If Gordon Brown expected props back home for being the first European leader to enjoy President Obama's hospitality at the White House and only the fifth British Prime Minister ever to address Congress, he might have reconsidered the fourth paragraph of that speech. Like a nervous entertainer at a particularly rowdy children's party, Brown pulled his rabbit out of the hat almost at the start of his act. Her Majesty Britain's Queen had bestowed an honorary knighthood on "Sir Edward Kennedy," he announced.
This was already stretching a point. The holders of honorary knighthoods a motley crew that includes U2 lead singer Bono, his potty-mouthed countryman Bob Geldof, former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani and, until the honor's revocation last year, Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe are not allowed to style themselves "Sir," a distinction reserved solely for subjects of Queen Liz. But where Brown really got himself in hot water was with his explanation of what the Massachusetts senator had done to deserve his quasi-ennoblement. Kennedy had contributed to improving American health care, boosting educational provision around the world and, Brown told his congressional audience on March 4, "Northern Ireland is today at peace." (See pictures from JFK's inner circle.)
Less than 24 hours later, the head of Northern Ireland's police force revealed that the threat of a terrorist attack currently stands at its highest level in seven years. But that's not why Kennedy's gong has proved controversial. During the 30 years of the Troubles and in the centuries that proceeded this dark period of history and even since some kind of stability has been achieved in the region, the status and politics of Northern Ireland have always been capable of dividing neighbors and friends, much less politicians. "Edward Kennedy may never have said outwardly he supported the [Irish Republican terror group] IRA, but he certainly ...was no friend of the U.K.," said Lord Tebbitt, a stalwart of Margaret Thatcher's government, whose wife was crippled by an IRA bomb attack in 1984. "This honor is wholly inappropriate on the basis of the sleaze attached to [Kennedy] after the crash at Chappaquiddick, let alone his support for nationalism in Northern Ireland."
Tebbit can sometimes appear isolated, a rightwing Conservative still feeding off the glory days of Thatcherism. In this case he articulated the views of, well, at least 252 people and counting, who have already signed up to a Facebook group called "No Knighthood for Ted Kennedy." Donal Blaney, a Conservative blogger, founded the group and has also inveighed passionately against the award on his website. Why such fervor? Kennedy played a high profile role in Northern Ireland's peace process, working to articulate the cause of nationalists whilst also sometimes criticizing Republican extremism. That's a fine balance which does not satisfy the pro-Irish Union, anti-Ted faction in Britain. "The knighthood is a grotesque insult to the memory of British service men and women who died serving in Northern Ireland," says Blaney.
In common with many Kennedy critics who have emerged from hibernation since Brown's announcement, Blaney is especially incensed by a remark the U.S. politician made back in 1971. In that year, Kennedy introduced a Senate resolution demanding the ouster of British military forces from Northern Ireland or Ulster as the Irish called that part of the island. Said Kennedy: "Ulster is becoming Britain's Vietnam... The conscience of America cannot keep silent when men and women of Ireland are dying. Britain has lost its way..."
Tebbit and Blaney's opprobrium appears to be shared by Britain's rightwing press. "Kennedy is one chum [of Brown's] who should not be honored," opined a Daily Telegraph headline. The historian Andrew Roberts penned an opinion piece in the Daily Mail entitled "The Obsceneity of Giving Ted Kennedy a Knighthood." But the Conservative party now a touchier-feelier bunch under the leadership of David Cameron is also divided on the issue. Simon Burns, a Tory MP, submitted the following "early day motion" to the House of Commons: "This House warmly welcomes the awarding of an honorary knighthood to Senator Edward Kennedy for services to U.S.-U.K. relations and to the peace process in Northern Ireland; recognizes the contribution he has made over 46 years in the U.S. Senate to advancing the cause of human rights, universal healthcare and a more just society; and acknowledges that his contribution to public service has established him as one of the finest and most effective U.S. senators in the history of that august body."
Early day motions rarely are submitted to debate, and in any case, Britain's monarch has already granted the award to Kennedy. The only remaining way to block the honorific, which Kennedy has accepted but not yet collected in the material form of a medal from the British ambassador to Washington, would be for Congress to intervene. Article I, Section 9 of the U.S. Constitution states that "no person holding any office of profit or trust... shall, without the consent of the Congress, accept of any present, emolument, office, or title, of any kind whatever, from any king, prince, or foreign state."
But a congressional veto seems pretty unlikely, as contributors to the slightly larger Facebook group of Kennedy supporters have concluded. Here's a typical comment from one of the group's 23,252 members: "Congratulations, Sir Edward Kennedy! I can think of no greater addition to the legend of the American Camelot than the knighthood of one of its most deserving sons just after electing one of its (metaphorically) adopted sons to the Presidency." With British Conservatives divided and American Democrats charmed, perhaps Prime Minister Brown is an accomplished magician after all.