Monday 24 November 2014

A great man is gone, but he has left us all better off

Published 27/08/2009 | 00:00

Senator Edward Kennedy, who passed away at his home surrounded by friends and family following a battle with cancer

THE acid test of a public man is did he leave people better or worse off during his term in office? Whether he was a nice guy or a surly one doesn't matter. That is the test.

Ted Kennedy was blessed in as much as he passed the test of being one of the most effective politicians on the planet while at the same time being an extremely nice guy.

I first met him during the time when the debate over whether or not to grant a US visa to Gerry Adams was at its height. Ted came to my house for lunch at the behest of his sister Jean Kennedy-Smith, who was then the American ambassador to Ireland. There had already been another lunch at my house at which I introduced Jean to 'The Monk' as she called Father Alex Reid, the Redemptorist priest who did more than anyone else to start the Peace Process ball rolling.

Father Alex had impressed on her two things: one, the sincerity of the republicans' drive towards peace; and two, the importance of securing the visa so that Adams could say to his hawks: "You see politics does work."

Now Ted was coming to see for himself. He had flown the Atlantic that morning and had no sleep. But he had a theory that you didn't need sleep; you needed rest so he had lain down for an hour before risking the rigours of lunch at Castle Park Road.

He knocked on the door himself, typically not sending out the driver to inquire whether he had found the right house and equally typically doing what he was told by his sister, who wasn't quite sure whether this was the place where she had met the monk.

Jean had complained that the first lunch, which I cooked myself and at which I supplied lobster, was marred by the fact that I had not also supplied implements with which to crush the lobster claws.

"What's wrong with your fist and the table," I had inquired. Nevertheless, to avoid any complaint this time I got my long-suffering daughter Jackie to prepare the meal which was delicious, and well lubricated. Afterwards I slipped a bottle of whiskey into my Berber jacket and took Ted and Jean to see the beauties of Killiney Bay from Victoria Park and the green walk.

There was an underlying seriousness about this light-hearted excursion. When Queen Victoria had given her name to the park there was a famine in Ireland which drove Ted and Jean's ancestor Patrick from Wexford to Boston where the Kennedy story began.

But as with most things Irish the light-hearted soon overcame the serious. People seemed to pop out of furze bushes and emerge from behind trees to tell Ted that their sons in Boston voted for him and that they loved him on television. All very nice on one level, except that Ted wanted to use the trees or even the furze bushes to relieve himself from the after effects of post-luncheon lubrication and present Paddy whiskey.

We had to pour him back into the car and hurtle down to Bulloch Harbour which provided both more scenery and some friendly sheltering rocks so that the call of nature could be answered.

Adams got his visa, the ratchet on which the Peace Process swung and Ted proved invaluable as he had done so often in the past where Irish causes were concerned, in helping Jean to fend off the onslaught of the British-inspired State Department which was horrified at the displeasure which Jean's activities were arousing in Whitehall.

They went so far in her own embassy in Ballsbridge that her staff, State Department appointees, wrote an article in a journal of dissent published by the State Department taking issue with her policies and citing passages from my writings as evidence of the pernicious influences under which Ambassador Kennedy had fallen.

The staff much preferred the line coming from London where the American Ambassador Seitz regarded Dublin as a minor out-office of the London embassy and was bitterly critical of Jean's efforts. However, with Ted's help, Jean not alone withstood both her staff and Seitz's efforts, but saw Seitz depart London, losing his ambassadorship.

I almost departed Dublin subsequently in a whirlwind of Jean's wrath, when at her daughter Kim's wedding in the Phoenix Park myself and Ted got stuck into a couple of bottles of wine and forgot to join the other guests at the marquee.

The meal was held up while worried officials searched for the missing senator who was only discovered when Jean, with a flash of sisterly intuition, decided to go herself to the room where she knew the drink was.

The incident showed the two sides of Ted: convivial, fond of drink and anecdotes but then when duty (and sister) called able to stand up and make a graceful and fitting speech for the occasion.

He rose to his feet countless times in the US Senate to do the same thing. Incredibly there are 300, repeat 300, bills passed by the Senate whose passage Kennedy facilitated.

The patrician from Boston emphasised more than any public figure in America -- with the possible exception of Barack Obama whom in a very real sense he placed in the White House with his crucial endorsement at a time that everyone thought he would vote for Hillary Clinton -- with the downtrodden and the oppressed, the poor and the unfashionable.

In a way that has done lasting good to America and the world.

His interest in Ireland ranged over a wide variety of issues, not just the Peace Process. Immigration reform, for example, owed much to him. No cause in America could progress in the face of Ted Kennedy's opposition, no good Irish cause failed to progress with his help.

He, like the rest of his family, took a cultured interest in the land of their ancestors equally at home singing 'Cumallye' on St Patrick's Day or declaiming Yeats.

Ted could have been a professional football player. In fact, he once got thrown out of Harvard because he got a friend to sit a Spanish exam so that he wouldn't have to take time out from training. But he later gave up football telling his surprised friends: "I'm going into another form of contact sport -- politics!"

Both Ireland and America are today the better for that decision. A good man has gone.

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