N. Ireland Protestants welcome Kennedy Catholic senator honors their shared roots and encourages peace efforts

January 11, 1998|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

CARRICKFERGUS, Northern Ireland -- David Hilditch skipped his job delivering the mail, donned his ceremonial outfit as mayor and welcomed a unique visitor to this Protestant stronghold city of 35,000 yesterday:

U.S. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy.

Only a few years ago, such a visit by the patriarch of America's Irish-Catholic political dynasty would have inflamed local passions, said Hilditch, an ally of firebrand politician and Protestant preacher the Rev. Ian R. Paisley.

"When you mention the Kennedy name to the rank and file, you have this scenario of support for Gerry Adams [leader of the Irish Republican Army's political wing, Sinn Fein] and fund raising for terrorism," Hilditch said.

But Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat, came to Carrickfergus to allay unfounded fears and to honor the shared roots that bind this corner of County Antrim with the United States.

"We've had a chance over the last five years to get to know a number of the Protestant leaders," Kennedy said. "But I'm aware of their continued skepticism."

The most remarkable thing about Kennedy's first visit to Northern Ireland was how unremarkable -- even uncontroversial -- it was.

He went to Northern Ireland to give a speech, to listen and to

learn firsthand from an array of local political leaders about a subject he has long debated and discussed from a distance in Washington.

Among those he met yesterday were Adams; David Trimble, leader of the main Protestant party, the Ulster Unionists; and Mo Mowlam, the Northern Ireland Secretary.

Northern Ireland's terrorist troubles have claimed more than 3,200 lives over more than 25 years. A peace process that has brought a sense of stability and hope to the majority Protestants and minority Catholics reaches a critical stage tomorrow with the restart of talks between eight political parties.

"Americans are not indifferent to the outcome of negotiations," Kennedy said. "There are 44 million Americans of Irish heritage."

Throughout his two-day visit, Kennedy walked the tightrope between two communities, making sure to honor their politicians, their contributions and their traditions. And at every step, he talked of peace.

"There are some who seek to wreck the peace process," Kennedy said Friday in Londonderry while giving the first Tip O'Neill Memorial lecture to an audience that included poets, politicians, victims of the troubles, and the senator's sister, Jean Kennedy Smith, U.S. ambassador to Ireland.

"They are blinded by the fear of a future they cannot imagine, a future in which respect for differences is a healing and unifying force," he said. "They are driven by an anger that holds no respect for life, even for the lives of children."

After walking the walls of Londonderry, Kennedy met the relatives of 14 men who died after they were shot by British soldiers in the 1972 Bloody Sunday incident.

In Carrickfergus, Kennedy briefly celebrated the shared history of Northern Ireland and America. He took tea with the local political leaders in a thatched cottage that honors the local ancestry of America's first Democratic president, Andrew Jackson. And he collected pamphlets and books from local politicians boosting the cause of unionism, the link that binds Northern Ireland to Great Britain.

The local politicians left impressed.

Roy Beggs, an Ulster Unionist and member of the British Parliament, said Kennedy showed that he "has matured to take the major step to come into a predominantly unionist area. We are all delighted it happened."

Pub Date: 1/11/98

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