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Kennedy's death: Ireland mourns a "true friend"

Edward Kennedy’s role in peace process helped change Irish history.

U.S. Senator Ted Kennedy (R) meets with Gerry Adams (L), the leader of the IRA’s political wing, Sinn Fein, in Kennedy's Capitol Hill office March 13, 2002. Adams was in Washington to discuss the progress of the Irish peace process, and to join with U.S. leaders in marking the St. Patrick's Day holiday. (Win McNamee/Reuters)

DUBLIN — Nowhere outside the United States is the passing of Senator Edward Kennedy being mourned as much as in Ireland, the country from where his ancestors emigrated during the potato famine of the 19th century and to which he helped bring peace in recent years.

President Mary McAleese said he would be remembered as a “hugely important friend to the country during very difficult times,” and Prime Minister Brian Cowen commented that Ireland had lost a true friend who “worked valiantly for the cause of peace on this island.” (Read other international reactions to the senator's death here.)

The sentiments are not overblown. The Massachusetts senator was for four decades the Irish Government’s staunchest ally on Capitol Hill. He first became involved in Ireland in 1971 when he told the U.S. Senate that, “Ulster is becoming Britain’s Vietnam” and that British troops should be withdrawn.

Such statements aroused deep resentment in the British establishment. When as a reporter in London I asked Lord Hailsham, then-Lord Chancellor, what effect such interventions by Irish Americans like Senator Kennedy would have on British policy on Ireland, he retorted angrily: “Those Roman Catholic bastards, how dare they interfere!”

Kennedy grew uneasy however about being associated with Irish American groups supporting violence to achieve the same goal of a united Ireland. In 1972 he sought out John Hume in Derry for advice. As leader of the moderate nationalist party, the Social Democratic and Labour Party, in Northern Ireland, Hume was a prominent critic of  pro-IRA sentiment among Irish Americans. The senator was so impressed with the former Derry schoolteacher’s impassioned argument for constitutional reform that from then on he aligned himself with Hume on Irish issues. He joined forces with Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York State, and Governor Hugh Carey of New York to form a group known as the Four Horsemen, who appealed to Americans every St. Patrick’s Day to renounce any action that promoted violence. The government in Dublin recognized Kennedy’s value as a counterweight to the influence in the United States of groups sympathetic to the outlawed IRA, such as Irish Northern Aid (Noraid).

He became a close ally of Sean Donlon, who as Irish ambassador to Washington from 1978, took on these groups in a bitter struggle for influence. When Charles Haughey became Irish prime minister in 1979, and made a move to replace Donlon in order to placate the more militant Irish Americans, Kennedy and the other Horsemen got Haughey to change his mind. The Massachusetts senator later helped persuade President Ronald Reagan to lean on British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to sign up to the landmark 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement, giving the Dublin government a say in Northern Ireland affairs for the first time.