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Senator Edward M. Kennedy

On Friday last, I signed the book of condolence for Senator Edward Kennedy in the quiet surroundings of the US Consulate General in Belfast and in the dignified presence of Kevin S. Roland, the acting Consul General. I was honoured to formally express to the American people, the sadness of so many people in North Belfast about the death of a truly great statesman, who cared deeply for Ireland, as well as his United States of America. It was the least I could do to honour the memory of an outstanding Irish American, who represented the state of Massachusetts continuously from 1962 to his death from cancer on 25th August, at the age of 77.

As the brother of President Jack Kennedy, the first Catholic Irish American to be elected as President of the United States in 1960, and also the brother of Robert Kennedy, former US Attorney General, and Democratic presidential candidate in 1968, both so violently and prematurely cut down in their political youth, he had a heavy responsibility to his family and Irish Americans at large, to preserve and advance the rich political legacy of the Kennedy brothers. This he did with consummate skill and passionate commitment, becoming in the process the embodiment of active liberalism in the US Senate. His commitment to the ordinary working man in the United States and his championship of healthcare, education, the trade union movement and Civil Rights, made him the undisputed leader of the liberal left in American politics.

His support for Barack Obama’s presidential candidacy in 2008 was without doubt a crucial factor in Obama winning the Democratic Party’s nomination against the formidable campaign of Hillary Clinton. In making that difficult choice between Clinton and Obama, Kennedy must have calculated that the greater goal of electing an African American president for the first time would have had a profound effect on the America’s politics, dealing once and for all with the contentious issue of race in the USA. He would certainly have reflected on the great breakthrough that it was for his brother to be elected the first Catholic president in 1960. With Barack Obama elected President, Ted Kennedy could happily reflect on his significant contribution to that achievement.

As far as Ireland was concerned Kennedy had a passionate commitment to peace, and helping to solve the problems that beset our country. From the early seventies he had a deep and close political friendship with John Hume; when it came to the North of Ireland Hume was Kennedy’s closest advisor. Whenever Kennedy persuaded President Clinton to grant Gerry Adams a visa to visit the USA in 1994 it was done with Hume’s approval. Undoubtedly this was an important step in the peace process and Kennedy was crucial in getting that decision right.

Ted Kennedy was deeply saddened by the violence and political division in Ireland and courageously opposed both the excess of the British government and the Provisional IRA’s futile campaign. He had no sympathy for the Provisional IRA or its methods and regarded their attitude to violence with great distain. He was an enthusiastic supporter of the Good Friday Agreement and encouraged US support for it. This included financial support and in particular the continuance for the International fund for Ireland, promoted by another great Irish American, Speaker Tip O’Neill. When the Assembly and Executive were restored in May 2007 Senator Kennedy attended Stormont to emphasise his public support for the Agreement and for peaceful politics in Northern Ireland.

On a personal level I met him four times and on each occasion he displayed the same friendly, supportive, and encouraging attitude that seemed to characterise the man. When I was Lord Mayor, he and his wife Vicki graciously paid a courtesy call to Belfast City Hall, to show their support for myself as the first Catholic and Nationalist Mayor of the City of Belfast. He didn’t have to visit, but he did to show his support for the democratic politics of the SDLP. He believed that making politics work was in itself the antidote to violence, whether sectarian, racial, or political. On that occasion he left me with a photograph of himself, together with Jack and Robert. He poignantly explained that the photograph was important to him personally, as it was the last photograph of the three of them taken together alive. I treasure that photograph, as I treasure the memories of meeting a truly great politician, who was rightly named the ‘Lion of the Senate’.

Alban Maginness MLA

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