Obama says ‘clenched fist’ in North has given way to the ‘open hand’

President says peace process is ‘extraordinary’ and calls for an end to segregation

President Barack Obama has said the decision by people in Northern Ireland to choose peace was “extraordinary” but has called on politicians to deal with segregation.

In a 30-minute speech to a predominantly young audience of 2,000 people at Belfast’s Waterfront Hall, Mr Obama contrasted the Belfast of the Troubles, with the presence of soldiers on the street and the fear that went with violence, with the city today.

“Belfast is a different city,” he d referring to pubs and cafes full of people asking each other: “what’s the craic?”

He said this generation could now travel without the burden of checkpoints or soldiers on patrol. People could be friends with and fall in love with whoever they wished.


But he said it was up to the next generation to build a genuinely reconciled society. “The previous generation brought the ceasefires and the Agreement. The next stage in the process was up to the next generation present in the hall.”

He said the decision by those living in Northern Ireland “to choose to wage peace was extraordinary,” he said. “It gave the world hope. But there is still much work to do; there are those who are not convinced that the effort was worth it. Wounds have not healed and there are walls that still stand.”

Quoting WB Yeats, he told his audience: “Peace comes dropping slow,” but said that did not mean there should be slow progress.

“We need you to get this right and to set an example to those who seek peace of their own,” adding that the fate of peace is decided by each individual.

Others in conflict zones around the world were taking note of Northern Ireland and “watching to see what you do next”, he said.

“I admire the Stormont executive for making power sharing work, that is not easy to do. I applaud them.”

The president focused on the need to counter segregation and impressed on politicians the requirement to take down walls which divide communities, especially in Belfast.

Addressing young people - who accounted for some 1,500 of the audience - specifically, he said their world had fewer walls and instant communication.

“Young people fill me with awe. Here, in Northern Ireland young people have seen even more rapid change. You have more reason to be hopeful. Day to day life is changing throughout the North.”

“When those who got started on peace began they didn’t have a model, the rest now is up to you,” he said.

“Peace is harder than war, he said. “Its constant fragility is part of its beauty.”

For peace to work we need to be reminded of its existence again and again. “That’s what we need from you and from every young person around the world.”

“You have to remind us of hope again and again, despite tragedy and hardship. You have to remind us of the future.”

Mr Obama urged young people to overcome barriers and defend the peace process.

“When you peace is attacked you have to decide to respond with the same bravery you have shown so far or succumb to impulses which keep this great land divided for far too long.”

“You should know than as you move forward America will stand by you. We will keep working to strengthen our economies. Job and opportunities are essential to peace.”

He said he was confident young people “will stick to that course” and added that the US would always be “a wind on your back”.

Earlier, Mr Obama referred to his visit to Dublin and to Moneygall, Co Offaly, and said he wished he had known of Irish ancestry when he first ran for office in Chicago.

“It pays to be Irish in Chicago,” he quipped.

He said he met his eight cousin recently - “Or Henry the Eighth as he is known”.

“It was a magical visit but all too short. We have been eager to return to the Emerald Isle and to bring our daughters too.”

He expressed regret that he would not have time for a round of golf and mentioned that when he met Rory McIlroy last year, the golfer observed that the president’s swing needed work.

Tens of millions of Americans share a link with this country, he said, referencing the significant Ulster connection with the US since 1776.

He said US core beliefs were based on Irish qualities: “Perseverance, faith and unshakeable dream that something better lies around the bend.”

People could not have imagined that you would host a major world conference, he said and he personally thanked PSNI chief constable Matt Baggott for security.

Mr Obama paid tribute to Peter Robinson, Martin McGuinness, Northern Secretary Theresa Villiers and ministers from the Stormont Executive during a speech at Belfast’s Waterfront Hall.

After his speech the president and the first lady spent a few minutes shaking hands with young people in the audience as Irish traditional music played on uilleann pipes filled the hall.

The presidential party is now travelling to Co Fermanagh for the opening of the G8 summit.

British prime minister Cameron is already there and the two are rumoured to have included a joint appearance in Enniskillen later today.

Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper was the first world leader to arrive, he is understood to be at the Lough Erne resort already.