What Ted Kennedy Didn’t Get About Northern Ireland (And What the United States Still Doesn’t Get Today)
“What answer from the North?
One Law, One Land, One Throne!
If England drives us forth
We shall not fall alone.”
— “Ulster 1912”, Rudyard Kipling
Being convinced that Irish self-rule would have been “disastrous to the material well-being of Ulster”, 500,000 men and women signed a covenant and declaration on September 28, 1912, pledging “to stand by one another in defending our cherished position of equal citizenship in the United Kingdom” – “using all means which may be found necessary”. One hundred years later, 30,000 unionists marched through Belfast this weekend past largely without incident, save complaints that one drummer relieved himself on a Catholic Church in the east of the city, an action already condemned by the parade’s organisers. Additional accusations that loyalists ignored proscriptions on the signing of unionist hymns including “The Sash” near St Patrick’s Church are currently being investigated.
That the march passed off as peacefully as it could have is attributable in no small part to the work the United States undertook during the peace process of the 1990s. Lawmakers including President Clinton and Sen. Ted Kennedy were instrumental in aiding Tony Blair and others in forging the Good Friday agreement. This compromise between Ulster unionists and Irish republicans allowed for the formation of the democratically-elected Northern Ireland Assembly and autonomy over a number of policy areas including education, healthcare, and most recently policing and justice. It is no mean feat that the executive branch is headed by a grand coalition led by First Minister Peter Robinson of the Democratic Unionists, and his deputy Martin McGuinness of Sinn Féin.
Yet it was not always that case that U.S. lawmakers held such equitable and peaceful views on the conflict in Northern Ireland. After all, it was Sen. Kennedy who proclaimed in 1971 that the presence of British military forces in Ulster was akin to the American occupation of Indochina. Not only that, but Protestants and unionists in Northern Ireland should, Kennedy believed, be given “a decent opportunity to go back to Britain”, as if fifty percent of Ulster’s inhabitants were but squatters in republican, Catholic territory.
And it is not as if Kennedy was the only politician at fault. Rep. Peter King actively supported the IRA through NORAID during the 1980s and 1990s at a time when the paramilitary organisation was carrying out terrorist attacks in England as well as Northern Ireland, including the attempted assassination of Margaret Thatcher, the detonation of two bombs in the middle of the northern town of Warrington which killed a three-year-old boy, and the mortaring of Downing Street and London Heathrow Airport. King has compared Gerry Adams to George Washington, called the IRA a “legitimate force”, and said in 1985, “If civilians are killed in an attack on a military installation, it is certainly regrettable, but I will not morally blame the IRA for it”.
What those lawmakers misunderstood then, but what Ted Kennedy came to recognise, was that the Northern Ireland case was not a clear example of vestigial colonialism but rather a convoluted and messy situation where half of Ulster maintained a legitimate aspiration to remain part of the United Kingdom. What the unionists feared when the Ulster Covenant was signed was the loss of civil and religious freedom and equal citizenship, and the potential that the Protestants would become a persecuted minority within Catholic Ireland. Whether such claims are well-founded or not, they must be recognised.
United States foreign policy continues to suffer from this disability to understand the aims and desires of people whom they view as residing under colonial regimes, nowhere more so than in the Falkland Islands. The Reagan administration maintained an officially neutral position when the United Kingdom took to defend the Falklands after the Argentinian dictatorship of Gen. Galtieri – in the throngs of conducting a violent, “dirty war” against its own citizenry, resulting in the disappearance of some 13,000 left-wing activists, students, and journalists – invaded the isles. The United States feared instability in a region where they were party to a long struggle against left-wing regimes, a most disgraceful chapter during which the CIA backed a coup against the democratically-elected president of Chile, Salvador Allende, amongst other crimes.
Even today, the United States refuses to come to terms with the notion that Falklanders may wish to remain British. The Falklands Islands are a self-governing territory protected by the British government, and in the first half of next year the people of those isles will partake in a referendum regarding sovereignty. It is the position of the British government to adhere to the outcome of the vote, a stance supported by a majority of the UK population. The State Department, however, when asked if the United States will “respect the referendum results” stated, “We will not speculate on a referendum that has not taken place. Our position remains one of neutrality.”
As the nation which best embodies what can be done when the fetters of colonialism are shaken off, it is understandable that U.S. lawmakers have advocated and would continue to push for further decolonisation, during the latter half of the twentieth century in Africa and Asia most notably. Yet viewing world affairs entirely through this prism can have the effect of distorting United States policy towards countries and conflicts where there are sides worth taking and positions promoting. In the Falklands as in Northern Ireland, the reality is often far more complicated that they might wish it to be.