Fresh light shed on Edward Kennedy role in Northern Irish peace process

Sinn Fein/IRA and its supporters repeatedly insist that outside pressure has no impact on IRA decisions. The evidence suggests otherwise.

From 1987 to 1998 I worked with Senator Ted Kennedy and served as his foreign policy advisor during pivotal years in the Northern Ireland peace process. Kennedy's most important contribution during those years was to lead an intense effort to convince President Clinton to grant a visa for Gerry Adams to visit the United States for 48 hours in 1994. He did so because he came to believe the IRA was prepared to end the violence and that the visa could help advance that goal. He was right. Months later the IRA would declare a ceasefire, which was followed by the Loyalists' ceasefire and a process that ultimately resulted in the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.

The Edward M. Kennedy Institute has just released parts of Senator Kennedy’s oral history, six years after his death. The project began in 2004, well before his 2008 brain tumor diagnosis, and includes interviews with numerous people directly involved in many domestic and international issues Senator Kennedy championed. Anyone with an interest in American politics will enjoy reading these interviews. Those interested in Irish issues will discover a treasure trove of details from Kennedy and from many of us directly involved.

Once Senator Kennedy decided to advocate for the visa for Adams, my role was to encourage others to support the effort, to do the day-to-day negotiating about the parameters of his visit, and to give the White House distance from Adams. When the visa was granted, Kennedy sent me to Manhattan to meet Adams as neither Kennedy nor officials in the Administration would meet with him prior to an IRA ceasefire.

Readers will learn from those directly involved just how central Kennedy was to the process. He had always opposed violence and his own evolution, from the time he met John Hume in the early 1970s, is described in his own words. He was admirable in his laser focus on the objective of peace, rather than claiming credit for his work. When Conor O'Clery, the Irish Times correspondent in Washington who, in 1996, wrote the first book about America's role, Senator Kennedy opted to forego participating because he had no interest in jeopardizing the process, particularly by annoying the Unionists with self-congratulation. He regularly used to say that it's amazing what you can get done when you're willing to let someone else take the credit. These interviews will show how much credit he truly deserves.


Despite today's issues involving Northern Ireland, these interviews will hopefully serve to remind everyone, including the political leaders there, how far they have come and that they must redouble their collective efforts now. The oral history also reveals how much Kennedy admired John Hume, and of the significant role played by Ambassador Jean Kennedy Smith, who was often at odds with the Department of State. And former Taoiseach Albert Reynolds, who did not receive sufficient praise during his lifetime for his role, is acknowledged here. Most contributors to this project recognized how much the outcome so depended on the timing being right and the right people being in the right places at the right time -- which is why I believe there is little transferable value in terms of other global conflicts.

Kennedy's most important contribution after the Good Friday Agreement was his role in pushing the IRA to decommission. Given the recent murders of Jock Davidson and Kevin McGuigan and the debate about the existence, or not, of the IRA, readers will be interested in that history which dates to the 2005 murder of Robert McCartney in Belfast.

Of all I have read thus far in the oral history, I take exception to the way Gerry Adams downplays the impact of Senator Kennedy’s decision to refuse to meet him in March 2005.

Continuing to work on Irish issues after I left Kennedy's employ in 1998, I continued to stay in regular contact with him and Sharon Waxman (the person who replaced me as his foreign policy advisor). After IRA members were linked to the December 2004 robbery of the Northern Bank in Belfast and to the killing a month later of Robert McCartney, I rang Sharon and said I felt strongly that Senator Kennedy should not meet Adams, as had been his practice over the years. Business as usual would send the wrong message. Sharon (up to her eyeballs handling the Iraq War for Kennedy) asked me send in a memo for the Senator laying out my views. Kennedy thought about it for 24 hours, as he later told Kevin Cullen of the Boston Globe, and agreed not to meet Adams. Kris Balderston, an aide to Senator Clinton, got wind of what Kennedy was contemplating and rang me asking me to explain my advice. Senator Clinton would also refuse to meet Adams, as would President Bush. Instead, Senator Kennedy met with the sisters of Robert McCartney and arranged other high profile meetings for them in Washington, DC to demonstrate support.

Sinn Fein/IRA and its supporters repeatedly insist that outside pressure has no impact on IRA decisions. The evidence suggests otherwise. Just months after several refused to meet Adams, in July 2005, the IRA would declare the war was over. Kennedy resumed conversations with Adams after the IRA decommissioned in October 2005.

In his interview in the oral history, Adams glosses over the period as if it was no big deal. But Adams and his people were furious with Kennedy, saying he was "ill-advised." Adams also refers to the issue being "exploited" by the British Government. It is amusing to read that whenever someone didn't like a decision by Kennedy, he was "ill-advised", captive of the Irish Government, or captive of John Hume. Ted Kennedy was his own man. He knew when to open the door to Gerry Adams by granting him a visa and when to close it until the decommissioning of weapons occurred. While he took advice, he made his own decisions and history has proven him correct when it comes to Northern Ireland. The peace process is stronger because of his contributions.

Trina Y. Vargo is the founder and president of the US-Ireland Alliance.