Jean Kennedy Smith, last-surviving Kennedy sibling, dies aged 92

The former US ambassador to the Republic played a key role in North’s peace process

Former US ambassador to the Republic Jean Kennedy Smith pictured in 2014. File photograph: Ron Sachs/EPA

Former US ambassador to the Republic Jean Kennedy Smith pictured in 2014. File photograph: Ron Sachs/EPA

 

Jean Kennedy Smith, a sister of the Kennedy clan who as the US ambassador to the Republic in the 1990s helped pave the way for a formal agreement to end decades of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland, died on Wednesday at her home in Manhattan. She was 92.

Her death was confirmed by her daughter Kym.

Ms Smith was the last-surviving sibling in a family that embedded itself in the American consciousness and wrote itself into American history, producing a president and senators and an unrivalled mystique fashioned out of political glory, personal charisma, great wealth and staggering tragedy.

Until the age when most people retire, Ms Smith led a quiet life of privilege and philanthropy, with palatial homes, summers at the shore and a busy calendar of society and charity functions. She shared family triumphs and tragedies, though always in the shadow of her siblings, who included president John F Kennedy, senators Robert F Kennedy and Edward “Ted” M Kennedy, Eunice Shriver and Patricia Kennedy Lawford.

But in 1993, when she was 65, a doyenne of charity balls and the widow of Stephen E Smith, the Kennedy family’s troubleshooter and financial adviser, Ms Smith was named ambassador to Dublin by president Bill Clinton at the behest of her brother Ted.

“When Jean was posted to Ireland, people thought, ‘Oh, gosh,’” said Muffie Brandon, a Washington socialite.

Ms Smith was the first Kennedy woman of her generation to take on a serious political job. Like her sisters and the wives of her brothers, she had had roles in family political campaigns, but not in public service. Her father, Joseph P Kennedy snr, had been the ambassador to Britain when she was a little girl, and she had visited Ireland, the land of her ancestors, many times.

But she knew little about diplomacy, Irish politics or the intricacies of the Troubles. The appointment, too, was made at a crucial time, as movement had begun toward a settlement to end decades of fighting in the North that had left thousands dead on all sides.

Still, the Irish took to her warmly, and Irish leaders were eager to help. Over the next five years, in the unorthodox way that amateurs sometimes succeed, Ms Smith embraced her job and played a role in the peace settlement.

Ruffled feathers

While in the role, she ruffled feathers, broke rules and brushed aside diplomatic niceties. She was reprimanded by US secretary of state Warren Christopher for removing two senior staff members who disagreed with her views. She visited Northern Ireland and met repeatedly with Gerry Adams, the head of the IRA’s political wing Sinn Féin, though American policy then forbade it.

While many officials in London and the US state department believed she was exceeding her authority and regarded Mr Adams as a terrorist mouthpiece, Ms Smith helped clear the way for a visa that let him go to the US to make his case for a ceasefire and British withdrawal from the North.

Six months later, on August 31st, 1994, a ceasefire was declared. At the behest of Ms Smith, Ted Kennedy and others, Mr Clinton met with Mr Adams at the White House in 1995, granting a measure of respectability to Sinn Féin.

When the ceasefire broke down in 1996 over the continued exclusion of Sinn Féin from the peace talks, Ms. Smith summoned Joe Cahill, the IRA leader, and upbraided him. Sinn Féin was finally admitted to the talks, and the ceasefire was restored in 1997. Negotiations led by former senator George J Mitchell produced the Belfast Agreement in April 1998.

It provided for disarming paramilitary groups and powersharing in Northern Ireland. A month later, it was approved in referendums in the Republic and Northern Ireland.

Ms Smith’s role – bringing the IRA in from the cold – was important, and she was proud of it.

“The Irish people were willing to take me at face value, to give me the benefit of the doubt, because I was a Kennedy,” she said in 1998 as she prepared to end her assignment in Dublin. “I was a cog, really, in the machine that was moving. I was fortunate to be here to perhaps add momentum to what was happening.”

Ending her Dublin assignment, she was asked if she had taken the job with a sense of history – relating the murderous violence in Northern Ireland to the assassination of her brothers.

“I never sat down and said, ‘Now I must make a contribution, that one person can make a difference,’” she said. “But I felt I was in a position where I could contribute. I never thought of it in the light of history or my brothers. I just felt I had an obligation.”

Early years

Jean Ann Kennedy was born in Brookline, Massachusetts, on February 20th, 1928, the eighth of nine children and the youngest daughter of Joseph P and Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy. Her childhood was idyllic, with summers on Cape Cod, winters in Palm Beach, Florida, and mansion life in Bronxville, an affluent suburb in Westchester County, New York.

She was educated at Roman Catholic girls’ schools and graduated in 1948 from Manhattanville College of the Sacred Heart in New York with a degree in English. She introduced future wives to three of her brothers – Ethel Skakel, a Manhattanville classmate, to Robert; Jacqueline Bouvier, a friend, to John, and Virginia Joan Bennett, also a Manhattanville student, to Ted.

She married Mr Smith, a New York financier, in 1956. He oversaw the Kennedy family’s $500 million fortune after her father was incapacitated by a stroke in 1961, and he advised her brothers in political campaigns. The couple had four children.

She was a tennis player and swimmer who loved sailing and hikes on the beach. Her role in politics, like those of her sisters, was to appear at campaign events, starting with John’s races for Congress and the Senate and his campaign for the presidency in 1960. She also raised funds for programmes to benefit children with disabilities, and for many years was a trustee of the John F Kennedy Centre for the Performing Arts in Washington.

In 1974, she founded Very Special Arts, a Kennedy Centre affiliate that provides programmes in creative writing, dance, music, drama and other arts for thousands of physically or mentally disabled artists in the US and elsewhere.

In outliving her siblings, Ms Smith endured their often shattering deaths. Her oldest brother, Joseph P Kennedy jnr, was killed in combat in 1944. Kathleen died in a 1948 plane crash in France. John F Kennedy and Robert Kennedy were assassinated in 1963 and 1968. Rosemary, mentally disabled and institutionalised most of her life, died in 2005; Patricia Kennedy Lawford, who was divorced from the British actor Peter Lawford, died in 2006; Eunice Shriver, founder of the Special Olympics and the wife of R Sargent Shriver, the first director of the Peace Corps, died in August 2009, and Ted Kennedy died two weeks later.

Ms Smith’s husband died in 1990. In 1991, Ms Smith sat through the Florida trial of her son William on a rape charge. The case grew out of his visit to a bar with Ted Kennedy and a sexual encounter with a woman at the Kennedy estate in Palm Beach. It ended in acquittal, but television coverage and graphic testimony created scandal for the US’s most famous family.

In addition to her daughter Kym and son William, she is survived by her son Stephen jnr and daughter Amanda, and six grandchildren.

In a statement, the US embassy in Dublin said: “Ambassador Kennedy Smith played a pivotal role in the peace process in Northern Ireland and devoted much of her time to moving Northern Ireland from the dark days of violence and despair to the brighter days of peace, reconciliation, and partnership.

“Ambassador Kennedy Smith worked tirelessly to strengthen the bonds of the US-Ireland relationship and to reinforce those ‘enduring links’ the late president John F Kennedy spoke about 55 years ago on his visit to Ireland, for which she accompanied him.

“In one of her final public speeches as ambassador to Ireland, Ms Kennedy Smith said: ‘Though I am leaving soon, I am not really going away because my heart will always be here.’ Ar dheis Dé go raibh a hanam.” – New York Times