President Obama gestures during a speech at Belfast Waterfront Hall in… (Evan Vucci / Associated…)
BELFAST, Northern Ireland -- In early remarks after his arrival, President Obama held up a peaceful Northern Ireland as the "proof of what’s possible" and called on young people to maintain the work that has stopped generations of deadly sectarian violence.
“For you are the first generation in this land to inherit more than just hardened attitudes and the bitter prejudices of the past, you’re an inheritor of a just and hard-earned peace,” Obama said in a speech to young people shortly after arriving in the city.
Obama arrived in Belfast on a wet, foggy Monday morning to attend a meeting of the Group of Eight industrialized nations. The summit of world leaders at a golf resort outside Belfast would have been thought impossible during the Troubles -- the conflict between Catholics and Protestants that long created instability, poverty, terrorism and deep prejudices.
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Obama spoke at Belfast Waterfront Hall, an auditorium where President Clinton hailed the signing of the Good Friday peace accords 15 years ago.
Standing in front of high school students dressed in navy and maroon uniform blazers, Obama touted the economic turnaround that has helped turn the area from a war zone into a burgeoning tourist destination. The shift was “sheer, bloody genius,” he said, paraphrasing the Irish poet Seamus Heaney. “This island is now chic!”
Obama seemed to look beyond the island as he spoke of a “blueprint” for peace. His remarks came just days after he reluctantly announced the U.S. would deepen its involvement in the civil war in Syria by sending small arms to the rebels there. Obama’s decision came after the 2-year-old conflict has killed more than 93,000 people, according to a United Nations count.
“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,” Obama said. “We need you to get this right.”
Obama drew parallels to racial conflict in the U.S., offering a somewhat rare reflection on prejudices his family experienced. When he was a child, segregation persisted, he noted. His parents’ interracial marriage would have been illegal in some states.
“Someone who looks like me had a hard time casting a ballot, let alone being on a ballot,” he said.
It was up to young people to shift attitudes that would sustain long-term peace, he said.
“The terms of peace may be negotiated by leaders, but the fate of peace is up to you.”
Obama joked of his own ties to Ireland. He has family on his mother’s side in Moneygall.
“When I was first running for office in Chicago I didn’t know this, but I wish I had,” he said.
First Lady Michelle Obama and daughters Sasha and Malia, who are along for the visit, will travel from Belfast to Dublin to see the family records kept at Trinity College.
The president was due to meet with British Prime Minister David Cameron and Russian President Vladimir Putin later Monday.
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