What Obama’s victory can teach us in Northern Ireland

It has been a long night and a long, two-year campaign for Barack Obama to get elected as the 44th President of the United States of America.

After an all-night session with multiple tv channels and frantic tab-clicking a battery of websites throughout the vote count, I’ve shut out the distractions for a moment to reflect on what Obama’s victory can teach us in Northern Ireland.

There is no denying the historic significance of an African-American achieving the highest public office of America. There will be plenty of authors of that essay.

Likewise, Obama’s campaign will serve as a textbook case of how to tap into new audiences (young, disaffected) using new techniques (Web 2.0, micro-donations).

Globally, much of the world may be impressed by this unlikely of events, a man with humble origins from an ethnic minority who has galvanised unity, representing a new hope, if only to correct some of the wrongs of the past American administration.

I read and hear repeatedly about how America is different in this regard. How America, as an immigrant nation, can absorb new cultures better than others. How its sense of nationalism is based on a civic ideal, rather than a historical legacy of culture. How its optimism and “can-do” spirit makes it better placed to face new challenges.

I don’t see how progressing society is the preserve of American citizens.

My concern is that these attributed qualities excuses others from examining diversity and modernity in their own societies. Here, Ethan Bronner (International Herald Tribune) writes a well-informed and┬áreflective article, “For many abroad, an ideal renewed”.

Here in Northern Ireland, where I call home, I see much friendliness and generosity of spirit. Folk don’t suffer fools gladly, and everyone’s got something to say.

But much like the matter of race relations in America, when it comes to our own divided histories, neither America or Ireland has yet to have that discussion. Obama made his point in his “More Perfect Union” speech, during the campaign earlier this year.

And maybe Americans still won’t have that conversation. Maybe they’ll decide that electing an African-American is good enough, or all that can be done, for now.

But if America is ready for that conversation, I couldn’t think of a better opportunity or set of circumstances, particularly considering Obama’s own diverse family history.

We should be considering our own conversation here.

We’ve at least started to set up some necessary frameworks, such as a power-sharing form of government and the Healing Through Remembering cross-community project.

What would obviously help is a transformational figure. Someone who can draw upon his or her personal experiences, who can speak to the legacy of our troubled history without having to rely upon it. Someone who can propose a positive agenda, reaching out beyond traditional constituencies.

Someone who knows how hard it will be to achieve change through the system, yet demonstrates determination and resilience to make it happen.

Lest one despairs this as wholly idealistic, I actually witness this in Northern Ireland by numerous individuals, including politicians. But it many times fails to reach the critical point where sufficient people get behind the project.

As those who got involved in the Obama campaign can attest, if you want change you need to be part of the change.

I am doing my part by trying to encourage this process in Northern Ireland. Considering how much we have been able to achieve in only the past 15 years, there is so much working in our favour.

Yes, many hard challenges remain. But if we are to take inspiration from America today, it’s that Barack Obama didn’t achieve just a personal victory for himself, or a historic moment for African-Americans. What Obama’s message of hope and change really means is that coming together for a better future is worth the effort.

[An edited version was published in Sunday Life on 9/11/2008.]

About Allan Leonard

Working for a cohesive Northern Ireland society My special interest is Northern Ireland affairs, arriving from America at the time of the 1994 ceasefires. Currently serve as Director, Northern Ireland Foundation, an independent non-profit organisation based in Belfast. Previous posts include Policy Officer at the Northern Ireland Assembly, General Secretary of the Alliance Party, and Operations Manager at the Ulster Historical Foundation. Previously, I was responsible for the development and launch of the Troubled Images project at the Northern Ireland Political Collection, Linen Hall Library; this exhibit travelled worldwide. My professional background includes marketing, communications, exhibition and event management, policy development, and senior management. Received a MA degree in Irish Political Studies from University College Dublin, and a BA degree (with Distinction) in International Relations from Boston University. Views expressed here may not represent those of current or previous employers or associations.

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