By Niall O’Dowd
Jean Kennedy Smith was a shock choice for Ambassador to Ireland in 1992 as the job seemed certain to go to Congressman Brian Donnelly who had legislated successfully for 40,000 visas for the Irish undocumented which became known as the Donnelly visas.
However, all powerful Senator Edward Kennedy had a very different idea, deciding his sister Jean Kennedy Smith was the one for the job. He soon convinced new president Bill Clinton to pick her. It was a momentous decision.
It proved an inspired choice. She arrived in Ireland, in 1993, just as the Irish peace process was gaining momentum.
She inherited an embassy in Dublin, known as a dead-end posting for many diplomats, and there was hostility towards her from the beginning. She was a complete outsider when it came to diplomatic norms but she had the invaluable aid and support of her brother, Senator Edward Kennedy, over what she was about to do.
That was to jump in feet first to the peace process which horrified the State Department professionals who never wanted to intrude on the special relationship with Britain.
Jean Kennedy Smith saw it differently. She began a wonderful partnership with new Irish leader Albert Reynolds and became deeply involved in his efforts to bring about peace in Northern Ireland, which seemed a huge task.
There is a wonderful book by then Irish Times Washington correspondent Conor O’Clery entitled “Daring Diplomacy”. I would heartily recommend it for an overview of this period.
As the book points out, the biggest task of all was dealing with the issue of a visa for Gerry Adams to come to the US. Irish American groups, Albert Reynolds, and John Hume were all in favor believing it would hasten a ceasefire.
The British, the US State Department, the CIA, and FBI all opposed it making it a steep uphill climb.
It is doubtful if anyone worked harder on the issue than Kennedy Smith who was convinced it was the key to unlocking the stalemate in Northern Ireland.
After a titanic struggle, President Clinton awarded Adams the visa and it changed the entire direction of Irish history. For the first time in 230 years the U.S. had chosen the Irish position over the British and Ireland would never be the same again.
At many key moments, Kennedy Smith found a way past continuing objections from anti-peace process forces, such as when she engineered a visa for IRA senior figure Joe Cahilll to go to America and brief Irish Americans on what was happening.
Once again the British were apoplectic as were some of her own staff but Kennedy Smith sailed on regardless.
Her sad passing on June 18, at 92, leaves a huge void but her best epitaph is “peacemaker” for that she truly was.
“Ni bheidh a leithead ann aris” (we shall never see her like again)
Words of Remembrance
“The news of the death of Jean Kennedy Smith will have been received with great sadness by many, both in the United States and in Ireland.
As United States Ambassador to Ireland in the 1990s Ambassador Kennedy Smith played a pivotal role in the initiatives that led to the Good Friday Agreement which helped bring the violence in Northern Ireland to an end.
She will be forever remembered as the diplomat who had a sense of Irish history and of what had influenced the Irish in the United States.
An activist diplomat, she was not afraid to break with convention or explore the limits of her mandate. She brought passion and clear values to her role, providing many of the elements that promoted peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland.”
Irish President Michael D Higgins
“There was no one more crucial to the success of the Peace Process than JKS who did not hesitate to risk her influence and reputation as U.S. Ambassador to nurture the Peace negotiations.”
Ed Kenney, who as Mutual of America’s Vice President of External Affairs, was involved in the Irish peace process.
“I’ll miss your trouble-making and your huge heart, Aunt Jean.”
Congressman Joseph P. Kennedy III
“Jean Kennedy Smith had the Kennedy mystique but wore it lightly. She so much wanted to serve as Ambassador to Ireland and as history reflects, was at The Park at a crucially important period. Jean also formed great friendships in the wider artistic community; she had a wonderful bond with Denise and Bill Whelan.
Jean served both her beloved countries with distinction. May she Rest in Peace.”
Loretta Brennan Glucksman
“I am deeply saddened to learn that Jean Kennedy Smith has passed away at age 92. Like the brothers and sisters of her extraordinary family, Jean was a strong believer in public service and helping those less fortunate. She established Very Special Arts, which has helped people with disabilities across the globe discover the world of art for nearly four decades. I had the pleasure of working closely with her during the 1990s when she was the United States Ambassador to Ireland. The American dimension was critical in helping to bring peace and reconciliation to the island of Ireland, and Jean certainly played an important role in that process. A caring mother, a dedicated sibling, an accomplished diplomat and philanthropist, Jean Kennedy Smith lived a remarkable life. Like so many others today, I mourn the loss of her passing.”
Congressman Richard E. Neal
“Her work in reaching across political divides was invaluable in Ireland’s hard-won peace.”
Sean Coveney, Ireland’s Deputy Prime Minister
“Smith was a generous mentor to young women and was always brimming with energy, savvy and wit. This is an immense loss.”
Samantha Power, who served as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations under President Obama
“Ambassador Jean Kennedy Smith’s advocacy towards peace in Northern Ireland influenced the Good Friday Agreement.
For us, a memorable occasion was when she and her sister Eunice Shriver visited our radio studio in 2003 to announce their decision to bring the Special Olympics to Ireland.”
Ambassador Jean Kennedy Smith is inducted into the Irish America Hall of Fame by Donald Keough in March 2011.
Right: June 27, 1963: At a reception and tea at the ancestral home of President John F. Kennedy in Dunganstown, Ireland, pictured are sister Eunice Shriver, second cousin Mrs. Mary Ryan, sister Jean Kennedy Smith, and Mrs. Margaret Kirwin and guests. Photo: Cecil W. Stoughton / Kennedy Library.
Below: May, 1997: Jean Kennedy Smith attending the Keel Laying ceremony at the Dunbrody Famine Ship. She placed the traditional coin in the stem of the ship, a specially commissioned silver dollar bearing the image of her brother JFK. She is pictured with Sean Reidy, then CEO of the JFK Trust in New Ross. In this role he conceived and developed the Dunbrody Famine Ship project and Irish Emigration History, Centre, which has had a transforming effect on the town of New Ross, becoming one of the foremost Tourist Attractions in Ireland. (In July 2011, the Irish America Hall of Fame opened at the Dunbrody.)
Jean was a regular visitor to New Ross during the building of the Dunbrody, and broke the bottle of champagne on the prow of the ship at the christening ceremony on the day of the ship’s launch on February 11, 2001. She sailed on Dunbrody that day on her maiden voyage to the New Ross quayside.
Her great grandfather Patrick Kennedy had sailed on the original Dunbrody on the first leg of his voyage to Boston in 1848 during the Great Famine.