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Ted Kennedy and Promoting Peace in Northern Ireland

Senators Ted Kennedy and Chris Dodd with Gerry Adams

Former aides and foreign leaders discuss Kennedy's work in Northern Ireland

Over his long Senate career, the centuries-old conflict in Northern Ireland became a transformational issue for Senator Kennedy. Growing up in a family whose Irish heritage served as both a point of pride, as well as a source of discrimination, gave the Senator a multi-faceted perspective. Some of Teddy’s earliest memories were of his grandfather, Honey Fitz, relating stories about the Emerald Isle and how one day the North and South would unite in a republic free of discrimination. For the Kennedy clan, Irish politics were visceral.

In 1971, Kennedy strongly condemned Britain’s oppressive new internment policy in Northern Ireland, adopted 45 years ago today, targeting Irish Catholics suspected of supporting the IRA. He worked with Senator Abraham Ribicoff and Congressman Hugh Carey to draft a resolution calling for the withdrawal of British troops from Northern Ireland and for a united Ireland.

Kennedy’s thoughts on Northern Ireland grew more nuanced the following year, when he met John Hume, a moderate Irish-Catholic political leader in the North. Hume cautioned against fiery rhetoric, arguing that it perpetuated the cycle of violence. He instead called for a peaceful political dialogue that was respectful of the civil rights of all groups in Northern Ireland. With Hume’s encouragement, Kennedy published an article denouncing violence by any group, including the IRA, and calling for power-sharing between the Catholics and Protestants there.

In his talks with Hume, Kennedy came to realize that the flow of money and arms from the U.S. to Northern Ireland was a major impediment to the peace process. He began working with other prominent Irish-American political leaders to urge that Americans stop providing support to the IRA. 

Through these groups, Kennedy also worked to influence White House policy. He encouraged Presidents Carter and Reagan to pressure the British government to moderate its position. The Senator forged a particularly strong relationship with President Clinton on the Irish question. Not only did Kennedy provide the White House with a valuable back-channel to Sinn Féin, through his former staffer Nancy Soderberg, at the National Security Council, but Clinton named Teddy’s sister, Jean Kennedy Smith, Ambassador to Ireland. These relationships paid dividends in 1994 when Kennedy and Ambassador Smith lobbied Clinton to approve Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams’ visa for a trip to the U.S., clearing the way for a cease-fire and the start of the Good Friday negotiations. 

Kennedy continued to play an active role throughout the peace talks and implementation of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, working with Clinton’s special envoy, Senator George Mitchell, as well as with key interest groups in Northern Ireland. Kennedy even refused to meet with Adams at various times to pressure the IRA to respect the cease-fire and to disarm, which illustrated how far Kennedy’s position had transformed since his early days in the Senate. In 2007, the Senator witnessed the culmination of his work when he traveled to Northern Ireland to attend the Stormont ceremony that inaugurated the power-sharing government of which he had long dreamed.

Excerpts from the Miller Center’s Edward M. Kennedy Oral History Project:

Carey Parker (former Kennedy staffer): In October 1971, a month after his return from Europe, he signed on to a resolution that Senator Abe Ribicoff and Congressman Hugh Carey, who was a member of the House at the time, introduced in Congress calling for immediate British to withdrawal from Northern Ireland and the reunification of Ireland.

That was what the American Irish wanted to hear, but as John Hume indicated to some friends of ours in Ireland, “We can understand your frustration, but that’s not the way the crisis in Northern Ireland will be resolved.” He wanted to talk to the Senator, and the Senator said, “I have to go see John Hume.”

John Hume: Senator Ted Kennedy is one of the greatest public figures outside of Ireland who played a major role in our peace process and in the program for peace and justice in Northern Ireland. I’ll never forget when I first met him. I was just a young elected representative in 1972 and received a phone call; I was so astonished at receiving it that I thought it was somebody conning me. A voice in the phone said, “This is Ted Kennedy. I’m going to Europe and I would like to meet you to get fully briefed on how you see the situation on Northern Ireland.” I was amazed, but I knew it was him because it was his voice…

Senator Kennedy has been at the forefront in the United States of changing traditional American thinking, particularly traditional Irish American thinking, about the future of Ireland. He’s done this by totally opposing violence, because violence has no role to play in solving the problem of a divided people, but instead in supporting, socially and economically, the coming together of both sections of the community and of the British and Irish governments… 

