Obama: Northern Ireland peace will be tested

By Jim Kuhnhenn

Associated Press

Published: Monday, June 17 2013 9:54 a.m. MDT

US President Barack Obama delivers a keynote address ahead of the G-8 summit at Waterfront Hall in Belfast, Northern Ireland on Monday, June 17, 2013.

Paul Faith, Pool, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

ENNISKILLEN, Northern Ireland — President Barack Obama declared peace in Northern Ireland a "blueprint" for those living amid conflict around the world, while acknowledging that the calm between Catholics and Protestants will face further tests. Summoning young people to take responsibility for their country's future, Obama warned there is "more to lose now than there's ever been."

"The terms of peace may be negotiated by political leaders, but the fate of peace is up to each of us," Obama said Monday during remarks at Belfast's Waterfront Hall. The glass-fronted building would never have been built during the city's long era of car bombs.

Obama arrived in Northern Ireland Monday morning after an overnight flight from Washington. Following his speech to about 1,800 students and adults, he flew to a lakeside golf resort near Enniskillen, passing over a sweeping patchwork of tree-lined farms as he prepared to meet with other leaders of the Group of 8 industrial nations on Syria, trade and counterterrorism.

British Prime Minister David Cameron greeted the leaders one-by-one in front of the picturesque lake where the summit was being held and posed for media cameras before they headed into their first closed session, on the global economy. Earlier, Obama and European Union leaders emerged from a group roundtable meeting to announce that they were opening negotiations next month in Washington toward a broad trade deal designed to slash tariffs, boost exports and fuel badly needed economic growth.

Obama said there will be sensitivities and politics to overcome by parties on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, but he's hopeful they can "stay focused on the big picture" of the economic and strategic importance of the agreement. "America and Europe have done extraordinary things together before and I believe we can forge an economic alliance as strong as our diplomatic and security alliances, which of course have been the most powerful in history," Obama told reporters.

One-on-one meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Cameron and Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta all were on Obama's agenda for Monday. Cameron selected Enniskillen as the site of this year's meeting as a way to highlight Northern Ireland's ability to leave behind a four-decade conflict that claimed 3,700 lives.

Significant progress has been made in the 15 years since the U.S.-brokered Good Friday Accords, including a Catholic-Protestant government and the disarmament of the IRA and outlawed Protestant groups responsible for most of the 3,700 death toll. But tearing down Belfast's nearly 100 "peace lines" — barricades of brick, steel and barbed wire that divide neighborhoods, roads and even one Belfast playground — is still seen by many as too dangerous. Obama cited that playground in his speech, lauding an activist whose work led to the opening of a pedestrian gate in the fence.

Acknowledging the reality of a sometimes-fragile peace, Obama recalled the Omagh bombings that killed 29 people and injured hundreds more. It was the deadliest attack of the entire conflict and occurred after the Good Friday deal.

Peace will be tested again, Obama said in Belfast.

"Whenever your peace is attacked, you will have to choose whether to respond with the same bravery that you've summoned so far or whether you succumb to the worst instincts, those impulses that kept this great land divided for too long. You'll have to choose whether to keep going forward, not backward," he said.

Last month, the Catholic and Protestant leaders of Northern Ireland's unity government announced a bold but detail-free plan to dismantle all peace lines by 2023. British Prime Minister David Cameron formally backed the goal Friday, and Obama followed with his own endorsement Monday.

The president specifically endorsed an end to segregated housing and schools, calling it an essential element of lasting peace.

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