Senator Edward Kennedy and the "Ulster Troubles": Irish and Irish-American Politics, 1965-2009

By Sanders, Andrew | Historical Journal of Massachusetts, Summer 2011 | Go to article overview

Senator Edward Kennedy and the "Ulster Troubles": Irish and Irish-American Politics, 1965-2009


Sanders, Andrew, Historical Journal of Massachusetts


Editor's Introduction: In 7927 Ireland was partitioned into two sections: Northern Ireland was composed of the six predominantly Protestant counties of Ulster, while Southern Ireland was made up of the remaining twenty-six, predominantly Catholic counties. Both Northern and Southern Ireland remained part of Great Britain. The next year, Irish nationalist leaders negotiated two treaties with Britain that created the Irish Free State, which had "dominion " status within the British Commonwealth but fell short of full independence. Northern Ireland chose to opt out of the Irish Free State, choosing instead to remain fully a part of the United Kingdom.

"The Troubles " refers to approximately three decades of violence characterized by the armed campaigns of Irish republican and Ulster loyalist paramilitary groups. The duration is conventionally dated from the late 1960s to the Belfast "Good Friday" Agreement of 1998. The conflict involved the constitutional status of Northern Ireland and the relationship between the predominantly Protestant unionist and predominantly Catholic nationalist communities there. "The Troubles " had both political and military dimensions.

This time period encompassed the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) campaign of 1969-1997, intended to end British rule in Northern Ireland and to reunite Ireland politically. As the following article demonstrates, Massachusetts Senator Edward ("Ted") Kennedy played an instrumental role in promoting a constitutional resolution to the conflict.

A member of arguably the most famous political family in the history of the United States, Edward Kennedy (1932-2009) was both a popular and controversial figure during his nearly fortyseven years in the U.S. Senate. Outspoken on both domestic and international issues, Kennedy was particularly vocal on the violence that plagued Northern Ireland from the 1960s onwards. However, much of the literature on Kennedy's life neglects to cover this significant aspect of his career.

On March 4, 2009, U.S. Senator Edward M. Kennedy was made an honorary Knight of the British Empire. In an address before the US Congress, Prime Minister Gordon Brown highlighted the critical role that Kennedy had played in the Northern Ireland peace process as well as his overall contribution to relations between the United States and United Kingdom over his career. If Kennedy's role in the affairs of Northern Ireland was sufficiently significant to merit an honorary knighthood, why has so much literature on the Senator neglected to cover this aspect of his life?1

This article explores Kennedy's role in the American dimension to the "Ulster troubles." It argues that his connection to the political situation in Northern Ireland offered Kennedy an opportunity to repair his relationship with Irish-Americans both in Massachusetts and beyond. However, his initially hard-line position on the Irish question was confrontational to the British government. Kennedy's rapid evolution into a strong proponent for peace and reconciliation underlines his genuine intentions on the issue. This study highlights the role of Irish political figures, notably Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) leader John Hume, in persuading Kennedy of the folly of his early positions. The extension of violence from Ireland to the United Kingdom further helped convince Kennedy that he should become an active opponent to violence, particularly when his niece Caroline was threatened by an Irish Republican Army (IRA) attack on her London hosts during the mid-1970s. Coming at a time when Kennedy's relationship with Hume was becoming particularly close, this attack underlined for Kennedy the importance of promoting the cause of non-violence.

KENNEDY'S EARLY INTEREST IN NORTHERN IRELAND

The Kennedy family had strong ties with both Ireland and the United Kingdom. County Wexford native Patrick Kennedy left Ireland at the age of 26, arriving in Boston in April 1849, where he married Bridget Murphy. …

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