Today’s youth are first to inherit hard-earned peace, says Obama

US president’s speech in Belfast ahead of G8 summit

US president Barack Obama speaks to guests at the Waterfront Hall in Belfast this morning ahead of the G8 summit. Photograph: Paul Faith/Pool

US president Barack Obama speaks to guests at the Waterfront Hall in Belfast this morning ahead of the G8 summit. Photograph: Paul Faith/Pool

 

Hello, Belfast! Hello, Northern Ireland! Well, now you know why it’s so difficult to speak after Michelle. She’s good. On behalf of both of us, thank you for this very warm welcome.

Thank you, Hannah [Nelson], for introducing my wife. I want to thank two men I’ve hosted at the White House on many a St. Patrick’s Day for their warm welcome – First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness. I spend the whole year trying to unite Washington around something, and they come visit on St. Patrick’s Day and do it in a single afternoon.

Thank you to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Teresa Villiers; to the Ministers in the audience; to Lord Mayor Máirtín Ó Muilleoir; and thank you to all the citizens of Belfast and Northern Ireland for your hospitality.

The first time Michelle and I visited this island was about two years ago. We were honoured to join tens of thousands on College Green in Dublin. We travelled to the little village of Moneygall, where, as it turned out, my great-great-great grandfather was born. I only found this out a few years ago. When I was first running for office in Chicago, I didn’t know this. I wish I had. But in Chicago, it worked out okay – they’d look at my last name and say, “oh, look, there’s an O’Bama from the homeland running on the South Side – but what kind of name is ‘Barack?’”

While we were in Moneygall, I met my eighth cousin, Henry – affectionately known as Henry the Eighth. I knew he was my cousin, because he has my ears. I leafed through parish logs where the names of my ancestors are recorded. I even watched Michelle learn how to pull a proper pint of “black.” It was a magical visit. The only problem was, it was far too short. A volcano in Iceland forced us to leave before we could even spend the night. So we’ve been eager for a chance to return to this island ever since – and this time, we brought our daughters, too.

In particular, we have wanted to come here, to Northern Ireland, a place of remarkable beauty and extraordinary history; part of an island with which tens of millions of Americans share an eternal relationship. America’s story, in part, began right outside the doors of this gleaming hall. 325 years ago, a ship set sail from the River Lagan for the Chesapeake Bay, filled with men and women who dreamt of building a new life in a new land.

They, followed by hundreds of thousands more, helped us write those early chapters. They helped us win our independence. They helped us draft our Constitution. And soon after, America returned to Belfast, opening one of our very first consulates here in 1796, when George Washington was still the President.

Today, names familiar to many of you are etched on schools and courthouses and solemn memorials of war across the United States – names like Wilson and Kelly, Campbell and O’Neill. So many of the qualities that we Americans hold dear we imported from this land – perseverance and faith, an unbending belief that we make our own destiny, and an unshakable dream that if we work hard and live responsibly, something better lies just around the bend.

So our histories are bound by blood and belief; by culture and commerce. And our futures are equally, inextricably bound together as well. That’s why I’ve come to Belfast today – to talk about the future we can build together.

See, your generation has come of age in a world with fewer walls. You’ve been educated in an era of instant information. You’ve been tempered by turmoil, too. And from what I’ve seen of young people like you around the world, these currents have conspired to make you a generation possessed by both clear-eyed realism and optimistic idealism; a generation keenly aware of the world as it is, and eager to forge the world as it should be.

And when it comes to the future we share, that fills me with hope. You give me hope.

Here, in Northern Ireland, you have known even more rapid change. And while you have unique challenges of your own, you also have unique reasons to be hopeful. For you are the first generation in this land to inherit more than just hardened attitudes, but a just and hard-earned peace.

You now live in a thoroughly modern Northern Ireland. The recessions that spread through nearly every country in recent years have inflicted hardship here, too, and there are communities enduring real pain. Still, day by day, life is changing throughout the North.

There was a time people couldn’t have imagined Northern Ireland hosting a gathering of world leaders, as you are this week. And golf fans had to wait a long six decades for the Irish Open to return to the North last year. I regret, by the way, that I won’t have time to get in a few rounds on this trip. But I did meet Rory McIlroy last year, and he offered to get my swing “sorted” – I suppose a polite way of saying, “Mr. President, you need some help.”

Belfast is a different city too. Once-abandoned factories are rebuilt. Former industrial sites are reborn. Visitors come from all over to see an exhibit at the MAC, a play at the Lyric, or a concert here at Waterfront Hall. Families crowd into pubs in the Cathedral Quarter to hear “trad.” Students lounge at cafés, asking each other, “What’s the craic?”

To paraphrase Seamus Heaney, it’s the manifestation of sheer, bloody genius – this island is now chic.

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These daily moments of life in a bustling city and changing country may seem ordinary to you now. Which is what makes them so extraordinary. For that is what your parents and grandparents dreamt for you: to travel without the burden of checkpoints, or roadblocks, or seeing soldiers on patrol. To enjoy a sunny day free from the ever-present awareness that violence could blacken it at any moment.

To befriend or fall in love with whomever you want. They hoped for a day when the world would think something different when they heard the word “Belfast.” And because of their courage, that day has come. Because of their efforts, those dreams they had for you became the most incredible thing of all: they became real.

It has been 15 years since the Good Friday Agreement; since clenched fists gave way to outstretched hands; since the people of this island voted in overwhelming numbers to see past the scars of violence and mistrust, and choose to wage peace. And, over the years, other breakthroughs and agreements have followed.

