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With the sad passing on August 3 of Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) leader John Hume, Northern Ireland’s Martin Luther King, Jr., I paused to reflect on the great privilege I had to work with Senator Ted Kennedy and John Hume as they collaborated over the decades to bring peace in a conflict that was killing more than 200 people a year.
Simply put, they were cut from the same cloth. They were both passionate about solving the Northern Irish Troubles and shared a deep empathy for other people, a vision for a better Ireland, and a love of song and a good joke. Hume’s death marked the loss of a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, a man of peace, and a good friend of the late Senator Ted Kennedy.
By the time I came to Senator Kennedy’s office in the Russell Building’s room 315 in 1985, the two were already fast friends. I inherited the Irish portfolio and learned quickly to rely on Hume’s advice. Within my first month, Hume’s protégé, Mark Durkan, arrived in our office to learn about the U.S. Senate. So we learned the ropes together in those first few months. I quickly gained insight into the brilliance of Hume’s strategy to seek peace, guided of course by our brilliant Legislative Director Carey Parker.
Senator Kennedy loved to spend evenings with world leaders in a heated debate over critical issues, but especially loved to end the evening with entertainment. There was no combination John Hume liked better. I remember one such evening in the late 1980s at the Senator’s Virginia home with a sing along with Hume around the piano of Irish ballads, ending with a resounding chorus of “Danny Boy.”
Anyone in their presence could see the real bond of friendship between them, and that bond helped them launch the process of peace that ended the Troubles. Each year, we’d put forward an annual message from Congress’s Friends of Ireland group urging a peaceful way forward, always drafted in consultation with Hume. Kennedy teamed up with Speaker Tip O’Neill, Senator Pat Moynihan, and Governor Hugh Carey –– dubbed the Four Horsemen –– to push for peace. At the time, Irish America was divided between Hume’s more peaceful approach and those more in line with the IRA’s more radical and violent approach. Neither side spoke to the other.
By 1993, I was on the National Security Council at the White House and, because of my work with the Senator, was again handed the Irish portfolio. And that was during the period that Senator Kennedy, again guided by Hume, saw a chance for peace in Northern Ireland. He understood it was critical to bridge the divide in Irish America and forge a unified path forward to support Sinn Fein’s Gerry Adams in his bid to convince the IRA to declare a ceasefire. Ultimately, that support came down to a visa for Gerry Adams, despite a ban for his support for terrorism.
Senator Kennedy unleashed his genius in forging consensus. I saw firsthand as he worked the phones with President Bill Clinton, his advisors, and garnered the support of a formerly divided Congress to push for the visa. My successor in his office, Trina Vargo, played interference with Niall O’Down, a confident of Adams, and me as we negotiated the conditions for a visa.
As I’d seen him do on health care, immigration, arms control, and human rights, Senator Kennedy worked every possible angle on getting President Clinton to issue that visa. It was no coincidence that his sister Jean Kennedy Smith was a strong supporter from her post as Ambassador to Ireland. All the bases were covered.
President Clinton issued the visa to Adams and the ceasefire came later that year. Four years later, the Good Friday Agreement was reached.
Thus, peace today would not have happened in 1998 without the work of Senator Ted Kennedy and John Hume. I’m sure they are both singing “Danny Boy” and more up in Heaven.
Read an Oral History Project interview with Mr. Hume here. Watch a Kennedy Institute conversation with author Maurice Fitzpatrick about his book “John Hume in America: From Derry to D.C.” here. Additionally, a program marking the Good Friday Agreement’s 20th anniversary is available to view here.