Obama: N.Ireland must be brave when peace attacked

President Barack Obama told the youth of Northern Ireland Monday to bravely defend peace, saying their "contagious" hope inspired other peoples still locked in sectarian violence.

Obama said the burden of protecting the hard-won peace that has regenerated the province after years of strife would soon fall to new leaders, who had the good fortune not to grow up in fear of bullets and bombings.

"You are the first generation in this land to inherit more than just hardened attitudes, and the bitter prejudices of the past," Obama said, after flying in for the G8 summit.

"You are an inheritor of a just and harder peace," he said, urging his young audience to reach across divides between Catholic republicans and Protestant loyalists, that scarred the British province for so long.

"Whenever your peace is attacked, you will have to choose whether to respond with the same bravery you've summoned so far. You will have to choose whether to keep going," Obama said.

Obama, speaking at the Waterfront Hall in Belfast, close to a regenerating area of docklands where the Titanic was built, used the example of America's long struggle with racial prejudice to show justice can eventually endure.

The president often engages young audiences on his global travels, as he tries to recreate the spirit of grassroots change that powered his 2008 campaign but has faded in the vicious political divisions of Washington.

The president has previously visited England and the Republic of Ireland, but is making his first trip to Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom.

"All of you ... possess something the generation before yours did not: an example to follow," Obama told his audience at a golf resort at Lough Erne.

"When those who took a chance on peace got started, they didn't have a successful model to emulate. They didn't know if it would work. But they took a chance. So far, it has succeeded.

"The first steps are the hardest and require the most courage. The rest, now, are up to you," he said, promising continued US support for those fighting to keep the at times troubled peace in Northern Ireland.

The president said that the violence had once been seen as "intractable" in the province, but added that the subsequent peace deal was a "blueprint" for those trapped in sectarian conflicts around the world.

"Hope is contagious. They are watching to see what you do next."

Before the speech, Obama met Northern Ireland's First Minister Peter Robinson and his deputy Martin McGuinness.

A 1998 peace agreement brought an end to three decades of sectarian violence between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland known as the Troubles, a process the United States supported.

But sporadic bomb threats and murders by dissident republicans continue, despite a wave of economic development and reconciliation efforts.

Nevertheless, said Obama, a few years ago it would be unimaginable that the province could have hosted an event as complex as the summit of the Group of Eight industrial nations.

On a lighter note, the golf-mad president told the audience that he was sorry he could not get in a few rounds of golf on some of Northern Ireland's famous links during his visit.

But he recalled that he met native son and double major champion Rory McIlroy last year, who offered to help him get his weekend golfer's swing "sorted".

Obama was introduced by his wife Michelle, who issued her own rallying cry for the province's youth, calling on them to step out of their comfort zones to explore new ideas.

"As young people, you all are in a very powerful position to make some of those same choices yourselves. You have the freedom of an open mind," she said.