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Monday, October 6, 2008

McCain lacked judgment on issue of visa for Adams

OPINION: John McCain was wrong on the peace process: an Obama presidency is in Ireland's interest, writes Jean Kennedy Smith

WHEN IRISH Americans vote in November, the choice is clear: Barack Obama and Joe Biden are the candidates who are best prepared to lead us through the difficult times that lie ahead.

For many Irish Americans, Ireland is extremely important. They want a president who is deeply committed - as Bill Clinton was - to peace in Northern Ireland and strong relations with Ireland.

But commitment is not enough. Judgment is essential too. Unfortunately, John McCain's judgment has often been wrong on Northern Ireland.

Beginning in 1993, I served as Bill Clinton's ambassador to Ireland. After decades of violence, a peace process was being born.

The Clinton administration was considering whether to issue a visa for Gerry Adams, the leader of Sinn Féin, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army, to come to the United States.

By the end of December 1993, there were strong indications that the IRA might be prepared to end its violence and that a visa for Adams to come briefly to the US could help bring about a ceasefire.

John Hume, who received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1998 for his efforts in Northern Ireland, and the then taoiseach, Albert Reynolds, supported the visa.

But the British government strongly opposed it, and so did many in the state department.

I, my brother, senator Ted Kennedy, and many others urged Bill Clinton to grant it. We agreed that IRA violence was indefensible, but we concluded that granting the visa could help bring it to an end.

The opportunity for a major breakthrough for peace was worth the political risk.

The visa was granted and the strategy worked. The IRA ceasefire came at the end of August 1994.

John McCain was among those who opposed Bill Clinton's peace efforts in Northern Ireland.

McCain followed Britain's lead and opposed giving Gerry Adams the visa. He described Clinton's involvement in Northern Ireland as "mistaken".

He dismissed those who urged Clinton to grant Gerry Adams the visa as "motivated by romantic, anachronistic notions of Irish republicanism".

I found that especially insulting since my brother, and many other Irish American leaders, including house speaker Tip O'Neill, senator Pat Moynihan, and governor Hugh Carey of New York had long opposed IRA violence.

McCain expressed concern about offending our British allies, and later said it was a "terrible mistake to give Gerry Adams the publicity that a visit to the White House gave him".

He publicly defied "anyone to show me how that contributed to peace in Ireland". If it had been left to John McCain, there would have been no Northern Ireland peace process and no peace today.

There have been many ups and downs in the peace process along the way. The ceasefire was temporarily broken in 1996. But 12 years later, it is abundantly clear that the strategy pursued by the Clinton administration - and strongly opposed by John McCain - helped pave the way for the historic 1998 Belfast Agreement.

I returned to Belfast in April of this year to mark the 10th anniversary of the agreement. Obviously, some problems continue, but the progress has been immense, because Catholics and Protestants are genuinely sharing power in Northern Ireland, and the peace process is now frequently cited as a model for achieving peace in other parts of the world.

On his historic visit to Ireland in 1963, another brother, John F Kennedy spoke of Ireland and the United States as two nations "divided by distance, united by history".

"No people ever believed more deeply in the cause of Irish freedom than the people of the United States," he said.

If John F Kennedy were here today, I'm sure he would agree that no two people are more committed than Barack Obama and Joe Biden to strengthening the ties that bind America and Ireland.

They are committed to a lasting peace in Northern Ireland, they are committed to restoring our respect and reputation in the world.

Irish Americans should be committed to them as well.

Jean Kennedy Smith was US Ambassador to Ireland from 1993 to 1998.

This article appeared in The Irish Times newspaper on Monday, October 6, 2008.

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