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Explained: How Jean Smith Kennedy, JFK’s younger sister, helped end sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland

Jean Smith Kennedy, who died at the age of 92 on Wednesday, was known for her unconventional approach to diplomacy and her tendency to flout protocol during her 5-year term in Dublin.

Written by Rahel Philipose , Edited by Explained Desk | Vasco (goa) |
Updated: June 20, 2020 1:05:23 pm
Jean Smith Kennedy, northern ireland conflict, Belfast Agreement of 1988, catholic protestants ireland, who was Jean Smith Kennedy, the kennedys, indian express explained In this April 10, 1961, file photo, President John F. Kennedy and his sister, Jean Kennedy Smith, watch an opening day baseball game at Griffith Stadium in Washington.(AP Photo/File)

Jean Kennedy Smith, who as the United States Ambassador to Ireland in the 1990s played a key role in ending the decades-old sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland, passed away on Wednesday at the age of 92.

Smith’s death marks the end of an era in US politics, as she was the last-surviving sibling of the Kennedy clan — one of the most prominent political families in American history. Her older brother, John F Kennedy, was the 35th president of the United States until his assassination in 1963. Further, two of her eight siblings Robert F Kennedy and Edward M Kennedy also had thriving political careers and served as US senators, while their elder brother Joseph Kennedy Jr died in action during World War II.

Who was Jean Kennedy Smith?

Despite the spotlight always shining bright on the Kennedy family, Smith was known to have kept a low profile for the majority of her life. Like most Kennedy women of her generation, she took a backseat when it came to active politics — engaging instead in philanthropy, and occasionally participating in her brothers’ political campaigns.

She married the Kennedy family’s financial adviser Stephen Smith in 1956 and raised four children with him, before he died of lung cancer in 1990. In 1974, She founded Very Special Arts — an organisation that provides programs in creative writing, dance, music and drama for people with physical and mental disabilities in the United States and elsewhere.

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It was only in 1993, at the age of 65, that Smith made her official debut in the world of diplomacy when she was named ambassador to Dublin by then US President Bill Clinton. Despite her ancestry tracing back to Ireland, Smith had little knowledge of Irish politics and the sectarian violence that had plagued the country for over three decades.

But over the years Smith forged her own brand of diplomacy and leadership in the state, until ultimately paving the way for the landmark Belfast Agreement in 1988, which ended the period of conflict in the region — popularly referred to as ‘The Troubles’.

What was the conflict about?

The conflict dates back to the early 1920s, when Northern Ireland remained part of the United Kingdom, while the rest of the country declared itself a republic, free from British rule.

This caused a rift between Northern Ireland’s Protestant Unionists — who believed that the region should remain a part of the UK, and the Catholic Nationalists — who wanted Northern Ireland to join the Republic and be independent from the UK. The chasm between the Protestants and the Catholics was made wider by the fact that a Unionist government was in power in Northern Ireland at the time.

Catholics were far fewer in number, and began to protest against the government after struggling to find jobs and homes in the region. The Protestant government responded with violence, leading to clashes between both groups. Rising tensions between the two sides turned violent in the 1960s, resulting in a period called ‘The Troubles’.

British troops were sent into the area to restore peace, but were quickly confronted by several Republican armed groups, led by the Irish Republican Army (IRA). ‘The Troubles’ lasted over 33 years and led to more than 3,000 deaths. The conflict ended only in May 1998 when the Protestants and Catholics agreed to share power in the region after signing the Belfast Accord, also known as the “Good Friday Agreement”.

What role did Smith play as US Ambassador to Ireland?

While Smith’s appointment as US Ambassador to Ireland did not sit well with Protestant Unionists, she had the Catholic nationalists on her side. Her arrival in Dublin came at a pivotal time — when the IRA’s resolve appeared to be waning and they were increasingly becoming open to end the conflict in Northern Ireland.

During her five-year tenure, Smith was known for her unconventional approach to diplomacy and her tendency to flout protocol. “When I first came here,” she said in an interview with the Boston Globe, “we saw in the news that a woman’s husband had been shot. I said I wanted to stop by and see her. So we did. We just took a long walk, the woman and I, and she told me the story of how it happened. She was extremely brave, and I was very moved. She opened up to me, because I think she saw me as someone who’s been through it.”

In a move many considered risky, Smith often hosted warring unionists and loyalists at her ambassador’s residence. Opinion leaders from both groups would sit together over dinner and speak their mind, Boston Globe’s former Dublin Bureau Chief Kevin Cullen recounted.

Smith stirred up controversy in 1994 when she helped Gerry Adams, chief of IRA’s political wing Sinn Fein, get a visa to visit the United States to argue for a ceasefire and the withdrawal of British troops from Ulster in Northern Ireland. While her decision to help grant Adams a visa caused considerable outrage among British loyalists who had labelled him a terrorist, it ultimately led to a ceasefire being declared a mere six months later.

Eventually, the ceasefire ended in 1996 after the Sinn Fein was repeatedly kept out of peace talks. The IRA turned to the United States to help broker peace, which is when Smith stepped in to bring Adams and IRA leader Joe Cahill to New York to engage in negotiations, until the ceasefire was restored in 1997. It is widely believed that Smith’s relationship with the IRA and repeated efforts to win their trust is what paved the way for the Belfast Agreement in April, the next year.

Upon ending her term as Ambassador, Smith was granted Irish citizenship for her distinguished service to the nation.

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