A Job Well Done


As United States ambassador to Ireland, Mrs Jean Kennedy Smith, who retires today, has been neither "shy" nor "retiring". Nor has she been "too shallow to understand the past" or "too naive to anticipate the future". On the contrary, she has been the most personally outgoing, socially engaged, historically conscious and far-seeing envoy her government has sent to this State.

These descriptions were applied in advance by journalists working under pressure with little direct knowledge of their subject and more culpably - after her most noteworthy diplomatic achievements - by the former US Ambassador to the Court of St James, Mr Raymond Seitz, in his memoirs published earlier this year. One must beware such conventional journalistic and diplomatic wisdom before or after the event. It was Mrs Kennedy Smith's good fortune to represent the US in Ireland at a time when no basic US foreign policy interest was endangered by the daring positions President Clinton took on the Northern Ireland peace process, which put him so much at variance with Britain, whose internal affair it was traditionally supposed to be.

Changing international realities, notably the end of the Cold War, altered this picture irrevocably. It was no longer necessary for the White House to defer to the strategic argument, classically advanced by the State Department, that Britain should not be so antagonised - as if in recognition of the announcement by Peter Brooke in 1990 that Britain no longer had a selfish or strategic reason to be in Ireland.

The strategic argument had held sway decisively when Mrs Kennedy Smith's brother John was President. When she was appointed, there was much more scope for the White House to relate to the powerful Irish-American lobby in Congress led by her brother Edward in the Senate and including her nephews Joseph and Patrick in the House of Representatives. Mr Clinton's need for Irish-American votes fed into that balance of forces.

This gave Mrs Kennedy Smith her opportunity to recognise a decisive shift in policy and to apply some of the formidable political skills for which her own family is justly renowned. In the process, she was occasionally accused of representing Irish rather than US interests. The argument is impossible to sustain in the face of what is one of Mr Clinton's most notable foreign policy successes, to which he has attached continuing intense personal commitment. It is surely in US interests to bolster a peace process that resolves the historical differences between Britain and Ireland and which has engaged Mr Tony Blair's extraordinarily sustained attention as well. One of the most important outcomes is a much closer relationship, politically, economically and in human terms, between Ireland and the US.

Mrs Kennedy Smith has combined her mainstream representative work with a marvellous range of involvments in women's affairs, the arts and a social networking which has greatly extended the normal round of diplomatic engagements - and deepened her insight into Ireland's affairs. These have included her continuing work with disabled people, children especially, which she never allowed to suffer as a result of her other commitments. As her term concludes, she deserves the good wishes and thanks of the Irish people for a job done very well indeed.