Heroics came long after the hero

JFK’s contribution to Irish political concerns was minimal. On the national question, the true heroes were Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton


JFK was an Irish hero feted like no other during his triumphant visit in 1963. Pictures of him with his glamorous wife, who did not accompany him, on mantelpieces all over Ireland testify to his enduring appeal long after he waved farewell with that famous promise to return. In Catholic homes, perhaps only Pope John XXIII came close, and in my grandmother’s living room, pictures of both icons appeared beside each other.

However, he was no hero as far as Ireland was concerned. That mantle belongs rightly to his successors in the White House, with Bill Clinton challenged for the top spot by – believe it or not – Ronald Reagan.

JFK’s appeal in Ireland was overwhelmingly emotional, as the near hysteria surrounding his visit showed. In contrast, his contribution to Irish political life was minimal, especially when it came to mention of Northern Ireland and Dublin’s relations with London. There were other, much more important issues to deal with in 1963 under the cloud of the Cold War, and the Kennedy White House let nothing obstruct that priority.

As taoiseach, Sean Lemass accepted this (had he really any choice?) and acted accordingly. The Irish question was something to be settled in Ireland by Irishmen – a phrase that was to be repeated by Jack Lynch as the 1960s rolled on. Questioning of the traditional stance on partition – that Ireland was unjustly and illegitimately partitioned by England and it was all her fault – intensified.

Lemass and Frank Aiken, his foreign minister, made the trip to the White House in October 1963 where they were treated to a formal dinner by the president. As is common on such occasions, both leaders toasted each other. Their remarks are telling indeed.

Referring to the flood of newly independent African states as decolonisation swept through that continent, Kennedy held up Ireland as the shining example of a small state winning its freedom.

“. . . the most significant example, the predecessor of this tremendous parade, which has been the most astonishing fact of post-war life, the most unique example of course was Ireland which blazed the trail, set the example, was the point of the spear, the arrowhead,” he said.

He spoke as if the unresolved Irish issue had been settled. Lemass responded with remarks that would seem cap-in-hand in the context of today’s world.

He began by way of an anecdote involving a “little old lady” from Mayo who had asked him to tell Kennedy of her admiration of him as he was “a fine Christian gentleman”.

Referring to the president’s visit to Ireland the previous June, Lemass said, “Everybody. . . is still talking about the young man who came to Ireland to visit with us – the president of the United States of America – and won all their hearts with his charm and a smile,” he said.

He then outlined his own vision of Ireland as it emerged further into the post-war world. “We have no ambitions to influence the course of the events of the world except by the consistency of our support for the aims and principles by which you have guided your policy and, indeed, upon which the future of mankind depends.” In other words – we have little policy other than to support your policy, whatever that is.

Given the ways of the world in that dangerous time, especially in the wake of the Cuban missile crisis, it was clear that the US would have little to do with Ireland’s problems, especially where England was concerned.

Just as clear was the tacit Irish acceptance that nobody in Ireland, and certainly not in the Cabinet, expected them to do otherwise. A month after that White House dinner, Kennedy was dead. It will never be known if any policy would have been developed by him to press Irish opinions in London. Certainly there were no hints of such in Kennedy’s 1,000 days – and absolutely no chance of any under Johnson following the horror of Dealey Plaza.

The big players in Washington’s transatlantic policy circle at that time were the British embassy (which had more staff in one mission than the entire Irish foreign service); the US state department, which governed foreign policy jealously; and the White House. Ireland had little influence and even less scope for gaining any.

The so-called special relationship between London and Washington – a key link in the defence of the West, especially during the Cold War – appeared inviolable. Kennedy’s Irish bonds may have been genuine, but they were not to be translated into political clout to be used to lever London away from its 40-year-old hands-off approach to Northern Ireland no matter what was going on there.

Regardless of Lemass’s White House remarks, which may not have been anything more than a display of good diplomatic manners, he was no toady. His subsequent actions, especially with regard to Capt Terence O’Neill, then prime minister of Northern Ireland, at Stormont in 1965, show this.

His call for a newer form of patriotism based on constitutional rather than armed action was significant, not least in that it came from a man who himself fought in 1916. However, what was to become apparent was that constitutional efforts, in isolation from international support, were hampered – especially when it came to influencing opinion in London.

Dublin’s voice was too small to resonate in the corridors of power in London and Kennedy appeared either unwilling or unable (or both) to help. His credentials in Downing Street would have been impeccable as his father, Joe snr, had been ambassador to the Court of St James, as it likes to be called, underlining the difficulties any Irish government would have had in harnessing his clout with London.

Certainly some Irish diplomats subsequently working in the US regarded JFK as more of a British ally than an Irish idol.

Ways were found eventually to amplify Irish concerns over British policy on Ireland. Key developments began with SDLP co-founder John Hume’s relationship with Senator Ted Kennedy. They first met in the Irish embassy in Bonn in 1972.

Irish officials in the US delivered the likes of senator Daniel Moynihan and New York governor Hugh Carey. Among them they helped launch the Carter initiative – a statement by President Jimmy Carter in 1977 in which he said the US would support any agreed settlement with an investment initiative.

As statements go, it was bland. As far as US-British diplomacy goes, the effect was seismic. The White House signalled it had a right to express an opinion, which reflected Dublin and SDLP opinion, in the face of British resistance. In doing so it overturned decades of silence by Washington and the relative isolation of Irish constitutional nationalism.

Such was the level of British opposition that the statement, originally intended for St Patrick’s Day, was released only the following August.

Reagan, who also valued his claims on Irish roots, later proved his ability to influence no less a prime minister than Margaret Thatcher – convincing her to sign the Anglo-Irish Agreement with Garret FitzGerald in 1985.

Reagan had been won over by house speaker Tip O’Neill, boss of the Democratic Party, whose support Reagan depended upon in Congress. O’Neill was the effective figurehead of the growing Irish lobby – ably assisted by skilled diplomats such as Sean Donlon and Michael Lillis in Washington – one that outflanked that of the British.

The Clinton intervention in Ireland, from the granting of a visa for Gerry Adams to the all-night telephone cajoling he employed to ensure the conclusion of the Good Friday agreement, was the high point of that strategy.

These presidents – from Carter to Clinton – showed what JFK could not do, namely become positively involved in, while standing aside from, the Irish question.

They were the true heroes.

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