You see, it’s now taken for granted that the British and Irish governments worked together to solve the Northern Ireland problem, but until then, the British government always refused to talk to the Irish government, saying it’s an integral part of the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland, therefore, it’s none of your business. Similarly, to get pressure put on the British government to do it, we were looking for foreign assistance, for assistance from the United States; Ted Kennedy and Tip O’Neill and Pat Moynihan and Hugh Carey agreed to support us to get the British and Irish governments to work together. But until then, no President of the United States would make a statement interfering with the internal affairs of Britain… 

But finally, on St. Patrick’s Day, 1977—go back and look again and you’ll see—President Jimmy Carter made the first-ever statement on Northern Ireland made by a President. That will go down in history as a very historic statement. He was persuaded to make the statement and the statement was drafted by the Four Horsemen: Ted Kennedy, Tip O’Neill, Pat Moynihan, and Hugh Carey, in consultation with myself. “The time has come,” Jimmy Carter said, “For the British and Irish governments to work together to solve the Northern Ireland problem. If they do so, we will support you economically.”

Carey Parker: Reagan did intervene in 1985 to urge Thatcher to accept a role for Ireland on Northern Ireland. Kennedy and Tip O’Neill urged Reagan to do so, and he agreed to. The result was the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985, which gave Ireland a voice on Northern Ireland issues. In general, though, the Reagan Administration was willing to go along with anything that the British Government was willing to accept, and there was a lot of pressure on the British Government from Irish America. Our feeling was that British policy, by and large, was controlled by the [Ian] Paisleys and the hard-line Protestant community in Northern Ireland. Their effort was not so much to try to reach reconciliation between the two sides as it was to end the violence, and they treated it as a war that they had to win, not as a peace they could negotiate. 

It took a major effort over more than a decade to get to the point where the Catholic community in Northern Ireland felt that the John Hume SDLP view was the path of the future, not the Gerry Adams IRA view…

We weren’t able to make much of a difference until Gerry Adams decided in the 1990s that he was interested in pursuing peace negotiations. That revelation came to us partly through John Hume and partly when the Senator’s sister, Jean [Kennedy Smith], became Ambassador to Ireland under President [William J.] Clinton. She picked up Adams’ shift very quickly, and she was very influential in convincing Senator Kennedy that it was genuine. The British Government was absolutely unconvinced. They felt that Adams was an out-and-out terrorist and that he should, under no circumstances, be accommodated.

The issue came to a head when Adams sought a visit to visit the United States. The British Government was adamantly opposed to such a visit, and the State Department initially opposed it. But it seemed to be very important to Senator Kennedy that if Adams was genuinely interested in making a shift toward reconciliation, he should be allowed to come here and be able to talk to the Irish-American community, so that they would understand the direction that the party was heading in and so that there would be an end, once and for all, to American support for the violence. 

Gerry Adams: We made a formal request for a visa. We had just had this conference that Bill and his friends had organized, and Jean Kennedy Smith wrote a letter of endorsement, endorsing the visa, but senior officials in her department, in her office wrote objecting to the visa… 

So here you have the Ambassador being supportive and her own staff, who presumably would be subordinate to her, were taking a different position. Teddy then starts to come into the fray because John Hume clearly had been briefing him all along in the course of the process. Some of the main people in the Clinton administration were people who had worked with Teddy Kennedy, Nancy Soderberg, for example, and others. But certainly Nancy would be the most prominent of those. So I just presumed that there were all sorts of back channels going on. If somebody got a formalization from source A, then the Nancys of this world would go on to Teddy and Teddy could go on to John Hume, or Teddy could go on to Jean Kennedy Smith and Jean Kennedy Smith could go on to Father Reid, and so on…

I think the President’s instinct was right on this, but he himself will tell you that a quiet word from Teddy Kennedy, what you should do, Mr. President. Chris Dodd also, who was a very big buddy of Teddy’s, made the same call. So the President called it against the advice of his senior officials and also against some powerful others, like Tom Foley, who was the Speaker of the House…

Teddy was nonviolent. He had lost two brothers to violent actions. He was a supporter of John Hume. He never pretended to be a supporter of Sinn Féin; he was always a supporter of John Hume. He and I got on well, but that’s aside. For him then to come out in the wake of this huge blast in London and to say there should be talks, the British government should be talking to the Republicans. And he stuck with that. Even though it was all heaped on top of him, that he was a supporter of “terrorism.”  He wouldn’t have become a figure of vilification in the States but certainly here, this was pointed up as a terrible thing for this man to be. But he was right.

Date edited: 08/08/2016 (4:51PM)


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