Tuesday 24 October 2017

This was no sentimental trip for Cold War leader

JFK greets nurses outside a hospital
JFK greets nurses outside a hospital

Diarmaid Ferriter

ONE OF the most striking aspects of President John F Kennedy's Irish visit in June 1963 was the absence of the issue of the partition of Ireland from his public rhetoric.

Behind the scenes, it was made clear that controversy over partition would have the potential to tarnish the trip from the president's point of view, and he was simply not going to openly engage with it.

While he was here, partition was not mentioned by him publicly; nor was the existence of Northern Ireland. This was the diplomatic way of avoiding potential political landmines. From the US perspective it was important to know what the visit would not be, as well as what it would be, and it was made clear that it would not be dominated by controversy over partition.

Despite that, it was satisfying politically from the Government's perspective. On the first morning of his visit, Mr Kennedy met Taoiseach Sean Lemass for diplomatic discussions at the US embassy residence. For the Government this was a highlight, as it seemed to involve an acceptance of Ireland back into the "Western bloc" despite its refusal to countenance membership of NATO and its military neutrality, which had caused some fury and created considerable strain in previous years, most obviously during the Emergency. Mr Kennedy had also been advised to thank the Irish Government for searching Eastern bloc aircraft at Shannon en route to Cuba during the missile crisis. He was also reminded to express gratitude for the Irish contribution to world peace and, in particular, its peacekeeping role in the Congo, where 23 Irish soldiers had died.

Partition was mentioned during the discussions between the Taoiseach and Mr Kennedy, with the president asking simply: "Is any progress being made?" Mr Lemass did not apply pressure for him to intervene, telling him that "this is a question which must be settled in Ireland and any form of international pressure would not alter the basic situation". Mr Lemass may have hoped the president might, at some stage, act as a mediator between Britain and Ireland on this question, but that was never an option as far as the US was concerned.

For all the sentimentality associated with the visit, the marvellous photo opportunities and the sense of a president skilfully at play, the reality was that Ireland was of very limited strategic interest to the US and the visit did not really have an obvious political purpose. Mr Kennedy's Irish sojourn was part of a European tour, and he had made an extraordinary impact in Berlin prior to coming here. First and foremost, he was a Cold War leader who could use the Irish trip for some relaxing downtime while making all the correct rhetorical gestures about the rebellious, resilient Irish and their example to oppressed people everywhere and acknowledging a forward-looking republic in the throes of change.

Mr Kennedy took the engagement with Irish history and the struggle for independence seriously. It is revealing that the highlight of his visit, according to him, was a ceremony at Arbour Hill where 14 executed leaders of the 1916 Rising rested. This was as close to a political statement as he would make, and it was enormously important to the Irish Government and another measure of what it could get out of this visit.

Mr Kennedy had the greatest respect for President Eamon de Valera, who was the sole surviving commandant of the Rising, and he went out of his way to praise him.

Mr Lemass later acknowledged that the Arbour Hill ceremony was "an event for us of great emotional significance. He was the first head of state ever to go through the ceremony of honouring the executed leaders of the 1916 Rising. The fact that he, as President of the United States, the greatest nation in the world, of Irish origin, performed the ceremony had to have a tremendously emotional effect upon the Irish people".

But for Mr Lemass, a man who was in a hurry in his quest to modernise the country, the visit was also useful because of the wider forces at play in the early 1960s in Ireland. For all the focus on the past rebelliousness and the experience of emigration (which Mr Kennedy did not soften – he used the description "the haemorrhage which this island endured"), Mr Lemass was primarily concerned with the future in a republic that was undergoing significant change.

He would have been particularly pleased that in his address to the Oireachtas, Mr Kennedy included the assertion: "In the years since independence, you have undergone a new and peaceful revolution, an economic and industrial revolution, transforming the face of this land, while still holding to the old spiritual and cultural values. You have modernised your economy, harnessed your rivers, diversified your industry, liberalised your trade, electrified your farms, accelerated your rate of growth, and improved the living standard of your people."

Due to an upturn in European trade activity and the reorientation of the Irish economy towards free trade, evidenced by TK Whitaker's Economic Development and the publication of Fianna Fail's First Programme for Economic Expansion in 1958, Gross National Product (GNP) grew 4.5pc each year between 1959 and 1963, unemployment had fallen by one-third and emigration had slowed significantly. There were more cars on the road, increased social mobility and the Second Vatican Council with its ideas of liberalisation in relation to Catholicism had begun in 1962. The impact of TV coverage was crucial, a further indication of an emergence from isolation.

In a sense, when Mr Kennedy focused on matters historical he was focusing on an Ireland that was passing away; after all, when the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was planning for the visit, it gave an assessment of the contemporary state of the Irish republic as one that was supportive of modern America and its ideology. As well as talking about the Irish fight for freedom, Mr Kennedy could also refer to Ireland's role in the United Nations and on the Council of Europe and its desire to join the EEC, which he fully supported.

A combination of all these changes made for a more confident Ireland, and in that sense, as historian Mike Cronin put it, "for the first time it seemed in the early 1960s that opportunity and potential wealth, the very possibilities that had traditionally made emigration to the US and elsewhere palatable, might be achievable by remaining in Ireland".

As Bord Failte, the Irish Tourist Board, also recognised, Mr Kennedy's visit was an exceptional opportunity to boost visitor numbers from overseas; in the wake of his being here, both tourism and investment from the US grew. Thus, the dual purpose of Mr Kennedy's rhetoric could be fulfilled: while he made it clear that the Irish should be proud of their revolutionary heritage and the success born out of the pain of historic emigration, their future, it was hoped, would lie in consigning those issues to the past.

It was undoubtedly a significant moment in the history of US-Irish relations and set a precedent for later trips by Presidents Nixon, Regan, Clinton, Bush and, most recently, Obama. Like Mr Kennedy in 1963, Mr Obama in 2011 also had an inspiring tale to tell of humble origins, the emigrant's journey and the "blood lineage" between Ireland and the US.

Diarmaid Ferriter is Professor of Modern Irish History at UCD

Irish Independent

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