Wednesday 24 January 2018

The teen who upstaged Obama

It's not everyday you nearly upstage the most powerful man in the world.

But it was all in week's work for a shy teenage girl who captured the public imagination with a self-penned speech welcoming the US President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle to her home town.

"Good morning. My name is Hannah Nelson, I'm sixteen years old, and I'm from Belfast," she told 2,000 invited guests at the city's landmark Waterfront Hall.

"I've been thinking about an important question. How do you make peace permanent in Northern Ireland?"

Hannah sat down to write her essay last Saturday, in a break from her studying. She entered it the next day in a competition run by the US Consul in Northern Ireland.

On Wednesday, American officials telephoned her home in Knockbreda, a suburb of south Belfast, to tell her she had won. But what she had won, she still didn't know.

A meeting was quickly arranged for that evening at her school, Methodist College, where she was told she would be opening the show for the Obamas' first ever visit to Northern Ireland, ahead of the G8 summit.

The next day she finished the last of her GCSE exams.

By Friday she was rehearsing for an address from the US President's own podium that would be beamed around the world.

She was so nervous she hardly slept a wink over the weekend.

"I'm a shy girl, who has never done this kind of thing before," she says.

Her message of reconciliation, the future and peace - echoing Obama's own trademark themes of hope and change - wowed the audience, assembled VIPs and an international media which clambered to speak with her afterwards.

"I just realised everyone is the same as me, peace is something we need to achieve in Northern Ireland," she said.

"It is achievable and I just want to live in a society where we are safe and can be friends with everybody and there are no divisions.

"That's what I want so I decided I would try to write something about that."

Backstage the President and the First Lady settled Hannah's nerves with a handshake and a hug, small talk about holidays and reassurances about how much they liked her speech.

The renowned Obama warmth clearly worked.

When she took to the stage, dressed in the dark navy colours of her grammar school, and flanked by hundreds of school children just like her in their own uniforms, she delivered a polished performance.

Facing politicians and dignitaries in the gallery, including First and Deputy First Ministers Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness, she assuredly told them a new Northern Ireland was possible.

People needed to overcome the past, and deal with their differences.

"I was nervous before, now am I just excited about this situation. A situation I never thought I would be in," she said afterwards.

Her family too - father Jim, mother Frances, sister Sophie, 15, and brother Matthew, 14 - were clearly caught in the glare of the limelight.

Frances, a teacher who prompted Hannah about the competition, struggled to catch her breath as she took it all in.

"I just wanted to cry my eyes out," she said.

"Out of a sense of pride and because of the journey she has been on. She is actually quite a quiet child, who doesn't do public speaking.

"This has been overwhelming."

The whole episode has inspired Hannah - who was always one for sports rather than the stage - to believe in herself, she said.

Matthew, who goes to school at Royal Belfast Academical Institution, turned to their father and said: "Dad, Hannah's trending on Twitter. She's No 2 in the UK."

Jim wasn't sure what that meant, but he knew his soft-spoken daughter had stolen the show.

Grandfather Carol Jackson, who came to Northern Ireland from Somerset in 1972, said he was in disbelief.

"I am very proud, that was totally incredible," he said.

"That sort of thing just doesn't happen - but it did.

"It was her own speech. I didn't help her, her parents didn't help her - I think they are as surprised as I am."

Everyone wanted to know would she like to be a political leader herself in the future.

"I don't know about that," said Jim. "She's probably too honest."

Hannah herself said she wasn't thinking beyond her plans to take on four A-Levels next year in Chemistry, Physics, Maths, and French.

For now she was looking forward to flying out to Portugal tomorrow with her grandmother Pamela Jackson.

It was meant as a treat for finishing her exams. But it will be spent getting over the day she showed Barack Obama and the world the audacity to hope.


By Brian Hutton

Press Association

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