“There was a time people couldn’t have imagined Northern Ireland hosting a gathering of world leaders”, reflected Barack Obama during a keynote speech at Belfast’s Waterfront Hall this Monday, June 17th.
On this date, however, that very scenario became a reality with the advent of the US President’s historic visit to Northern Ireland, commencing with remarks to a 2000-strong crowd at ‘The Waterfront’. The First Lady of the United States, Michelle Obama, first took to the stage to introduce her husband. The event preceded Mr Obama’s participation in the 2013 G8 Summit, this year held in Enniskillen’s Lough Erne Resort, County Fermanagh.
Despite the fact that Mr Obama’s administration currently faces criticism on a range of issues – from the US government’s involvement with the unfolding political situation in Syria to the ongoing hunger strikes by detainees incarcerated at Guantanamo Bay – the crowd inside the Belfast auditorium was nothing short of awestruck; the atmosphere one of excitement, as the politician took to the stage. In the five years since he became the first African American President of the United States, the once boundless optimism of much of Mr Obama’s voter base has given way to cautious cynicism, doe-eyed reverence replaced by scepticism and mistrust. Yet, observing the audience reaction to the President’s remarks in the Waterfront Hall, one could just as easily have been looking on at one of the key rallies in his 2008 campaign to win presidential office.
In the finely-honed speech, Mr Obama studiously avoided reference to the more contentious topics for debate which have arisen in recent weeks, from the pockets of protest which Belfast had witnessed prior to the G8 Summit, to America’s role in carrying out covert surveillance on its citizens, as exposed by whistleblower Edward Snowden last week.
Instead, the President prioritized the rhetoric of peace, extolling the virtues of a new generation in promoting unity in divided societies and encouraging community activism, appealing to the interests of an audience of whom the majority were schoolchildren and community workers. This generation, he remarked, were one, “possessed by both a clear-eyed realism, but also an optimistic idealism; a generation keenly aware of the world as it is, but eager to forge the world as it should be”.
The speech was peppered with humour, as Mr Obama joked with the crowd about Northern Irish weather and claimed that Holywood sports star Rory McIlroy had been less than complimentary about his golfing skills on a previous meeting, offering to “sort” the US President’s swing. The loudest cheer of the talk was reserved for Mr Obama’s casual use of the vernacular Irish greeting, “What’s the craic?”.
Ultimately, the main thrust of the speech was an effort to reiterate the traditionally strong bond between America and Ireland –a relationship which has been characterised by some as a ‘love affair’. “So many of the qualities that we Americans hold dear”, began Mr Obama, “we imported from this land — perseverance, faith, an unbending belief that we make our own destiny, and an unshakable dream that if we work hard and we live responsibly, something better lies just around the bend”.
The talk marked the first occasion since 2011 that the President had visited Irish shores, then taking in the sights of Dublin and Moneygall. Notably, the visit came almost fifty years to the day after former US President John. F Kennedy embarked on his tour of Ireland.
Amongst those in possession of much sought-after tickets to the event were staff and students of Queen’s University Belfast, including Queen’s University Belfast Students’ Union’s (QUBSU) Student Executive, members of the Law Society, and members of the Literific Debating Society.
Reflecting on the address in conversation with The Gown, QUBSU Vice President of Campaigns and Communications, Connor Daly, noted, “It was a great oratory performance, but a speech with very little surprises”. Nonetheless, Mr Daly was pleased to have had the chance to attend the event. “I was delighted to represent Queen’s at President Obama’s address alongside so many of our volunteers”, enthused the Sabbatical Officer, adding, “I hope Obama’s pledge to stand by Northern Ireland will encourage our young people to continue to work towards building better relations”.
Equally, Union President Jason O’Neill was glad of the opportunity to hear the President speak, commenting, “Obama’s speech served to inspire the many students and young people who were in attendance. His message of peace and integration chimed with the values of a new generation striving to break free from the legacy of years of segregation and conflict”.
Yet, perhaps unsurprisingly, praise was not the unanimous response to Mr Obama’s visit. At an anti-G8 protest in central Belfast this week, President of Belfast Metropolitan College’s Students’ Union – Neil Moore – spoke to The Gown on his decision to decline an invite to the event.
“[Obama] represents the interests of the rich. He represents the interests of US imperialism. I don’t want to shake the hand of someone who’s got blood on their hands, from drone attacks in Pakistan”, Moore remarked.
Those inside the venue, however, left feeling they had witnessed a piece of history. As one young pupil representing Assumption Grammar School, Ballynahinch at the address, stated, “The whole thing felt surreal… that Barack Obama was actually in Belfast. He brought so much of a message with him for the young people of Northern Ireland”.