Northern Ireland Remembers Ted Kennedy, the Peacemaker

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Brian Snyder / Reuters

Gerry Adams, leader of Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army, talks to reporters upon his arrival in Boston on Sept. 24, 1994, for a two-week visit to the U.S., as Senator Ted Kennedy looks on

"Farewell to a peacemaker," ran the headline of the Belfast Telegraph on Aug. 27. Outside the U.S., perhaps the warmest tributes to Ted Kennedy have been paid in Ireland, most of all in Northern Ireland, where he is credited — although far from unanimously — with helping bring about the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, the political breakthrough that paved the way for Protestants and Catholics to share power.

Speaking on Wednesday, Aug. 26, former Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern, an old friend of Kennedy's, revealed that one of the late Senator's favorite songs was "The Town I Loved So Well." The lyrics lament the decline of the city of Derry during Northern Ireland's 25-year sectarian conflict from a place of "happy days in so many, many ways" to a town "brought to its knees by the armored cars and bombed-out bars." It was an apt choice of song for Kennedy, whose dealings with Northern Ireland were often linked to the city.

One of Kennedy's first forays into Northern Irish politics was to lend his support to the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association. The campaign in the late 1960s and early '70s called for an end to discrimination against Catholics in housing and employment and was closely associated with Derry. After Bloody Sunday in 1972 — when 13 civilians were shot dead by the British army during a civil-rights march in Derry — Kennedy's position on Northern Ireland noticeably hardened. His comparisons of Northern Ireland with Vietnam and his calls for a British withdrawal from the province angered Protestants, many of whom came to view Kennedy as at best an ill-informed American and at worst an IRA sympathizer. Even in today's postconflict Northern Ireland, Kennedy's political allegiances remain a source of controversy. There were outcries from Protestant politicians in March, for example, when British Prime Minister Gordon Brown nominated Kennedy to receive an honorary knighthood from the Queen.

But Kennedy's later involvement with one of Derry's most famous sons repaired much of the damage caused by his earlier comments. During the 1980s, Kennedy became a close friend of John Hume, a Nobel Peace laureate and former leader of the nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party. For Hume, a key part of ending the conflict in Northern Ireland was persuading hard-line Irish-American groups that had donated money to the IRA during the Troubles — the period of sectarian violence that claimed more than 3,600 lives between the '60s and '80s — to support the fledgling peace process. Kennedy soon became the main cheerleader for Hume's cause in Washington.

"Ted Kennedy's evolution from naive ignorance to deep understanding of the conflict in Northern Ireland mirrored a growing sophistication in Irish America about the conflict," says Kevin Cullen of the daily Boston Globe. "Teddy became the leading and most influential American voice on Ireland, and he stayed with it longer than any American politician."

In the grand scale of American contributions to the peace process in Northern Ireland, however, Kennedy would probably be eclipsed by George Mitchell — former U.S. special envoy to Northern Ireland and broker of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement — or by Bill Clinton, who took a closer interest in Northern Ireland than had any President before him. Instead, it's Kennedy's subtle yet influential lobbying that has been at the heart of the tributes paid to him in Northern Ireland since his death on Tuesday.

It was Kennedy who, on Hume's advice, persuaded Clinton to grant a controversial U.S. visa to Gerry Adams, leader of the Irish Republican Party Sinn Fein, in 1994. At the time, the move was strongly opposed by the British government, but today the visa is seen as an important turning point in Northern Ireland's recent history. Adams was able to convince IRA supporters on U.S. soil of the merits of backing the peace process. Seven months later, the IRA announced its first military cease-fire, ending a 25-year terrorism campaign, with Protestant paramilitary groups calling their own cease-fires shortly thereafter.

More recently, Kennedy's snub of Adams at the St. Patrick's Day celebrations in Washington in 2005 and his decision to instead meet the family of Robert McCartney — the father of two allegedly murdered by IRA members in a Belfast bar earlier that year — was highly embarrassing for Sinn Fein. The McCartney murder, and Kennedy's reaction to it, added to the pressure on Sinn Fein to cooperate with police in Northern Ireland — something the party had historically refused to do. Today, Sinn Fein representatives sit on Northern Ireland's Policing Board, and the party routinely calls on the public to assist the police with inquiries.

So while Hume described him on Wednesday as "a great friend of Ireland and great supporter of the peace process," what will be Kennedy's lasting legacy in Northern Ireland?

"You get into the realms of trying to assess the behind-the-scenes influence that he exerted, and that's not so easy," says Graham Walker, professor of political history at Queen's University in Belfast. "Ted Kennedy's role in that era was keeping the wilder voices of Irish America in check. There were a lot of headlines in the 1970s about his calls for 'troops out,' but I think as time went on he was a moderating influence, pushing [Irish] Republicans along a political path."

On Thursday, as a public book of condolence for Kennedy was opened at the U.S. Consulate in Belfast, a commemoration was held in the small town of Warrenpoint to mark the 30th anniversary of one of the bloodiest days in the Troubles, when 18 British soldiers were killed by a bomb planted by the IRA outside the town. As Northern Irish politicians travel to Kennedy's funeral in Arlington, Va., this weekend, perhaps the most fitting tribute to him, and to all of those who worked on the Northern Ireland peace process, is that events like the bombing in Warrenpoint — and the other deadly chapters from the Troubles being observed this year — are unlikely to ever happen again.