I’m proud to have known the Kennedy who did most for Ireland

When Jean came in to my office in Iveagh House she was taken aback and moved to see my photo of her brothers. On leaving Ireland after her term as ambassador she kindly gave me a gift of one of her own photos of the three brothers at home.

She signed it and wrote a short personal message. Of all my souvenirs I treasure this one most

SO this is what it’s like to be getting on. Suddenly all the great older people that you know and respect are dying. For me, this year has been the first of experiencing the loss of loved ones through old age.

Such natural deaths are not the tragedies of early death by accident or violence. But they are nonetheless life-altering for those left behind. When all the formalities of the burial are done, we scatter back to our interrupted lives. We get on with things because there is no choice. And then, without warning, grief can hit like a wave and the sense of loss is acute.

The trigger can be a tune on the radio, an odour, a particular location passed by in the car. In a flash of memory, the person looms large and you are with them and without them.

This summer’s world athletics was one such trigger. My late father John was an athlete and the games were always compulsory viewing in our house. This year it went ahead without his steady gaze and expert commentary. Perhaps, in his honour, I found myself glued to the games and the fortunes of our own young athletes. For the first time, I realised I had inherited myfather’s passion for athletics.

To see Derval O’Rourke clearing 100 metres of hurdles in 12.67 seconds and being placed fourth in the world was all the sweeter because she had dragged herself back from the disappointment of Beijing. Olive Loughnane’s silver medal, at 33, is testament to years of ferocious tenacity on her part. For David Gillick, sixth place in the 400 metres final is but a stepping stone to future glory.

Athletics at that level is a lonely pursuit of excellence. The biggest battle is internal; self-belief the key. Setbacks drive them on to greater things. That dogged pursuit of medals and legendary status is what it’s all about. For those split seconds on the track the athlete must perform to the height of his or her powers. All the years of training, tears and stamina culminate in defeat or victory, agony or ecstasy.

We love Sonia O’Sullivan all the more because we have lived through trauma on the track with her. Caster Semenya’s gold is more memorable because of the gender controversy that has the capacity to spoil it.

It is the narrative that makes the legend. On the political track, the legends of CJ Haughey and Bertie Ahern are as much about their failings as their achievements. The same could be said of the late Senator Ted Kennedy whose death evoked powerful images in the archive of Irish life. We recall the presidential visit of his revered brother, Jack, in 1963. For me it was sitting on my father’s shoulders in the Phoenix Park with the flag-waving crowds as the presidential car passed. Months later we witnessed the home movie images of his assassination in another motorcade. Then there was the incredible shooting on live TV of Lee Harvey Oswald; the sepia images of the Kennedy children at the graveside in their little double-breasted coats.

Five years later, and once again the cameras were there to capture Bobby Kennedy prone on that hotel kitchen floor. The narrative rolled on. A fiction writer could not have produced a more compelling story line for the Kennedy dynasty. Trials and tribulations, deaths, car crashes, scandal, love stories and, for Ted, a late conversion from fecklessness to become the most celebrated legislator of his generation.

To mark my appointment as minister, my husband bought me a limited edition print of an iconic photographic image by Hank Walker. A friend, who holidays in Martha’s Vineyard, had sourced it and thought it the ideal gift for a Kennedy fan.

It is a photograph taken during the height of the Cuban missile crisis and shows Jack Kennedy as president and Bobby as attorney general sitting on two single beds in a hotel room talking intently. It had appeared on the front cover of Time magazine.

As a minister privileged to work on the government team in the peace process for a period I met both US ambassador Jean Kennedy Smith and Senator Ted Kennedy on several occasions over the years.

Ted had asked President Clinton to appoint Jean as ambassador. It was an enlightened move. With Ted as the key Irish-American politician in the Senate, his colleague Senator George Mitchell chairing the talks and Jean in the Phoenix Park there was a powerful American axis of active engagement in the process. There was constant contact with the senator’s office via Trina Vargo, his foreign policy aide over 15 years.

When Jean came in to my office in Iveagh House she was taken aback and moved to see my photo of her brothers. On leaving Ireland after her term as ambassador she kindly gave me a gift of one of her own photos of the three brothers at home. She signed it and wrote a short personal message. Of all my souvenirs I treasure this one most.

My meetings with Senator Kennedy were mostly in Washington in the White House on Saint Patrick’s Day and in his Senate office. His word opened every door for Irish politicians and he was an invaluable contact and resource for successive Irish governments. He gave the lead to other Irish-American politicians on the complexities of the peace process.

His approach was even-handed and led to a more critical appraisal in those quarters of the Sinn Féin agenda. He had a huge personality to match his girth. In his cluttered Senate office, he loved to tell stories when the serious work was done and was happy to pose for pictures with visitors at his window overlooking Capitol Hill.

THE last time I saw him was May 2007 when, after many false dawns, the executive in Northern Ireland was established. He was there with his wife, Victoria, to see Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness, standing together as leadership colleagues on the magnificent Stormont staircase.

All the veterans of l998 who had participated in the protracted talks looked on in bemused disbelief. During a touching performance by a group of young singers with special needs, I looked over and saw Ted sitting quietly by a pillar and out of the limelight. Tears were streaming down his craggy face. He looked jaded but proud, like a grandfather at a graduation ceremony. Later, he sent a photo of the event to his long-time adviser and aide Trina Vargo with a message, “Dreams do come true”.

By backing Obama over Hillary Clinton, Kennedy made a personally difficult call. It was a time for generational change and for a huge leap in racial equality.

The baton has passed to the new president to deliver in particular on Ted Kennedy’s life-long quest for universal healthcare for Americans. Already the infighting has begun about who will succeed him in the Senate. Ted was the Kennedy of whom least was expected in his early life. Yet his legacy may be greater.

The irony is that for all the glamour and celebrity achieved by his fallen older brothers in their short lives, it was the bold boy turned good who achieved most not only in his own country but in ours.


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