The fate of peace: President Obama in Northern Ireland

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.

Rather, Hannah Nelson, a 16-year-old student from Methodist College, gave an excellent speech on the serious business of making peace (transcript and video).

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.”

US First Lady, Michelle Obama, told the young audience that in just a couple of decades, they would be the ones in charge (transcript and video):

“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 (transcript and video).

“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.

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