BELFAST (Reuters) - President Barack Obama on Monday urged young people in Northern Ireland to finish making “permanent peace” and set an example to other parts of the world stricken by religious conflict, violence and war.
Obama, accompanied by his wife Michelle, stopped in Belfast before leaving for the G8 summit, which is being held at a secluded lakeside hotel not far from the site of one of the worst killings in the province’s conflict.
A 1998 peace agreement largely ended more than three decades of violence in the British-controlled province between mainly Catholic Irish nationalists seeking union with Ireland and predominantly Protestant unionists who want to remain part of the United Kingdom.
But militant nationalists, who include former operatives who split from the Irish Republican Army (IRA) after it declared a ceasefire, still stage sporadic gun and bomb attacks.
U.S. leaders have a long history of promoting peace in Northern Ireland and Obama was eager to put his stamp on the issue.
“If you continue your courageous path toward a permanent peace...that won’t just be good for you. It will be good for this entire island, for the United Kingdom, for Europe, and it will be good for the world,” he told an amphitheater packed with students.
Obama said people experiencing ethnic, religious, and tribal conflict elsewhere in the world were watching what was happening in Northern Ireland.
“You are their blueprint to follow,” he said. “You are their proof of what’s possible. Hope is contagious. They’re watching to see what you do next.”
He did not specifically mention the war in Syria, which is expected to dominate part of the discussions among leaders at the G8.
The summit site is five miles from Enniskillen, where an IRA bomb tore through a mainly Protestant crowd at a memorial service for Britain’s war dead in 1987, killing 11 and wounding 63.
The deaths rocked support among Irish Catholics for the IRA and pushed its leaders towards dialogue with Unionists, which lead to a ceasefire and the peace deal.
The summit host, British Prime Minister David Cameron, is gambling that the remnants of the IRA are too weak to trouble the visiting leaders.
Obama said there was a time when no one could imagine that such a summit could be held in Northern Ireland.
He encouraged the students to move forward with the progress made by their political leaders and parents who helped achieve peace.
“Ultimately, whether your communities deal with the past and face the future united, together, isn’t something you have to wait for somebody else to do - that’s a choice you have to make right now,” he said.
Writing by Jeff Mason; Editing by Angus MacSwan