2020-06-18 12:46:24 UTC
Jean Kennedy Smith Dies at 92; Sister of Famed Clan Helped Forge Peace in Northern Ireland
By Robert D. McFadden
June 18, 2020
Updated 8:44 a.m. ET
Jean Kennedy Smith, a sister of the Kennedy clan who as the United States ambassador to Ireland in the 1990s helped pave the way for a formal agreement to end decades of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland, died on Wednesday at her home in Manhattan. She was 92.
Her death was confirmed by her daughter Kym.
Ms. Smith was the youngest and last-surviving sibling in a family that embedded itself in the American consciousness and wrote itself into American history, producing a president and senators and an unrivaled mystique fashioned out of political glory, personal charisma, great wealth and staggering tragedy.
Until the age when most people retire, Ms. Smith led a quiet life of privilege and philanthropy, with palatial homes, summers at the shore and a busy calendar of society and charity functions. She shared family triumphs and tragedies, though always in the shadow of her siblings, including President John F. Kennedy, Senators Robert F. Kennedy and Edward M. Kennedy, Eunice Shriver and Patricia Kennedy Lawford.
But in 1993, when she was 65, a doyenne of charity balls and the widow of Stephen E. Smith, the Kennedy family’s troubleshooter and financial adviser, Ms. Smith was named ambassador to Dublin by President Bill Clinton at the behest of her brother Teddy. But he had no illusions about her appointment.
Neither did her social circle.
“When Jean was posted to Ireland, people thought, ‘Oh, gosh,’” said Muffie Brandon, a Washington socialite.
Ms. Smith was the first Kennedy woman of her generation to take on a serious political job. Like her sisters and the wives of her brothers, she had had roles in family political campaigns, but not in public service. Her father, Joseph P. Kennedy Sr., had been the ambassador to Britain when she was a little girl, and she had visited Ireland, the land of her ancestors, many times.
Jean Kennedy Smith, center, joined a peace rally in Dublin in 1996, when she was the U.S. ambassador to Ireland.Credit...Maxwells/Associated Press
But she knew little about diplomacy, Irish politics or the intricacies of the sectarian violence known as The Troubles: the Irish Republican Army’s campaign of bombings and assassinations to drive the British out of Ulster and unite overwhelmingly Roman Catholic Ireland with predominantly Protestant Northern Ireland. The appointment, too, was made at a crucial time, as movement had begun toward a settlement to end decades of fighting that had left thousands dead on all sides.
Still, the Irish, who regarded President Kennedy as a virtual saint, took to her warmly, and Irish leaders were eager to help. She soon became the second-most-prominent woman in Ireland, after President Mary Robinson. And over the next five years, in the unorthodox way that amateurs sometimes succeed, Ms. Smith embraced her job and played a role in the Ulster settlement.
She ruffled feathers, broke rules and brushed aside diplomatic niceties. She was reprimanded by Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher for removing two senior staff members who disagreed with her views. She visited Northern Ireland, a British province and not her turf, and met repeatedly with Gerry Adams, the head of the I.R.A.’s political wing, Sinn Fein, though American policy then forbade it.
While many officials in London and the U.S. State Department believed she was exceeding her authority and regarded Mr. Adams as a terrorist mouthpiece, Ms. Smith helped clear the way for a visa that let him go to the United States to make his case for a cease-fire and British withdrawal from Ulster.
Almost overnight, he became a popular son of Ireland in America. Six months later, on Aug. 31, 1994, a cease-fire was declared. At the behest of Ms. Smith, Senator Kennedy and others, Mr. Clinton met with Mr. Adams at the White House in 1995, granting a measure of respectability to Sinn Fein.
When the cease-fire broke down in 1996 over the continued exclusion of Sinn Fein from the peace talks, Ms. Smith summoned Joe Cahill, the I.R.A. leader, and upbraided him. Sinn Fein was finally admitted to the talks, and the cease-fire was restored in 1997. Negotiations led by former Senator George J. Mitchell produced the Belfast Agreement in April 1998.
