Champion of Ireland's cause and a true friend

OPINION: The political risks Edward Kennedy took for peace in Ireland drew sharp rebukes at the time but in the end, even his…

OPINION:The political risks Edward Kennedy took for peace in Ireland drew sharp rebukes at the time but in the end, even his critics acknowledged that he was correct

THE KENNEDY name is synonymous with Irish American support for Irish causes. It wasn’t always so.

President John F Kennedy accepted an invitation to visit Ireland in 1963 but turned down a request from minister for foreign affairs Frank Aiken to persuade the British to drop their opposition to a united Ireland. Irish ambassador to Washington Dr J T Kiernan reported at the time that President Kennedy was by his education “British inclined”.

This presumably applied to all the Kennedy clan, including Edward, but that was to change with the civil rights agitation in Northern Ireland in 1969. This struck a chord with the liberal Massachusetts senator, prompting him to send a telegram to the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association promising that they were not alone. As the North descended into violence, Kennedy came under pressure from Irish Americans to take a more pro-active role.


A turning point came in September 1971 when a woman confronted him in a park in London and asked how he could speak out against the shooting of anti-Vietnam War students at Kent State University and ignore what British troops were doing in Northern Ireland.

Shortly afterwards, on October 20th, 1971, Kennedy made his first speech on Ireland, telling the US Senate that “Ulster is becoming Britain’s Vietnam” and calling for a united Ireland. After Bloody Sunday, January 30th, 1972, Kennedy compared the event to the massacre by American soldiers of 500 Vietnam civilians at My Lai in 1968 and again called for a British withdrawal.

These statements aroused the fury of the British establishment. In London at that time, when I asked Lord Hailsham, the then lord chancellor, what effect such interventions by Irish Americans like Senator Kennedy had on British government policy, he retorted angrily: “Those Roman Catholic bastards, how dare they interfere.”

Kennedy grew uneasy about being associated with Irish American groups supporting violence to achieve the same goals he was espousing. In 1972, when on a trip to Europe, he telephoned John Hume in Derry to get his advice. The SDLP leader had made an impression in Washington with his criticisms of pro-IRA sentiment among Irish Americans, calling instead for constitutional reform.

“I need to know what’s really going on in Northern Ireland and I am told you are the person I should talk to,” said Kennedy to Hume. They met over dinner in Bonn on November 21st. The US senator was so impressed with what the former Derry schoolteacher had to say that from then on he aligned himself with Hume on Irish issues and undertook to help promote peaceful change.

To this end he joined forces with Tip O’Neill, speaker of the US House of Representatives, senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York State, and New York governor Hugh Carey. Known as the Four Horsemen, these influential US politicians appealed to Americans every St Patrick’s Day to renounce any action that promoted violence, while calling for an Irish dimension to peace efforts and investment in the Border economy.

He refused to support the so-called McBride Principles, popular with many Irish Americans as a way of forcing equal employment in Northern Ireland, but portrayed by Hume as a disincentive to US investment. He also intervened to get the Carter administration to suspend US weapon sales to the RUC.

The government in Dublin recognised Kennedy’s value as a counterweight to the influence in the US of Irish Northern Aid and the Irish National Caucus. He became a close ally of Seán Donlon, who as Irish ambassador to Washington from 1978, took on these groups in a bitter struggle for influence.

When Charles Haughey became taoiseach in 1979, and made a move to replace Donlon to placate the ambassador’s critics, Kennedy, Moynihan and O’Neill let Haughey know in transatlantic calls just how much they valued Donlon and what he stood for, and Haughey let the matter drop.

By the 1980s, Kennedy was the most powerful figure in a Democratic Senate and he helped persuade President Ronald Reagan to lean on Margaret Thatcher to sign up to the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement.

Influencing events in Ireland became one of the issues by which Kennedy defined himself. It was much more than a matter of electoral convenience. When travelling with him during a campaign in Massachusetts in 1994, Northern Ireland never once came up with voters. When Bill Clinton was elected president in 1992, Kennedy persuaded him to appoint his sister Jean Kennedy Smith as ambassador to Ireland. Clinton had made a qualified promise to grant a US visa to Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams, but this was at first opposed by Kennedy and the Irish government, and Clinton refused an initial request. However, when an group of influential Irish American businessmen organised by New York publisher Niall O’Dowd sought a visa in December 1993 to allow Adams to promote the peace process at a conference in New York, it was Kennedy who helped decide the issue in their favour.

On a visit to Dublin to spend new year with his sister, he was lobbied by former Irish Presseditor Tim Pat Coogan who argued that a visa would let the IRA see the political advantages of peace, and was told privately by taoiseach Albert Reynolds that: "I think you should go for it because I think he [Adams] wants peace." Shortly afterwards, at the funeral of Tip O'Neill in Boston, he got the same advice from John Hume. Kennedy then got to work rallying fellow senators, including George Mitchell, to put pressure on Clinton to grant the visa. He called the president to warn that a refusal would produce a groundswell of ill will from Irish Americans. Kennedy's intervention was decisive. It provided political cover for Clinton, who was inclined to take the risk, but was facing fierce opposition from another prominent Irish American, House speaker Tom Foley, as well as the US State Department and the FBI.

The British were furious and Kennedy and Clinton were excoriated in British tabloids. “See what the Brits are saying about me?” said Clinton when Kennedy called to thank him. “Don’t worry about it,” the senator replied. “That’s what the Brits have been saying about the Kennedys for years.”

After the IRA ceasefire in 1994, as politicians from both traditions in Northern Ireland began trooping up Capitol Hill to put their case, Kennedy became an essential, and always hospitable, port of call. Unionist leader Jim Molyneaux remarked to me once: “I never thought I would see the day that Senator Edward Kennedy would sit across a table from me and ask, ‘Mr Molyneaux, what can we do for you’?”

With the passing of time, the decision on the visa came to be seen as critical in achieving the 1994 IRA ceasefire. Jonathan Powell, who as a Washington-based British diplomat opposed the visa vigorously, wrote in his 2008 book Great Hatred, Little Roomthat in retrospect "Clinton was clearly right in the decision he made".

In March this year Kennedy’s positive role in the peace process, so often maligned in London, was recognised by the Labour government when he was granted an honorary knighthood.

-Conor O'Clery was Washington Correspondent of The Irish Timesfrom 1991 to 1996 and is the author of The Greening of the White House, on the US role in the Irish peace process