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'As Irish as an American can be': Former US Ambassador to Ireland Jean Kennedy Smith dies aged 92

Ms Smith was the last-surviving child of Joseph P. Kennedy and Rose Fitzgerald.

Image: PA Images

Updated Jun 18th 2020, 4:56 PM

FORMER US AMBASSADOR to Ireland Jean Kennedy Smith has died aged 92.

Smith, whose pivotal role during the 1990s helped bring an end to violence in Northern Ireland, passed away yesterday at her home in Manhattan. 

The last-surviving child of Joseph P. Kennedy and Rose Fitzgerald, Smith’s siblings included US President John F. Kennedy, Senator Robert F. Kennedy, Special Olympic founder Eunice Kennedy Shriver and Senator Ted Kennedy. 

Smith was appointed US Ambassador to Ireland by President Bill Clinton in 1993. 

She was granted honorary Irish citizenship by President Mary McAleese in 1998, the year the Good Friday Agreement was signed. She retired as Ambassador three months after the agreement was signed. 

In 2011, President Barack Obama awarded Smith the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her work with people with disabilities.

In 2013, Smith and Caroline Kennedy, JFK’s daughter, attended the ceremony in Co Wexford, which also served as the launch of a major new permanent exhibition on JFK’s presidency.

The New York Times today reported that Smith was “last-surviving sibling in a family that embedded itself in the American consciousness and wrote itself into American history, producing a president and senators and an unrivaled mystique fashioned out of political glory, personal charisma, great wealth and staggering tragedy.”

Her death was confirmed by her daughter Kym.  

President Michael D Higgins said Smith “will be forever remembered as the diplomat who had a sense of Irish history and of what had influenced the Irish in the United States”.

He added: “An activist diplomat, she was not afraid to break with convention or explore the limits of her mandate.  She brought passion and clear values to her role, providing many of the elements that promoted peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland.”

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said Smith’s “courageous and determined diplomacy helped to bring peace to our island, built bridges, opened doors to all communities, and to all those striving for peace when peace was not a certainty”. 

“I offer my sincerest condolences to Jean’s family and friends. I also salute her enduring legacy, to peace in Northern Ireland and to the many thousands of lives she has touched throughout her remarkable lifetime,” Varadkar said.

In a statement, the US Embassy in Dublin said it was deeply saddened to hear of her passing.

“Ambassador Kennedy Smith played a pivotal role in the peace process in Northern Ireland and devoted much of her time to moving Northern Ireland from the dark days of violence and despair to the brighter days of peace, reconciliation, and partnership,” the embassy said in a statement.

Ambassador Kennedy Smith worked tirelessly to strengthen the bonds of the US-Ireland relationship and to reinforce those ‘enduring links’ the late President John F Kennedy spoke about fifty five years ago on his visit to Ireland, for which she accompanied him.

Mary Lou McDonald, meanwhile, said Smith had “left her mark on our history, our peace process and her legacy lives on across Ireland”. 

Key role

In her memoir The Nine Of Us, published in 2016, she wrote that for much of the time her childhood seemed “unexceptional”.

“It is hard for me to fully comprehend that I was growing up with brothers who eventually occupy the highest offices of our nation, including president of the United States,” she explained.

“At the time, they were simply my playmates.

“They were the source of my amusement and the objects of my admiration.”

Though she never ran for office, she campaigned for her brothers, travelling the country for then-senator John F. Kennedy as he sought the presidency in 1960.

In 1963, she stepped in for a travelling Jacqueline Kennedy and co-hosted a state dinner for Ireland’s president.

Their great-grandfather, Patrick Kennedy, was from Dunganstown in County Wexford in southeastern Ireland.

When she was appointed as ambassador in the 1990s, President Bill Clinton called her  “as Irish as an American can be”.

During her confirmation hearing, she recalled the trip with her brother, describing it as “one of the most moving experiences of my own life.”

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As ambassador, she played a role in the Northern Ireland peace process.

She helped persuade Clinton to grant a controversial visa in 1994 to Gerry Adams, chief of the Irish Republican Army-linked Sinn Fein party.

The move defied the British government, which branded Adams as a terrorist.

She later called criticism of her actions toward the IRA “unfortunate” and said she thought history would credit the Clinton administration with helping the peace process in Northern Ireland.

Ireland’s then-Taoiseach Bertie Ahern said in 1998 that “it is not an understatement to say that if (the visa for Adams) didn’t happen at the time, perhaps other events may not have fallen into place”.

In 1996, though, Ms Smith had been reprimanded by Secretary of State Warren Christopher for punishing two of her officers who objected to the visa for Mr Adams.

In December 1998, Ms Smith again risked controversy by taking communion in a Protestant cathedral in Dublin, going against the bishops of her Roman Catholic church.

Her decision was a strong personal gesture of support for Irish President Mary McAleese, a fellow Catholic who had been criticised by Irish bishops for joining in the Protestant communion service.

“Religion, after all, is about bringing people together,” Ms Smith told The Irish Times.

“We all have our own way of going to God.”

When she stepped down as ambassador in 1998, she received Irish citizenship for “distinguished service to the nation”.

With reporting from Sean Murray, Press Association

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