The 16-year-old who introduced the President and First Lady

Mother prompted GCSE student to enter US embassy competition

Hannah Nelson, age 16, speaks before the Obamas in the Waterfront Hall in Belfast this morning. Photograph:  REUTERS/Paul Faith/Pool

Hannah Nelson, age 16, speaks before the Obamas in the Waterfront Hall in Belfast this morning. Photograph: REUTERS/Paul Faith/Pool

 

“Good morning. My name is Hannah Nelson, I’m sixteen years old, and I’m from Belfast,” was how the student chosen as the warm up speaker for Michelle Obama introduced herself to 2,000 invited guests at the Waterfront Hall.

“I’ve been thinking about an important question. How do you make peace permanent in Northern Ireland?” she added. “We should not let the past pull us apart and stop us moving forward. Somehow we need to make a brighter future, a future that builds bridges and brings people together.”

Hannah sat down to write her essay last Saturday, in a break from her studying. She entered it the next day in a competition run by the US Consul in Northern Ireland.

On Wednesday, American officials telephoned her home in Knockbreda, a suburb of south Belfast, to tell her she had won.

A meeting was quickly arranged for that evening at her school, Methodist College, where she was told she would be opening the show for the Obamas’ visit to Northern Ireland. The next day she finished the last of her GCSE exams.

By Friday she was rehearsing for an address from the US President’s own podium that would be beamed around the world.

She was so nervous she hardly slept a wink over the weekend.

“I’m a shy girl, who has never done this kind of thing before,” she says.

Her message was one of reconciliation, the future and peace — echoing Obama’s own trademark themes of hope and change.

Backstage the President and the First Lady settled Hannah’s nerves with a handshake and a hug, small talk about holidays and reassurances about how much they liked her speech.

Facing politicians and dignitaries in the gallery, including First and Deputy First Ministers Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness, she assuredly told them a new Northern Ireland was possible.

Her mother Frances, a teacher who prompted Hannah about the competition, struggled to catch her breath as she took it all in.

“I just wanted to cry my eyes out,” she said.

“Out of a sense of pride and because of the journey she has been on. She is actually quite a quiet child, who doesn’t do public speaking.

Her brother Matthew, who goes to school at Royal Belfast Academical Institution, turned to their father and said: “Dad, Hannah’s trending on Twitter. She’s No 2 in the UK.” (PA)