I first met Senator Teddy Kennedy early in October 1994 in Boston. The IRA cessation was over a month old. I was in the USA for a fortnight long coast to coast visit – a frenetic city a day whirlwind tour. We started in Boston and Teddy was there to greet us at the airport. From our first meeting I was very taken by him. He had played a very crucial role in the build up to the cessation, in particular by supporting a visa for me. Then as the painstaking work of constructing a peace process continued in Ireland and as it created the possibility and opportunity of an IRA cessation he also intervened to support an immediate visa for the late Joe Cahill.
Teddy’s sister Jean Kennedy Smith, US Ambassador to Ireland, played a pivotal role in the last minute tick tacking between Sinn Féin through Fr Alex Reid, the Taoiseach Albert Reynolds and her brother the Senator. The Cahill visa issue went down to the wire. Sinn Fein had our own contacts with the White House and I had made the case that a visa for Joe Cahill would be proof that the USA supported an alternative way for republicans to pursue our objectives.
The Taoiseach was also lobbying the White House. But as is now a matter of public record President Clinton was being offered conflicting advice by his own system. It is my view that Senator Kennedys direct appeal was crucial. So also was the encouraging role of his sister Jean. Joe’s visit to the USA, even as news of the IRA cessation was being announced, showed the Irish Republican base in the States as well as in Ireland, that there was another way forward.
Teddy’s role in getting the Joe Cahill visa was always a source of much humour for the Senator. Apparently the State Department came back with Joe’s record. Aside from numerous terms of imprisonment and a deportation from the USA he was also sentenced to death in the 1940’s for the killing of an RUC officer. He and others escaped the hangman’s noose but one of their group, Joe’s friend Tom Williams, was hanged in Belfast prison.
‘I never said he was an altar boy’ the Senator recalled telling the US authorities.
He himself was firmly against political violence. He was a long standing supporter of John Hume. The Irish government’s role in the USA in the 70’s, 80’s and early 90’s was very divisive and badly advised, more concerned with anti-IRA propaganda than genuine work for peace or national reconciliation in Ireland. Or for the rights of Irish citizens, particularly in the north of Ireland or Britain.
For his part Senator Kennedy never allowed this to prevent him from being an advocate for citizens rights. And when called on to stand up for a real peace process Teddy Kennedy stood up.
Later at other critical phases in the process particularly when the IRA cessation broke down almost two years later in 1996, on the back of John Major’s government and the unionists refusing to talk to republicans the Senator stayed steady. In 1997 he made a keynote speech calling on the British government to set a date for Sinn Féin’s entry into talks. For this he was roundly abused by London.
In the end of course he was vindicated.
My thanks to him for being a good friend to Ireland. And to Britain also as it turned out. And for lots of good work on many causes including rights for illegials in the USA.
Teddy was a good American. His work in the US Senate is the stuff of legend. He was a genuine and powerful voice for disadvantaged people in his own country for almost five decades. My condolences to his wife Vicky and family, and to Jean. My sympathy also to his colleagues in the Senate and Congress. And to the American people who have lost a champion.