Aloha to a city transformed by peace
I had the unique honour of being able to welcome the Obamas to Belfast today with that traditional Irish greeting, Aloha! (It’s okay, the Hawaiian-born President also got the even more traidtional Céad Míle Fáilte!)
That set the tone for what was as much a joyous celebration of thepeace Belfast enjoys as it was an opportunity for President Obama to reflect on a city transformed by the move from war-war to jaw-jaw.
The Obamas saw a city transformed by two decades of peacemaking which only bore fruit because of the dogged determination of Irish America, the risk-taking of the Clinton White House and the diplomatic chops of Senator George Mitchell — who brought sworn enemies together to sign the Good Friday Agreement of 1998.
Today, Belfast is home to more American blue-chips than many US cities. NYSE is here as is Citi, AllState. Bloomberg, Cybersource and Liberty Mutual.
But peace doesn’t blossom untended. It needs the distribution of a peace dividend, most tangibly in the form of jobs.
But for Belfast the American connection is about more than economics. Ties of blood, of culture and of community unite us with Irish Americans and Scots-Irish, whose ancestors, fleeing persecution and hunger in this country, crossed the “bowl of tears” to seek sanctuary.
Americans of all heritages are coming back. They are visiting Ireland in records numbers in this year of the Gathering and more than ever they are putting Belfast on their itinerary to see the mammoth Titanic Belfast visitor centre and to enjoy the popular Game of Thrones location tour.
And today President Obama, another returning Irish American, reaffirmed America’s commitment to stand with the peacemakers of Belfast as long as we continue to push forward. The young people he addressed today will ensure we keep our side of that bargain. It was a good day to be First Citizen of Belfast, another milestone in the peace process and one which confirms my pride and confidence in the young people who made up two-thirds of the audience for the address by President Barack and Michelle Obama.
There is no doubt but that they will scale the heights of peace, justice, tolerance and fairness which the President referenced, building on the fragile foundation for peace which they have inherited.
And as they progress us into the future, they too will be informed by the fairer world which those who gathered with ICTU and the Big IF on Saturday dream of.
President Obama put it well, “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…there are still miles to go.”
Can we manage them together. Yes we can. Is Féidir Linn.