The award of an honorary knighthood to Senator Edward Kennedy in recognition of his support for the peace process in Northern Ireland and for services to the US-UK relationship is richly deserved.
As probably the most influential politician among the Irish-American community, over many years he used that influence to press for a peaceful resolution to the conflict in this province. He also had the ear of presidents and kept the Irish question on the agenda in American politics.
There is no doubt that he built up a close relationship with former SDLP leader John Hume and the pair helped to internationalise a problem which the British Government often would have liked to keep as a domestic issue. Senator Kennedy’s involvement in seeking a solution to the conflict was viewed with suspicion at times by the unionist community who, understandably, saw him as solely on the side of nationalists.
However, even they had to admit that he was a steadfast opponent of violent republicanism. While Senator Kennedy supported Mr Hume when the SDLP leader came under fierce attack on many fronts for opening dialogue with Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams, he was no fellow traveller with republicans. He famously snubbed Mr Adams at a St Patrick’s Day celebration in America following the brutal murder of Robert McCartney, a killing blamed on IRA elements. He also founded the Congressional Friends of Ireland, a bipartisan organisation of Republican and Democratic senators and representatives.
At a time when the Prime Minister Gordon Brown is trying again to cement the special relationship between the UK and the US, it is fitting that a man who directed a lot of his energy towards this side of the Atlantic should be honoured with this distinguished award.
Now seriously ill as the result of a brain tumour, Senator Kennedy can reflect on a political career which may have delivered less than he once hoped, but more than once seemed likely.
The youngest of the Kennedy family, he was compared unfavourably with his illustrious older brothers, JFK and Robert. Their assassinations thrust him into the limelight, but he initially declined to run for the Democratic presidential nominations and then when he did, he was soundly beaten by the incumbent, President Jimmy Carter. Senator Kennedy’s career was overshadowed for a long time by the death of Mary Jo Kopechne, the young woman who drowned when he drove off a bridge near Chappaquiddick Island. He swam to safety and, astonishingly, did not report the accident until the next morning.
However, his 46 years of service as a Senator have seen him produce an impressive body of legislation aiming at improving health care, education opportunities and other social issues.
His liberal politics and the Kennedy name won him many friends on both sides of the political divide, especially in his latter years.
And, here in Northern Ireland, we acknowledge his influence in bringing peace to a troubled land. Thank you, Sir Ted.