PeacePlayers International – Northern Ireland (PPI-NI) staff, board members, and Champions 4 Peace participants were privileged to be invited to attend a gathering of youth groups, schools, and organizations where both the First Lady and President spoke.
As the convoy of PeacePlayers arrived at Waterfront Hall, the excitement rose. The staff and participants joined a line of hundreds of school children, sports teams, youth groups, and more. PPI-NI was greeted by smiles, waves, and hugs from past participants and partner organizations.
We took our seats and, in true PeacePlayers spirit, participants made an attempt to keep the audience’s energy high by starting “the wave,” which was no small challenge since everyone began the day at 5 a.m. After three or four waves along our row, the spirit spread and other organizations and schools began joining in. As the PPI participants looked around them, they could see what they had started. Hundreds of people joined, including First Minister Peter Robinson, Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, and sporting legend Dame Mary Peters.
Local DJ Pete Snodden warmed the crowd with music and introductions to some of the groups that were present. PPI-NI’s orange t-shirts earned us attention and our Project Coordinator Joanne Fitzpatrick was handed the microphone to explain the work of PeacePlayers and the Champions 4 Peace program to the entire audience.
Shortly after our introduction, the main show began. Hannah Nelson, a 16-year-old pupil at Belfast’s Methodist College, gave a powerful speech about the future of Northern Ireland before welcoming the First Lady, Michelle Obama. Nelson proved up for the task, saying, “If we are to take away prejudice from young people’s minds, we can create a society that can get along together, a peaceful society. Northern Ireland is my home, the reality is it has a past….Now is the time to make permanent peace in Northern Ireland because we, the young people in this room, want and deserve to live in peace. Northern Ireland is my home, and the reality is it has a future.”
Michelle was greeted with a huge cheer and a standing ovation as she entered the stage. She gave an empowering speech aimed at the young people about both her and the President’s upbringing. “In just a couple of decades, you will be the ones in charge,” she said. “You will be the ones shaping our shared future with your passion, energy and ideas. So when I look around this room, I don’t just see a bunch of teenagers. I see the people who will be moving our world forward in years ahead, and that’s why we wanted to be here today.”
After Michelle’s speech, it was time for the main attraction. The crowd again rose to their feet and gave an almighty cheer for President Obama as he walked onto the stage. He spoke about the relationship between the United States of America and Northern Ireland and previous visits from Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush to the region. He spoke of the peace process and Northern Ireland’s progress over the last 30 years. He said, “For years, few conflicts in the world seemed more intractable than the one here in Northern Ireland. So, when peace was achieved here, it gave the entire world hope. The world rejoiced in your achievement, especially America.”
As we left the Hall, Champions 4 Peace participants were in awe and described both the First Lady and President’s words as “extremely motivating and hopeful for a better future.” As the group stood outside, the orange t-shirts again grabbed the attention of passers-by, including local politicians, who asked the Champions 4 Peace how they got involved in our program and what they hope for their future.
Overall, it proved to be an empowering and inspiring day for board members, staff, and participants alike. PPI-NI would like to thank Belfast’s US Consul General, Gregory Burton, for the invitations and all the other people involved in the making of a day we will never forget.