All eyes on us: Obama in Belfast

Clodagh Rice is studying the NCTJ-accredited MA in Journalism at the University of Ulster. She covered Barack and Michelle Obama’s visit to Belfast prior to the G8 summit for Belfast-based radio station Citybeat. Read what she has to say about reporting from the event.

Standing in the rain at 7am on a Monday morning may not sound exciting, but as I Clodagh Ricequeued outside the Waterfront Hall in Belfast the atmosphere was electric. Hundreds of people had been waiting since the early hours of the morning to try to catch a glimpse of one of the most powerful men in the world – Barack Obama.

The President and First Lady were there to give a speech on the peace process to an invited audience of young people. Such a high-profile event requires a lot of organisation and the radio station had applied for media accreditation in advance. After receiving my coveted White House press pass, I went through airport-style security before being shown to the media section of the auditorium. In the centre of the empty hall stood a podium with the presidential seal, crews were getting set up and the world’s media was preparing for the arrival of the US President.

As people started to take their seats, the room was transformed into a sea of school uniforms. Among them was Hannah Nelson, a schoolgirl chosen to introduce Michelle Obama with her poem about how to make peace permanent in Northern Ireland.

Hannah was a hard act to follow – but the First Lady had a surprisingly down-to-earth stage presence. Young people were at the heart of her speech and children in the audience told me they felt they could relate to her. One girl I spoke to left the stage as she felt faint and the First Lady came out after her to check on her and gave her a hug!

President Obama was warmly welcomed to the stage where he outlined the unique reasons why young people in Northern Ireland fill him with hope. His local knowledge ranged from light-hearted colloquialisms like the phrase “what’s the craic?” to more serious historical references to the peace process. He acknowledged that not all wounds have as yet healed and more work remains to be done.

Obama Belfast

President Barack Obama addresses young people at Belfast’s Waterfront Hall

Reporting on such a historic event was made easy by strong messages delivered from such a charismatic orator. However uploading voice reports, conducting down-the-line two-way interviews while constantly tweeting with intermittent phone and internet signal was technologically demanding! My highlight was interviewing schoolgirl Hannah Nelson. Many of the themes in her poem were echoed by the President and she is the personification of the hope he mentioned in his speech.

Barack Obama’s first presidential visit combined with the G8 summit meant that Northern Ireland made the headlines this week for all the right reasons. As a reporter I consider it my responsibility to ensure his message extends past the walls of the Waterfront Hall so that more people will share his hope for the future of Northern Ireland.