Friday 17 November 2017

Inside the secret JFK files

Irish and US officials sweated over the complex plans for JFK’s visit, writes Dr Michael Kennedy

President Kennedy leaves the US Embassy in Dublin after talks with Taoiseach Seaan Lemass
President Kennedy leaves the US Embassy in Dublin after talks with Taoiseach Seaan Lemass
How do you do? Dept. of Taoiseach Secretary Nicholas Nolan asks if Taoiseach could introduce JFK to the VIPs at Dublin Airport. “I will do this,” says Mr Lemass. Courtesy National Archives of Ireland
Minute to Seán Lemass on weather forecast for JFK’s visit. “Please keep in touch,” he replies. Courtesy National Archives of Ireland

On 20 April 20, 1963, the White House and Aras an Uachtarain simultaneously announced President Kennedy's acceptance of President de Valera's invitation to visit Ireland.

Officials in Dublin swiftly began preparations to receive Ireland's most distinguished post-independence visitor. 

Kennedy was not the first head of state to officially visit Ireland. That honour went to Prince Rainier and Princess Grace of Monaco in 1961.  However, there had been nothing of such national significance since the 1932 Eucharistic Congress.

Active in the UN, seeking EEC membership and expanding its economy through global trade, Ireland would use Kennedy's visit to showcase itself as a modern, developed country.

The Department of External Affairs drafted a two-day presidential programme taking in Dublin, Wexford and New Ross. An interdepartmental committee of civil servants chaired by Gerard Woods, Chef de Protocol at Iveagh House, was tasked to oversee its execution and solve any logistical and protocol problems.

Few outside Government saw the dedicated planning taking place between April and June 1963 to make Kennedy's visit a success. The Department of the Taoiseach led, with Taoiseach Sean Lemass taking ultimate command. External Affairs took charge of organisation, liaising with the White House. 

Justice, in conjunction with the American authorities and the gardai, dealt with security, and Defence with ceremonial. 

The Irish embassies in Washington, Paris and London assisted, devising the new forms of protocol required for the visit. Dublin often adapted United States practices as they were familiar to Kennedy.

In Washington, Ambassador Thomas Kiernan met Kennedy's Press Secretary Pierre Salinger and his Appointments Secretary Kenneth O'Donnell to firm up Kennedy's Irish itinerary. 

Salinger and O'Donnell travelled to Ireland on May 6 for a five-day visit, settling local arrangements. With 50 days to go before Kennedy's arrival, they flew Air Force One to Shannon and Dublin to test the facilities. 

Their 24-strong advance party included White House Chief of Protocol Angier Biddle Duke, communications specialists, press officers and a secret service detail. Biddle Duke commented that the “arrangements were working out nicely”.

By mid-May, plans were revised for a four-day Presidential visit. Secretary of the Department of External Affairs Hugh McCann ordered that preparations continue under the utmost secrecy until the president's schedule was announced. Yet Lemass privately informed Archbishop McQuaid of Kennedy's expected movements.

The advance party returned to Washington and a pleased Salinger told McCann that the president had approved a programme differing little from that he, O'Donnell and Salinger devised.

Woods' inter-departmental committee now designed 16 intricate protocols covering Kennedy's itinerary. Some showed the complexities of official formality. In greeting the president at Dublin airport, 10 points alone covered the five minutes between the opening of the rear door of Air Force One and Kennedy's reception by de Valera and Lemass. This critical moment could get confused – nothing could be left to chance. 

Other protocols were logistical feats such as bringing Kennedy's motorcade through Dublin to the American Ambassador's residence at the Phoenix Park. These protocols combined existing Irish procedures for hosting distinguished visitors with American desires that the visit occur in the public eye, giving Kennedy maximum exposure.

After the provisional programme for Kennedy's visit was announced on May 18, letters arrived in Iveagh House conveying Irish media apprehensions at the number of American journalists bound for Ireland. Six-hundred were expected. They needed credentials, photographic rotas, information packs and they needed to see Kennedy up close. 

Effective press and public relations were critical to ensuring the success of Kennedy's trip. A special press bureau would be established at the Gresham Hotel in Dublin. 

Newspapers announced that Kennedy would be received on the floor of the Dail, an honour previously only awarded to Indian Prime Minister Nehru in 1949. The possibility of Kennedy addressing the Oireachtas, mirroring President O'Kelly's address to Congress in 1959, was suggested by the White House.  Arranging this became the most constitutionally complex aspect of Kennedy's trip.

It was unclear if a joint sitting of both Houses of the Oireachtas was constitutionally possible. Attorney General Aindrias O Caoimh advised that Kennedy should be received by Dail Eireann and invited to address the House, the members of the Seanad being invited to be present. O Caoimh explained that a joint sitting would not be unconstitutional. If Dail and Seanad decided they were having a joint sitting, “that was that”.

Wexford, New Ross, Cork Galway and Dublin prepared for Kennedy.

Anticipating rivalries, Woods' committee established that “control should be from Dublin but not consciously so”. 

There were some unwelcome issues. A New Ross plan to charge 10 shillings for admission to see Kennedy was dropped. An RTE proposal for a television truck to head Kennedy's motorcade through Dublin was vetoed by American security.

On May 27, 30 days before Kennedy's arrival, Kiernan reported that recently the president had often spoken about nothing but his Irish visit.

By mid-June, final plans were arranged and timings were down to the minute.  With 10 days to go, the Secret Service detail arrived. Details of the president's European Tour went public on June 18.

Airspace restrictions were announced for the duration of Kennedy's visit. 

The gardai foresaw aircraft trailing protest banners over areas being visited by the president.  The Army could not prevent such flights and were reluctant to ‘buzz' protesting aircraft.

As the clock ticked down, Lemass personally made small changes to invitation lists and, preferring lounge suits to formal attire, queried dress codes for events. But these were minor matters. The stage was set.

The most unpredictable aspect was left to last. With 48 hours to go, Lemass looked at the weather forecast. With disturbances over the Atlantic, the Met Office hedged there was “some possibility that it will be good”. 

Nature was the only aspect of the monumental organisational feat underpinning Kennedy's visit that the Irish authorities could not control. 

Carried along by impeccable protocol and smooth organisation, Kennedy experienced our unique climate during his four days in Ireland.



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