Ted Kennedy one of the ‘great architects’ of peace in the North – Mitchell

Former US senator remembered for crucial role in peace process at Washington event

The late US senator Edward Kennedy has been remembered as "one of the truly great architects" of the Northern Ireland peace process by his former Senate colleague and peace-broker, George Mitchell, at an event in Washington.

At a discussion hosted by the Edward M Kennedy Institute on Monday night, Mr Mitchell, who helped broker the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, said that a private hour-long discussion with Senator Kennedy about Northern Ireland off the floor of the US senate in 1994 was "my baptism into the issue."

Senator Kennedy encouraged Mr Mitchell, then Democratic majority leader in the Senate, to support president Bill Clinton's granting of a US visa for Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams in 1994, an important catalyst in building support for peace.

Mr Mitchell was later asked by President Clinton to lead the Northern Ireland peace talks after he left the senate.


Adams visa
The late politician's "very strong weighing in" and pushing of fellow senators to back the Adams visa effort, was the "decisive factor" in encouraging the White House to take the bold move of supporting the visit, Mr Mitchell said.

Speaking at the Library of Congress on Capitol Hill, the peace negotiator praised Kennedy's "tremendous contribution" to peace in Northern Ireland by influencing not only members of the Senate, but the American public too.

“He got those who favour the side of nationalism to understand that the only real way forward was through peaceful negotiation,” Mr Mitchell told the event organised for the Edward M Kennedy Oral History Project.

Mr Mitchell said that the former Massachusetts senator, who died in 2009, "instinctively understood" the attitudes of Ulster Unionists and made them "feel at home" in the United States so they could see that the country was "not monolithic" in its views of Northern Ireland.

In a panel discussion following the former senator's address, Republican congressman Peter King of New York said that Mr Kennedy's "imprimatur" was required to ensure that Mr Adams received the visa to visit the US in 1994 that proved to be a catalyst in the peace process.

"This was real risk for Ted Kennedy whose name and reputation was on the line," he said.

A 'bellwether' on Northern Ireland
Nancy Soderberg, a foreign policy adviser to President Clinton, said that everyone in the White House at the time "looked to Ted Kennedy as the bellwether on which way to go on Northern Ireland."

Until Kennedy, under the guidance of SDLP leader John Hume, supported the visa for Mr Adams, the issue was "a non-starter" because of the opposition from the FBI, the CIA, the state department and the British government, she said. He built "cover for the president" to issue the visa.

“It gave the president the guts to stand up to his entire government, which Ted Kennedy had no problem doing,” said Ms Soderberg.

New York-based Irish publisher Niall O’Dowd said that Senator Kennedy “saved the peace process” when he agreed to continue supporting Sinn Féin after the IRA ceasefire broke down in 1996.

“Teddy, in the midst of that, saw around the corner far enough that he said, ‘No, I trust those guys and I think they can do it,’” he said.

“That was the most profound moment that I saw Senator Kennedy save the process undoubtedly on his own.”

Richie Neal, a Democratic congressman from Massachusetts, stressed the importance of continuing to nurture peace in Northern Ireland.

“While we have this great achievement that we can all take the necessary bow on, not to miss the point that we have decommissioned guns and now it’s time to decommission hearts,” said Congressman Neal.

The Kennedy Institute, in partnership with the Miller Centre of the University of Virginia, has been conducting interviews with people who worked and knew Kennedy to build the oral history on his life and times.

The project was released in September, six months after the institute, which includes a replica of the US Senate, was officially opened in Boston in a ceremony attended by president Barack Obama.

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell is News Editor of The Irish Times