President Obama is mentally sharp but also loose as a goose. It’s a quite a combo. He lets the gaps in his speech hang like a jazz musician but then drills in the message when required. He lounges around the podium, but the hand actions have authority and the rising heat in the Waterfront Hall, Belfast doesn’t seem to affect his composure. From Airforce One to Lanyon Place with hardly a respite, he focuses on the schoolchildren in the hall – maybe 1,500 of them – and he delivers a crash course in our historical connections, from the Wilsons, the Kellys, Campbells and O’Neills and the other guys from this parish who helped to fight for independence and who co-wrote the American Constitution.
He talks about rejuvenation, about the Cathedral Quarter and the MAC and he pictures our students, lounging in coffee shops, posing the big questions like “what’s the craic”? Barack gets a large cheer for the local vernacular, even though he will be less successful in pronouncing Omagh, but, hey. His critics may have wished for mention of American foreign policy yet this morning is a relatively uptempo review of the peace process, a call for fresh heads to keep pushing, and for future targets like an end to segregated education.
This is where he speaks best, citing his own background and the drive to take racial segregation out of America. He doesn't patronize his young audience. These are bright faces, conceived in peace and primed for better work. Aside from the school blazers, there are Boy Scouts and PeacePlayers International, WIMPS and Groundwork guys. Up in the rear balcony we see the Establishment heads, also at ease and copping a few compliments.
The President quotes Heaney and Yeats, He recalls a conversation with Rory McIlroy about his own imperfect golf swing. “This island is now chic,” he notes. And in the wind-down, he references the old saying. “We will always be a wind at your back,” he promises, without excess blarney.
We started queuing in the rain three hours ago, sustained with some music and the occasional Mexican wave, but there was value in this, in the energized faces of the teenagers and the apparent approval for social movement in Northern Ireland. Like his wife Michelle before him, this was a missive from the White House that was easy on the whitewash. May the G8 experience progress so readily.