    Had you suggested that the reality of the presidency has proved a sober check on the rhetoric of the candidate from 04-08 then everyone would have recognized your point (though I find that old point a little overstated; his rhetoric as a candidate, like his main theme as a President, has always been: change is bottom up – you have to advocate and fight for it, you cannot elect it).

    Your claim that his rhetoric as a President outruns reality is very odd to me.

    He’s the sober check to Bush’s idealism, a sobriety that routinely invites criticism from left and right for not being more ambitious on matters foreign and domestic.

    And this isn’t a new development for this President. As far back as his Nobel speech his rhetoric was the anecdote to idealism, “encountering the world as I find it, not as we’d like it to be, etc”.

    So not sure your point here?

  • Brian Walker

    Ruarai, Briefly, the thwarted pledge to close Guantanamo, hopes dashed for gun control, the increased use of drones, the excesses he allowed to continue over the Patriot Act. He backed Bush’s TARP relief strategy perhaps without much choice. In some ways he was dealt a terrible hand – but no one asked him to be president. I don’t want to get too drawn into his record. I want to stick to the theme

  • sherdy

    We should follow his example when he opens the gates of Guantanamo internment camp, releasing all the inmates, as there seems to be no evidence against them.

  • socaire

    Hayney (sic) is more correct than Heeney and dam is the correct pronunciation of ‘dame’. Ever been to ‘Keedy’?

  • “Hayney (sic) is more correct than Heeney and dam is the correct pronunciation of ‘dame’.”


    If you are talking about the French word for lady, the pronunciation is better rendered in English as something like “daam” than the English dam.


    Before you praise Clinton too much, remember that he once referred to the NI conflict as being 800 years old. Apparently he had never read Padraig O’Malley on republican mythology.

  • Tochais Síoraí

    The peace walls remind me of someone addicted to tranquilisers. It’s going to be an awful hassle trying to wean them off but it’ll have to be done. Even set a target of knocking one a year. It’s a lot easier throwing something over a wall when the other lot can’t see you.

    Barack obviously has a gra for the language of his ancestors, ‘Hayney’ is much closer to the original than ‘Heeney’. (Brian – maybe not such a good idea to translate names, it’s usually an assertion of some kind of warped sense of superiority over the ‘natives’)