It provided for disarming paramilitary groups and power-sharing in Northern Ireland. A month later, it was approved in referendums in Ireland and Northern Ireland. The years afterward were marred by gunfights, political breakdowns, disarmament disputes and other flare-ups. But the Belfast pact is still regarded as the formal document for phasing out decades of sectarian warfare in Ulster.
Ms. Smith’s role — bringing the I.R.A. in from the cold — was important, and she was proud of it.
“The Irish people were willing to take me at face value, to give me the benefit of the doubt because I was a Kennedy,” she said in 1998 as she prepared to end her assignment in Dublin. “I was a cog, really, in the machine that was moving. I was fortunate to be here to perhaps add momentum to what was happening.”
Jean Ann Kennedy was born in Brookline, Mass., on Feb. 20, 1928, the eighth of nine children and the youngest daughter of Joseph P. and Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy. Her childhood was idyllic, with summers on Cape Cod, winters in Palm Beach, Fla., and mansion life in Bronxville, an affluent suburb in Westchester County, N.Y.
She was educated at Roman Catholic girls’ schools and graduated in 1948 from Manhattanville College of the Sacred Heart in New York with a degree in English. She introduced future wives to three of her brothers — Ethel Skakel, a Manhattanville classmate, to Robert; Jacqueline Bouvier, a friend, to John; and Virginia Joan Bennett, also a Manhattanville student, to Edward.
She married Mr. Smith, a New York financier, in 1956. He oversaw the Kennedy family’s $500 million fortune after her father was incapacitated by a stroke in 1961, and he advised her brothers in political campaigns. The couple had four children.
She was a tennis player and swimmer who loved sailing and hikes on the beach. Her role in politics, like her sisters’, was to appear at campaign events, starting with John’s races for Congress and the Senate and his campaign for the presidency in 1960. She also raised funds for programs to benefit handicapped children, and for many years was a trustee of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington.
In 1974, she founded Very Special Arts, a Kennedy Center affiliate that provides programs in creative writing, dance, music, drama and other arts for thousands of physically or mentally handicapped artists in America and elsewhere. With George Plimpton, she produced a book of interviews with such artists, “Chronicles of Courage: Very Special Artists,” in 1993.
In outliving her siblings, Ms. Smith endured their often-shattering deaths. Her oldest brother, Joseph P. Kennedy Jr., was killed in combat in 1944. (She christened a destroyer named for him in 1945.) Kathleen died in a 1948 plane crash in France. President Kennedy and Senator Robert Kennedy were assassinated in 1963 and 1968. Rosemary, mentally disabled and institutionalized most of her life, died in 2005; Patricia Kennedy Lawford, who was divorced from the British actor Peter Lawford, died in 2006; Eunice Kennedy Shriver, a champion of the Special Olympics and the wife of R. Sargent Shriver, the first director of the Peace Corps, died in August 2009; and Senator Edward Kennedy died two weeks later.
Ms. Smith’s husband died in 1990. In addition to her daughter Kym, she is survived by her two sons, Stephen Jr. and William; another daughter, Amanda; and six grandchildren.
In 1991, Ms. Smith sat through the Florida trial of her son William on a rape charge. The case grew out of his visit to a bar with Senator Kennedy and a sexual encounter with a woman at the Kennedy estate in Palm Beach. It ended in acquittal, but television coverage and graphic testimony produced a lurid mix of sex and scandal in America’s most famous family.
Jean Kennedy Smith had always been the quiet Kennedy, doing her charity work but avoiding needless publicity. But in 1993, after visiting Dublin, she discussed the ambassador’s job with her brother, who asked Mr. Clinton to nominate her. It was good politics sending a Kennedy to Ireland, even though it was a sensitive time in the Irish conflict and she knew little of its intricacies.
Ending her Dublin assignment five years later, she was asked if she had taken the job with a sense of history — relating the murderous violence in Ulster to the assassination of her brothers.
“I never sat down and said, ‘Now I must make a contribution, that one person can make a difference,’” she said. “But I felt I was in a position where I could contribute. I never thought of it in the light of history or my brothers. I just felt I had an obligation.”
Sam Roberts contributed reporting.
Robert D. McFadden is a senior writer on the Obituaries desk and the winner of the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for spot news reporting. He joined The Times in May 1961 and is also the co-author of two books.