First Lady is star of show as she tells teens: 'Yes, you can'
Obamas deliver message of hope, says Susan McKay
When President Barack Obama said it was difficult to speak after Michelle, he wasn't joking. The First Lady was the star of the show at the Waterfront Hall yesterday. We can expect in coming years to hear from high achievers who grew up poor in the post-Good Friday Agreement North, acknowledging her Belfast speech as a powerful inspiration. Quite simply, she delivered the "yes you can" message to the teenagers she identified as "kids like us" and she sounded like she meant it.
Pushing her fringe back out of her eyes and with a dazzling smile, she told the young people that she had never as a girl dreamt that she would be standing there in front of them, and nor had her husband. Barack had only been two years old, she reminded them, when his father had left. Kids like us, she said, were told "not to hope for too much, not to aspire too high". They had discovered themselves that respect for others was the key to leadership, that you had to step out of your comfort zone and rise above old divisions.
She urged them to enjoy the freedom of their open minds.
Then she introduced "someone who accompanied me here today" and so the US president came on stage to the sound of delighted laughter. He sounded, after her, just a little bit flat. His own first joke, about wishing he'd known about his Irish ancestry when he was campaigning for office in Chicago, was smart, but we have maybe seen his pulling down of the flapped up ears routine too often, and there was a sense of him striving for laughs, dishing out a carefully measured dose of schmaltz. He did, however, get a huge round of delighted applause for his reference to Northern Irish students lounging in cafes "asking each other, what's the craic?"
He had not come to make us laugh, of course. We may well guess that his mind was more engaged with Syria than with Ireland, but he did send out some local messages. Describing the "just and hard-earned peace" that the young audience had inherited, he acknowledged that 15 years after the Good Friday Agreement there were still "communities that endure real pain".
There were still people who "haven't reaped the rewards of peace".
There were segregated schools and housing, and a lack of jobs and opportunities.
There were "wounds that have not been healed".
In fact, economic and social disadvantage has deepened in the very places where the roots of the conflict flourished.
Peace was harder than war, he said, and about "attitudes and empathy" as much as about politics. Such talk is not encouraged in the North. The First and Deputy First Ministers boast only of the pragmatism with which they approach their joint task, and only when pressed to do so. They do not engage in trying to inspire the young with idealism about politics, society or life in general.
We have a new generation of DUP-ers and Sinn Feiners – but there has been no flourishing of a new type of cross-community and anti-sectarian politics.
Mr Obama quoted the novelist Colum McCann's observation that the constant fragility of peace was part of its beauty.
Now that is not a very Ulster way to get on. He urged the young to do things their own way now, use their imaginations, travel without roadblocks, face down extremists. He also urged them "to befriend or fall in love with whoever you want", which must have caused a certain amount of frowning among the clergy present. Then it was over, and, looking as they always do, happy to be together, the Obamas left the stage by way of ranks of schoolchildren, shaking hands and embracing them as they went.
Afterwards, the young people seemed hugely chuffed by the fact that the Obamas had spoken directly to them, rather than to the dignitaries and politicians, the traditional elders and betters of Northern Irish society. A group from Dundonald High School felt that they should go out and try to bring communities together and work for a better future.
And all of that is very good indeed: whatever else we might think about President Obama.