Understand how extraordinary that is. For years, few conflicts in the world seemed more intractable. And the world rejoiced in your achievement. Especially in America. Pubs from Chicago to Boston were scenes of revelry, folks celebrating the hard work of Hume, Trimble, Adams, Paisley, and so many others. In fact, in America, you transcend our differences. If there’s one thing on which Democrats and Republicans in America wholeheartedly agree, it’s that we strongly support a peaceful and prosperous Northern Ireland.

But as all of you know well, for all the strides you’ve made, there’s still much work to do. There are still people who haven’t reaped the rewards of peace; who aren’t convinced that the effort is worth it. There are still wounds that haven’t healed, and communities where tension and mistrust hangs in the air. There are walls that still stand; there are still miles to go.

>From the start, though, no one was naïve enough to believe that peace would be anything but a long journey. “Peace,” as Yeats once wrote, “comes dropping slow.”

But that doesn’t mean our efforts to forge a real and lasting peace must come dropping slow. This work is as urgent now as it has ever been. Because there is more to lose now than there has ever been. In today’s hyperconnected world, what happens here has an impact on lives far from these green shores. If you continue your courageous path towards a permanent peace, and all the social and economic benefits that come with it, that won’t just be good for you. It will be good for this entire island, for the United Kingdom, for Europe; and it will be good for the world.

What’s more, you set an example for those who seek a peace of their own. Look beyond these shores – right now, in scattered corners of the world, there are people living in the grip of conflict who are studying what you’re doing, and wondering if they can do it, too. You are their blueprint to follow. You are their proof of what’s possible. Hope is contagious. And they are watching to see what you do next.

Some of that is up to your leaders. As someone who knows firsthand how politics can encourage division and discourage cooperation, I admire the Northern Ireland Executive and the Northern Ireland Assembly all the more for making power sharing work.

I applaud them for taking responsibility for law enforcement and justice. And I commend their commitment to “Building a United Community,” important next steps along your transformational journey. Because issues like segregated schools and housing, lack of jobs and opportunity, symbols of history that are sources of pride for some and pain for others – these are not tangential to peace. They’re essential to it.

If towns remain divided – if Catholics have their schools and buildings, and Protestants have theirs; if we can’t see ourselves in one another and fear or resentment are allowed to harden – that too encourages division and discourages cooperation.

America, too, has worked hard over the decades, slowly, gradually, to keep perfecting our union. 150 years ago, we were torn open by a terrible conflict. Our Civil War was far shorter than the Troubles, but it killed hundreds of thousands of our people, and the legacy of slavery endured for generations. Even a century after we achieved our own just and lasting peace, we were not fully united. When I was a boy, many cities still had separate drinking fountains and lunch counters and washrooms for blacks and whites.

My own parents’ marriage would have been illegal in certain states. And someone who looked like me often had a hard time casting a ballot, let alone being on one. Still, over time, laws changed, and so did hearts and minds, driven sometimes by courageous lawmakers, but more often by committed citizens. And while we have work to do in many ways, we have surely become more tolerant, more accepting, more willing to see our diversity not as something to fear, but as a source of our national strength.

So, as your leaders step forward to address your challenges, through talks by all parties, they will need you to do the same. Because ultimately, whether your communities deal with the past and face the future united, together, isn’t something you have to wait for someone else to do – that’s a choice you have the power to make.

Whether you are a good neighbour to someone from the other side of past battles – that’s up to you. Whether you let your kids play with kids who attend a different church – that’s your decision. Whether you take a stand against violence and hatred, and tell extremists on both sides that no matter how many times they attack the peace, they will not succeed – that’s in your hands. 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 leaders, but the fate of peace is up to you.

This peace has been tested over the past 15 years, over the past year, and it will be tested again. But remember something that President Clinton said when he spoke here in Belfast, just a few weeks after the horrors of Omagh. That bomb, he said, “was not the last bomb of the Troubles; it was the opening shot of a vicious attack on the peace.”

Whenever your peace is attacked, you will have to choose whether to respond with the same bravery you’ve summoned so far. You will have to choose whether to keep going.

And you should know that America will always stand by you as you do. We will keep working closely with leaders in Stormont, and Dublin, and Westminster to support your political progress.

We will keep working to strengthen our economies, including through efforts like the broad economic initiative announced on Friday to unlock new opportunities for growth and investment between our two countries’ businesses – because jobs and opportunity are essential to peace.

Our scientists will keep collaborating with yours, in fields like nanotechnology, energy, and health care that make our lives better and fuel economic growth on both sides of the Atlantic – because progress is essential to peace.

And because knowledge and understanding is essential to peace, we will keep investing in programs that enrich us both – programs like one at Belfast Metropolitan College, which teaches students from West and North Belfast the skills they’ll need for new jobs, and exchange programs that have given thousands in Northern Ireland and the United States the chance to travel to each other’s communities and learn from one another.

One of them is here today. Sylvia Gordon is the director of an organization called “Groundwork Northern Ireland,” which aims to bring about change from the ground up. As someone who got my start as a community organizer, this is something I appreciate. A few years ago, Sylvia visited the U.S. to learn more about how Americans organize to improve their communities.

After she came home, 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.

All of you here today – you possess something the generation before yours did not: an example to follow. When they took a chance on peace, they didn’t have a successful model to emulate. They didn’t know if it would work. But they took a chance. So far, it has succeeded. The first steps are the bravest. The rest, now, are up to you.

“Peace is indeed harder than war,” the Irish author Colum McCann recently wrote. “And its constant fragility is part of its beauty. A bullet need happen only once, but for peace to work we need to be reminded of its existence again and again and again.”

You must remind us of its existence again and again and again. And to those who choose the path of peace, I promise you, the United States of America will support you every step of the way. We will always be a wind at your back. And like I said when I visited two years ago, I am convinced that this little island, that inspires the biggest things – its best days are yet ahead.

Good luck. God bless you. And God bless all the people of Northern Ireland.