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

<i> William Tuohy is London bureau chief for The Times</i>

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.

Q: So issuing the visa started the ball rolling toward a cease-fire?

A: Yes, the President allowed Gerry Adams in, and he thought this was a step toward peace--if [Adams] saw he was accepted, and if people were trying to work for peace and not use violence as a means of doing this, it would encourage his followers to take steps toward a peaceful solution.

Q: The peace process seems, for the moment, to have lost momentum. Do you think the President’s visit could regenerate it or, conversely, could it harm Clinton’s standing because it has stalled?

A: We have a lot of problems along the way. This is very long and complex--800 years and, more recently, the last 25 years. I think everyone understands that it’s not going to be easy. And we are dealing with a lot of different elements. But it is very important that he [Clinton] does come now, because it gives it a good momentum. Things are stalled, but I think his visit will create momentum and is very welcome

Q: Do you have any qualms about his going to Northern Ireland with things up in the air?

A: He’ll certainly be very well received by the Nationalists, by Gerry Adams for Sinn Fein, by the SDLP [John Hume’s Social Democratic and Labor Party]. He’s just seen David Trimble, who was well received in the White House, and spoke highly of the President and the talks they had together. Mr. Paisley has also been over there and talks perhaps less enthusiastically. But he’s also welcomed the visit. And I think people realize the pivotal role the President has played and are very grateful.

Q: Some officials in London have privately criticized you and the President for being too partial to the Republican side of the argument over Northern Ireland. Do you think with Trimble’s visit, the President has heard both sides?

A: Yes. I think it’s a little unfair to say that the perception is that perhaps he was pro-Nationalist, because he was working very hard for peace. It required a lot of attention to the particular problem--which, at the time, was the IRA violence.

It’s obvious that the United States really wants a fair settlement. The [Administration] wants consent, a government there that people of the North are happy with--and that’s what the President has said over and over again. And that is the concern of everybody.

Q: What about your own role?

A: Well, I think I was just at the right post at the right time. I was just very lucky, because Mr. Reynolds had been working with John Hume for years, so there have been a lot of people involved, trying to make it come about--and it just happened that I was here. Obviously my brother [Sen. Edward M. Kennedy] has been very active for 25 years in trying to get peace in the North, so there were a lot of elements that happily came together at one time--and I was one of them.

Q: What about the reports that you played a very active role behind the scenes in the peace process?

A: I was just doing my job [laughter], or trying to, in the best way I could.

Q: Do you think your being a Kennedy has been helpful in your work as ambassador?

A: I think it has been enormously helpful, because everybody here remembers the visit of my brother [President John F. Kennedy] in 1963. When I first came here, 30 years after his visit, I went right to Wexford, and there was a huge welcome because everybody remembers that visit. The fact that I have Irish ancestry on both sides makes people welcome me, too. When I was appointed, Albert Reynolds said, “Are you just coming home, Jean?” I went to Wexford last weekend for the opera and two waitresses said, “Welcome home.” So I think they feel we [Kennedys] just left for 150 years, and now we’re back again.

Q: Is your special entree to Washington helpful? Perhaps more than a career diplomat’s?

A: I think that is true. I think everyone acknowledges Teddy is the person in the Senate who speaks for Ireland. He was very helpful to me before I came and gave me a lot of tips and a lot of interesting ideas about what do do. So he’s been a tremendous support. Other friends in the Senate and Congress have been very supportive to me with good advice and ideas.

Q: Do you have any formula for a solution to the problems in Northern Ireland, to get the sides together?

A: That will be very hard to do. Because, as I’ve said, it’s a very complex issue and nobody has the perfect answer. I think it’s going to be an evolving and very long process. We need talks now-- the first step, dialogue, has to begin. I think once people start talking, things will evolve. I’ve been to the North several times, and there isn’t anyone who wants to go back to the violence.

There has been a tremendous change up there, and people from here go there shopping and looking around, and we’ve had people from the North who come down and have lunch. There’s a lot of exchanges now with the North and South, and everyone believes in and is looking forward to the future.

Q: What about the Republic of Ireland itself? What will you be telling the President about Ireland’s problems, besides the priority of the peace process?

A: I have to say that the President is very aware of Ireland and knows the history well. I suppose the priorities now are jobs. There is high unemployment here and that creates problems. We have the beginnings of a drug problem--as is the case all over Europe.

Unemployment is high but otherwise the economy is good. We have a lot of American businesses here--about 440. We encourage American businesses to come here because there is a fine, educated work force and some tax breaks and a good way to get into the European market. There are quite a few people coming over to consider setting up firms here, and that is a high priority.

Q: What help does Ireland need from the United States?

A: I think they want us to continue to support the peace process, promote U.S. investment, continue the strong relationships we have in all kinds of areas--exchanges of students and women’s groups, doing something about drugs, making our educational programs available to young people--almost every family I’ve met has someone who is studying in the U.S. But I believe Ireland is getting more European, and the young are looking toward Europe for jobs--just as there are a lot of Europeans coming to Dublin.

Q: On a lighter note, how do you find life in Dublin and Ireland?

A: They are all very kind, the Irish are. They have a marvelous sense of humor and they are very articulate, very literary. So it’s not like staid, proper, diplomatic functions because meetings are always enjoyable, and the Irish enjoy life. There’s a tremendous buildup of the arts. Practically every town has a festival, with a great community feeling.

Q: You make the job sound like fun.

A: There’s no better job in the world. [Laughter] Especially for an Irish American.

Q: Didn’t your brother, the late President, say this is the job he wanted after leaving the White House?

A: Yes, and that’s what Teddy says, too. [Laughter] He can’t have it.

Q: How would you like to have your time here remembered?

A: What did Lincoln say to that question? “I have planted a rose where only thistles grew.” Isn’t that good? Let’s see: that I helped the peace process.