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Senator Ted Kennedy

The last time I met Senator Kennedy

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Senator Ted Kennedy

It was a Tuesday afternoon in Belfast in May 2007, and Senator Ted Kennedy was sitting in his shirtsleeves in a grand executive office in Stormont which, no doubt, once belonged to a Unionist minister.

“Come on in,” he boomed, jumping up from behind the desk in a room which was festooned with pictures of royalty and British lords and ladies of long ago.

I’m surprised the glass in the portraits didn’t crack with what they were witnessing. The day was May 8, 2007, and the Northern Ireland power-sharing government had just come into being.

Seasoned observers including yours truly had rubbed their eyes at the spectacle we had just witnessed at the Stormont assembly.

Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness, the worst of sworn enemies, had just agreed to share power in Northern Ireland. The world press was agape.

Teddy Kennedy had just traveled through the night, breaking into an already grueling schedule to ensure he was present at the historic moment, one he had done so much to bring about.

To his delight he was the American government’s official representative to the first ever-historic power sharing government - a nice touch by President George W. Bush who designated him.

Titles meant nothing to Kennedy, but I think this was just a little bit special. He brought it up right away.

He put his arm around my shoulder and we strolled to the window and gazed down the long Stormont driveway with its statue of Edward Carson, the Unionist defender of old, seemingly threatening the Catholic neighborhoods that loomed small in the distance. Carson would have fallen off his pedestal to have witnessed this day, I said. Teddy laughed.

I pointed out how Stormont, a magnificent building, was constructed in such a way that it seemed to loom over the Nationalist neighborhoods so that the peasantry would be in perpetual awe of their Unionist lords and master to the manor born -- now this day changed everything.

It was wonderful that Teddy was there. No American had done more to see the day happen.

Thomas Foley, the U.S. ambassador to Ireland, and Paula Dobriansky, Bush’s envoy to Ireland, hovered outside, but this was Kennedy’s day. His key decision to push for a U.S. visa for Gerry Adams, the president of Sinn Fein, in 1994 ended the international isolation of the party and may have moved the IRA ceasefire forward by as much as a year.

At the time Kennedy was roundly condemned for interfering. But on that day in May, he had the last laugh.

Coming from the chamber where he saw the new government of the North finally constituted, the scion of the Kennedy clan was even more exuberant than usual.

“I wish President Bush had been here to witness this,” Kennedy said. “This proves that you can disband militias and private armies and end the bomb and the bullet.”

It was clear that he was referring to the North, but the war in Iraq which he strongly opposed was not far from his mind. As a leading opponent of the war, the peace process in the North soon became a theme in Kennedy’s speeches to Congress. 

Kennedy also said that earlier in the chamber, Ian Paisley’s wife Eileen had greeted him warmly, and that Paisley himself had even dispensed a cheerful wave in his direction.

After years of being the subject of speeches about interfering outsiders, Kennedy had suddenly become an acceptable figure. That in itself was a kind of miracle.

But he had achieved it on his own terms, never by bowing the knee to the cries of outrage form successive British prime ministers that he had no right to say anything on Northern Ireland that was not official policy.

Also at Stormont that day was Chuck Feeney, the reclusive American billionaire who had donated tens of millions to cross-community peace projects, who was also feeling vindicated. He had also been subjected to vilification in the media when he helped Sinn Fein establish an American presence.

Earlier in the day Feeney and I had traveled by bus organized from a Republican neighborhood to Stormont. As he looked around the bus going to Stormont, he saw the faces of many of the Republican activists who had delivered on their promises to work for a peaceful resolution. 

Also there was Bill Flynn, chairman of Mutual of America of America and another key player on the U.S. side in the peace process. He was similarly moved by events at Stormont.

Through his National Committee on American Foreign Policy, Flynn has provided every major figure in Northern politics with a platform to speak in the U.S. When Bill stepped down Tom Moran at Mutual of America continued the incredible role one company played in helping bring about peace.

I left Kennedy and later I found Flynn staring out at the statue of Edward Carson from the windows of the Long Gallery at Stormont.

“You know, they told me that Nationalists only ever passed one bill in all their years in hopeless opposition here,” he said. ‘‘It was about wildlife.

“Well, we have a whole new species of that arriving here now to take up residence. It’s a wonderful change.”

That day will always be special to me, three of the greatest Irish Americans united in common cause and their love for Ireland on a day great history was made.

I met Teddy at social occasions after that, but the last time I sat down with him was in that ministerial office at Stormont. I like to think it was one of his greatest days.

Rest in Peace, Old Friend.

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