Sunday, January 25, 2009

Obama's tone cooler than expected

Obama's tone cooler than expected

Jim Fitzpatrick
By Jim Fitzpatrick
BBC NI Politics Show

I watched Barack Obama's inauguration with a bunch of students, staff and media folk at Queen's University this week.

It was as close as I was going to get to the Mall in Washington and everyone clapped and cheered as if they were there.

Barack Obama
The tone of the inauguration speech was cooler than expected

The strange thing was that there were precious few opportunities to do so during the inauguration speech.

The cold tone adopted by the new president was shocking. The language was unvarnished. He may have banned torture, but in his speech he let fly with the buckets of cold water and followed with some heavy face slapping. Truth, he might say, is clearly brutal..

There's Iraq, Afghanistan, global terror, climate change, and the worst economic forecasts since the Great Depression. And, of course, nowhere is reality more brutally exposed at the moment than in the Middle East and on the streets of Gaza.

It all makes the political squabbles here seem pretty small and petty. Spoilt by numerous presidential visits in recent years, there's no reason to believe Northern Ireland should receive more than a passing glance from Obama.

And yet, the appointment of George Mitchell as envoy to the Middle East suddenly puts this place centre stage in a way that's never happened before.

I interviewed Bill Clinton a few years ago on The Politics Show when he was promoting his memoirs.

The key issue I wanted to tease out was to find out why he had bothered to get involved here, given the risks involved and the lack of obvious reward.

Bill Clinton
Bill Clinton has been interviewed on The Politics Show

The answer was that he concluded that the conflict here - unlike others - was capable of being resolved relatively quickly and that he could then use Northern Ireland as an example to help boost the chances of peace in other trouble spots like the Middle East.

So, while Clinton's heart may have been into solving things here - it was actually his head that was driving the policy.

It should be no surprise then that the new US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, should pursue this logic with the appointment of George Mitchell. Accepting the new role, the former senator drew heavily on his Northern Ireland experience.

"The secretary mentioned Northern Ireland. There, recently, long-time enemies came together to form a power-sharing government, to bring to an end the ancient conflict known as 'the Troubles'," said Mr Mitchell.

"This was almost 800 years after Britain began its domination of Ireland, 86 years after the partition of Ireland, 38 years after the British army formally began its most recent mission in Ireland, 11 years after the peace talks began, and nine years after a peace agreement was signed.

"In the negotiations which led to that agreement, we had 700 days of failure and one day of success. For most of the time, progress was nonexistent or very slow. So I understand the feelings of those who may be discouraged about the Middle East.

"From my experience there, I formed the conviction that there is no such thing as a conflict that can't be ended. Conflicts are created, conducted, and sustained by human beings.

"They can be ended by human beings.. I saw it happen in Northern Ireland, although, admittedly, it took a very long time. I believe deeply that with committed, persevering, and patient diplomacy, it can happen in the Middle East."

For once, Northern Ireland is now considered an example of something good. It's unnerving. At his inauguration, President Obama called on his fellow Americans to forge "a new era of responsibility". It appears he meant to include us too, like it or not.

On Sunday's Politics Show we'll look ahead to the great unresolved issue of how we deal with our past with the publication this week of the Eames Bradley report. And as his party meets for its 37th annual conference, I'll be talking in-depth to SDLP leader Mark Durkan. We also have special live coverage of the SDLP conference on BBC 2 tomorrow at 11.45am.


PS - Among the millions who braved the freezing conditions to attend the inauguration was Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams. He revealed on Stormont Live that he was wearing thermal long johns. For some reason, a political opponent commented off mic that a balaclava might be handy too.


Education for Liberation!
Peter S. Lopez aka: Peta
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