Edward Kennedy’s key role in Northern Ireland revealed

US senator kept in close contact with Bertie Ahern in run-up to Belfast Agreement

Throughout the difficult negotiations leading to the 1998 Belfast Agreement, then taoiseach Bertie Ahern kept in regular contact with US senator Edward Kennedy on how talks were going.

“I was asking Teddy all the time to try and keep Clinton interested and get him to be supportive and keep an eye on the Brits,” Ahern later recalled.

“We were deeply suspicious, and still are to this day, of the Brits. We were very suspicious of what games they might get up to. We trusted Blair but worried about the MI5 and MI6. We were worried about all the games that can go on in the British system,” he said.

These extraordinarily candid statements by the former Fianna Fáil leader were made in an interview given in November 2010, 2½ years after he stepped down as taoiseach.

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The interview was one of a number conducted with senior Irish figures for the Edward M Kennedy Oral History Project, a research project started in 2004 by the University of Virginia's Miller Centre and the Edward M Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate.

The university has conducted similar projects on the presidencies of Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W Bush.

Kennedy played a key role in Northern Ireland, voicing concerns about the violence from the early 1970s through to the early 1990s when, most crucially, he worked with his sister, former US ambassador to Ireland Jean Kennedy Smith. His input continued right through to rocky moments in the process prior to his ill-health in 2008 and death in 2009.

Researchers also interviewed former taoisigh Garrett FitzGerald and Albert Reynolds. Ahern's is the only transcript with a former Irish leader which was released by the project's researchers on Wednesday.

Role praised

The Irish contributors to the peace process praise the role of Kennedy Smith as much as her brother in convincing the Clinton administration – in the face of strong and angry objections from the UK government, British diplomats in Washington and some at the US

State Department

and the Pentagon – to issue Adams with a US visa in 1994.

“It was about respectability, it was about recognising,” said Ahern. “It was about being able to say, ‘The world aren’t all against us, we’re not cocooned into this box where no one will listen to us.’”

Former Irish ambassador to the US Sean O’Huiginn said that Clinton issuing the visa became “disproportionately emotional” for the British because of their concerns about the damage to US relations.

“It became kind of a silly test case of who do the Americans love most: London or Dublin?” he said in his interview.

“I suppose London would have seen itself as the legitimate wife and rather resented that a new hussy had appeared on the scene.”

Most significant in these Kennedy project interviews, given the recent violence in Northern Ireland, is the view of the late senator's role in applying pressure on Sinn Féin following the killing of Robert McCartney by republicans in a Belfast bar brawl in January 2005.

Ahern said that he believed that Kennedy exposed Adams “trying to play the ballot box . . . and not end the IRA” by meeting McCartney’s sisters at the annual St Patrick’s Day events in Washington that year and not meeting Sinn Féin. He brought his influence to bear on George W Bush, who, Ahern said, listened to Kennedy above his own aides.

Kennedy invited the sisters “as a way of underlining that thuggery was not an acceptable strand in the peace process” said O’Huiginn.

Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams, in his interview, said individual Republicans and "perhaps even IRA volunteers" may have been involved in McCartney's murder, but not the IRA acting as a unit.

‘Exploited unmercifully’

“It was exploited unmercifully by the elements in the British government who were looking for justification to roll back and look for excuses not to keep going,” said Adams.

Ahern’s namesake, Dermot, is most visceral in his opposition to the IRA out of all the Irish contributors to the project, perhaps because of his first-hand involvement at the time of his interview. He spoke to the researchers in 2005 while he still minister for foreign affairs.

Ahern says the government made sure to keep Kennedy appraised of developments in Northern Ireland "at every twist and turn" because he was "quite astounded" at the misconception or biased view among leading Irish Americans in the US and in Congress about the situation in Ireland and their support for Sinn Féin.

“We regarded him as the sort of linchpin of moderate Irish American opinion,” said the former minister.

Kennedy’s decision not to meet Adams and McGuinness after the McCartney killing “kept the pressure on them,” he said.

For his part, Adams said his relationship with Kennedy over the years of the peace process allowed Sinn Féin to push the Irish government, which, he said, sometimes “lagged behind the process.”

The oral project also contains some entertaining anecdotes. According to one interview with Kennedy, a British cabinet minister and a friend of Kennedy Smith once asked former taoiseach Charlie Haughey over dinner at his Kinsealy estate whether he'd talk about the Anglo-Irish relationship and how to move towards peace in the North.

Haughey looked up from his soup and replied: “Brits, out.”

He went back to his soup and said to his other guests: “Are you all taken care of at the other end of the table?”

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell is The Irish Times’s Public Affairs Editor and former Washington correspondent