Since the outbreak of the Troubles in 1969, the U.S. government had refused to grant a visa to Adams, whom they considered to be a terrorist. In early January 1994, Adams again applied for a visa. However, he presented himself to the U.S. Embassy in Dublin instead of the U.S. Consulate in Belfast. It was a crucial moment in Kennedy Smith’s ambassadorship. Having paid close attention to the events in the North since her arrival in Ireland, and having traveled there several times, Kennedy Smith believed that Adams and Sinn Féin were serious about the peace process. Ever the diplomat, before making any decision she contacted Taoiseach Albert Reynolds, who favored the granting of the visa. Then, she consulted with her brother Senator Ted Kennedy. He also got on board. Shortly after that, Hume also gave his support for the visa. Kennedy Smith made her decision: she sent a cable to Washington recommending that the visa be granted.
The U.S. government had a lot to consider before granting the request. Foremost was the “special relationship” between the U.S. and Britain. Yet, President Clinton had made a campaign promise to grant Adams a visa, and the Irish American lobby was pushing for it. The British government vehemently worked to block the visa. Everything came down to the wire. Finally, on January 29, 1994, President Clinton ordered the visa be granted. Two days later, Adams entered the U.S. and made an appearance on Larry King Live. The worldwide censorship of Adams and Sinn Féin was over.
Six months later, Kennedy Smith was faced with another important visa issue, this time with an IRA ceasefire hanging in the balance. Sinn Féin wanted to send Joe Cahill to America to talk with their supporters in the U.S. Cahill was 74 and had fought the British for most of his life. The IRA made a condition of their ceasefire the granting of a visa to Cahill. Kennedy Smith and Reynolds worked hard to convince the U.S. government to grant the visa. The president agreed and Cahill entered the U.S. The day after, on August 31, the IRA declared a ceasefire.
Throughout the remainder of her tenure as ambassador, Kennedy Smith played an important role in the peace process. In September 1998, seven months after the historic Good Friday Agreement, she resigned as ambassador. The late historian and Pulitzer Prize winning author Arthur Schlesinger said of Kennedy Smith, “Jean may well be the best politician of all the Kennedy’s, but she needed this position to really show that.”
Kennedy Smith has always kept a lower profile in comparison to her siblings. Now 83, she rarely gives interviews, though she did give one to ABC News in January, on the 50th Anniversary of her brother’s presidential inauguration.
As ever, family is still a priority. In August 2009, Kennedy Smith chose to miss her sister Eunice’s funeral to stay by Edward Kennedy’s side as he was dying of cancer. Now, though she is the last of the nine Kennedy siblings, she does not dwell on that, focusing instead on the here and now.
Since leaving diplomatic service, Jean Kennedy Smith has received numerous accolades for her work to bring peace to Northern Ireland and for her work with the disabled. The government of the Republic of Ireland granted her honorary citizenship in 1998. She has received honorary degrees from multiple institutions. Most recently, Kennedy Smith was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama for both her diplomatic service and her humanitarian efforts.