LAST MONDAY, US President, Barack Obama, made a speech to fifteen hundred students in Belfast preaching the need for the youth of Northern Irish society to stand up and take charge of the push toward a more integrated society within the province.
Now here is where I must declare an interest; I am not a fan of Obama or the policies of his administration. So naturally when I heard his speech for the first time I reacted negatively simply dismissing it as the usual ‘Change We Can Believe In’ nonsense that got him elected in 2008.
Breaking down the walls of division
Yet what I originally dismissed as just another speech that represented symbolism over substance, I realised later was actually an important insight into the current state of politics in Northern Ireland. Obama’s message of breaking down walls of division that have plagued this province of decades was very timely as we have just reflected on the 15th anniversary of the signing of the Good Friday Agreement.
What was more remarkable about the speech was that Obama was not there to enhance the old political narrative which argues that because there is no more violence and there is a devolved administration in Stormont that’s mission accomplished. Instead he spoke of the many miles left that we as a society have to go in order to achieve the goal of a shared future. Sadly it is in this area the current Northern Ireland Executive is failing most drastically as the more than 90 per cent of our schools are still segregated and nearly one hundred peace walls still exist throughout the province.
What Obama was essentially arguing for was the need to embrace a political narrative that emphasised healing divisions within society and embarking upon projects that unite people rather than divide them. The old politics of emphasising whether a flag is flying over City Hall or what historical events you choose to commemorate just simply leads you to a dead end.
Appealing to young people
This appeal to young people particularly emphasises that it will take another generation to get into power in order for us to make the big decisions that will hopefully finally put to bed an age old sectarian conflict that should have ended decades ago.
Where the current crop of politicians in Northern Ireland are failing, it is the duty of younger people I believe to get ready, take charge and drive the agenda forward. We cannot afford to adopt a ‘so what’ attitude toward our future. The peace that we have become lauded for around the world was hard won and opportunities it gives future generations cannot be squandered by indifference.
So, should we be hopeful that better days lie ahead for us? I think there are grounds for optimism. When the student who introduced President Obama, Hannah Nelson, spoke, she outlined the vision of a truly integrated society that was not bound by its past but instead looked confidently to the future. The fact that a sixteen-year old spoke with more clarity and vision than many of our current politicians simply confirms the notion that the next generation are the key to bringing down the walls of suspicion that have held Northern Ireland back for so long.
The dreams for the future
When President Kennedy visited Ireland in 1963 he said that the spirit of this nation can be summed up in a quote by George Bernard Shaw that said ‘some people look at things the way they are and ask why? But I dream the things that never were and I say why not?’ Perhaps this quote is particularly relevant to Northern Ireland at the moment.
We really need to ask ourselves, what are we so afraid of when it comes to a shared future? Are we really afraid of children learning together? Do we fear a government comprised of people that share power because they want to, not because they have to? Is it so beyond the pale to imagine a society were walls don’t divide communities?
When young people think about questions such as these it might be worthwhile if, instead of pandering to our worst fears, we imagined the shared future that never was and asked ourselves: why not?
David McCann is a PhD researcher in Irish politics at the University of Ulster. To read more articles by David for TheJournal.ie click here.