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Los Angeles Times Interview : Jean Kennedy Smith : This Kennedy Returned to Ireland

November 26, 1995|William Tuohy | William Tuohy is London bureau chief for The Times

DUBLIN — Jean Kennedy Smith is one of the busiest women in Ireland these days, with a heavy work load of official business as U.S. ambassador punctuated with frequent invitations to in Irish social occasions. In addition, she is preparing for President Bill Clinton's first visit to Ireland on Dec. 1 and 2--and the first visit by any U.S. President to Northern Ireland. Shy, yet given to wide grins and laughter, the 67-year-old, auburn-haired ambassador has been highly popular among the Irish. As one taxi driver outside the embassy put it, "She is one of our own."

That popularity doesn't necessarily extend to British officials in London and Belfast, who have complained that she--and Clinton--have been too pro-Republican in the Northern Ireland debate. Clinton has departed from British policy concerning Northern Ireland. However, most officials will also grudgingly admit that the President's push for the peace process was instrumental in obtaining a cease-fire last year, which has held for 15 months.

Smith, sister of the late President John F. Kennedy, is the widow of Stephen E. Smith, who served as the Kennedy family's financial and political adviser for many years and supervised several electoral campaigns. She has four grown children, one of whom, William Kennedy Smith, was acquitted in a notorious rape trial.

She is founder, director and chairwoman of Very Special Arts, an organization affiliated with the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, which provides opportunities in the arts for disabled people.

Appointed to the Dublin post by Clinton, the sister of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) has taken to her job with gusto. She became a confidante of former Irish Prime Minister Albert Reynolds, Northern Irish Catholic leader John Hume and others involved in the search for peace in Northern Ireland.

Recently, she took a break from her hectic schedule to have a wide-ranging conversation in her office on the top floor of the drum-shaped U.S. Embassy in southern Dublin. Behind her desk is a large map of Ireland. The office decor is subdued, with windows overlooking leafy Elgin road.

Near her coffee table is an inscribed volume of poems by Seamus Heaney, the Irish poet who won the Nobel Prize for literature this year. Her office is graced with pictures of her family, and her deceased brothers: John; Joseph Jr., killed in the war, and Robert, assassinated during the 1968 presidential campaign.

Question: You have been here now for some time and are familiar with the territory. President Clinton is making his first trip to Ireland on Dec. 1, and he will also be the first American President to go to Northern Ireland. How will his visit be received?

Answer: Everybody's very excited about his coming here because he's been such a catalyst and force in the peace process. He will get a warm welcome. He will meet a lot of people and government leaders, have a rally and talk to the Dail [Irish Parliament]. It will be a historic visit, and at this critical time in the peace process, it is even more important.

Q: Many political observers give President Clinton, and yourself, credit for speeding up the peace process in Northern Ireland. Is that a fair assessment?

A: I give him enormous credit. Without the President, there wouldn't be a peace process, I think everybody's convinced of that. And that's why he'll be so enthusiastically welcomed here. He has made decisions that will change the policy of the United States toward Northern Ireland. He granted Gerry Adams a visa, which was a courageous thing to do. He sponsored a trade conference in May that brought together all the parties that never would have gotten together.

He has been open to all parties and he recently saw [Protestant Unionist leader] David Trimble, and he has talked to all of the groups with the exception of Mr. [Ian] Paisley. The President is very much engaged and is very anxious to seek peace. He was at Oxford University during the troubles in Northern Ireland, and he's very conscious of the situation.

Q: At the time, there were objections in London and among Unionists to granting a U.S. visa to Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein leader. You favored granting him one. In retrospect, it seems like an effective move in the sense that he is now involved and it will be more difficult for the violence to start up again. Would you agree?

A: There are a lot of people who have been working [on the peace process], and Gerry Adams himself has been working for several years with [Catholic moderate leader] John Hume in trying to bring about talks--so the ground had been well laid. [Former Prime Minister] Albert Reynolds had come out strongly and had been working with paramilitaries over a number of months when I arrived here.

So it was a policy that had been set in motion, and which I supported--but it was the President who made the final, important decision. Had he made a contrary decision, we wouldn't have the peace process we do today.

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