Page last updated at 21:17 GMT, Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Obama tackles dissident violence

By Gareth Gordon
BBC NI Political Correspondent

Barack Obama with Martin McGuinness and Peter Robinson
Barack Obama met Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness

The song says "there's no-one as Irish as Barack Obama".

It is not true of course. Though, for what he has just said about the political process in Northern Ireland, honorary citizenship is his for the asking.

The occasion was the shamrock ceremony when every St Patrick's Day the Taoiseach is given the kind of access any world leader would swop their right arm for.

Bowl of the green stuff in hand, they get to pose and joke for the cameras with the most powerful man in the world.

But after the jokes about their shared Offaly roots, imagined or otherwise, and the inevitable invite to Ireland the President went somewhere even more important than Moneygall from which his great, great, great grandfather emigrated in 1850.

He dealt directly and forcefully with the recent dissident republican murders and what they would mean for the peace process.

Everyone knew there would be setbacks, he said, and that the opponents of peace would revert to the violence of the past in the hope that the agreement was too fragile to hold.

Condemned

"And the real question was this", he said. "When tested, how would the people of Northern Ireland respond?"

"Now we know the answer: They responded heroically. They and their leaders on both sides have condemned this violence and refrained from the old partisan impulses.

"They've shown they judge progress by what you build and not what you tear down. And they know that the future is too important to cede to those who are mired in the past."

Barack Obama
Barack Obama was speaking at a St Patrick's Day ceremony

He added that after seeing the way old adversaries had mourned together and worked together in the aftermath of the attacks he had never been so sure that peace would prevail.

Although he didn't name them he was probably thinking of Martin McGuinness and Peter Robinson, whose decision to go ahead with their US trip despite the violence had just been vindicated in a very powerful way.

For the past few days these two men have travelled from the West coast to the East carrying the same simple message - the violence had only succeeded in uniting them and the institutions would emerge stronger for the experience.

It's a mantra they can only pray will be believed by the business people they are hoping to persuade that despite what happened in Massereene and Craigavon, Northern Ireland (or the North of Ireland in Mr McGuinness's case) is clinging more tightly than ever to its newly found stability. There will be no return to the past.

If they need a reference to impress potential investors they've just got one from inside the White House.

Not since the McCartney sisters visited Washington in 2005 following the murder of their brother Robert has Northern Ireland featured so prominently in the US media.

For a brief time it really has been in the world headlines.

After President's Obama's endorsement is fully aired, the story will fade - unless there are more attacks.

Mr Robinson and Mr McGuinness will go home where more challenges will come along.

Then their newly found unity of purpose will be tested again.

How they respond when the back slapping and the tributes have stopped will be just as important.

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