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Kevin Cullen

Dark deals, knight's tale

By Kevin Cullen
Globe Columnist / March 9, 2009
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Blimey. It seems the prospect of the senior senator from Massachusetts getting an honorary knighthood from that nice old lady who lives in Buckingham Palace has left a good portion of the British right with their knickers in a twist.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown thought it would be a nice coda to Ted Kennedy's career to have his efforts to bring about peace in Northern Ireland recognized with what the Brits affectionately call a gong. But that has been greeted with indignant harrumphs from people whose views on Anglo-Irish relations are frozen in a past that imagines Britain remaining, as John Major, the former Tory leader and prime minister, put it, "the country of long shadows on cricket grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog lovers."

The Daily Telegraph, known fondly as the Daily Torygraph, was apoplectic, viewing the idea of honoring Kennedy as evidence of British self-loathing at its worst. Michael Ancram, who served as a junior minister in Northern Ireland, said Kennedy was richly undeserving because he had supported one side in the conflict so openly, that being Catholic nationalists who aspire to unity with the Republic of Ireland. This is a bit rich, given that Ancram and his prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, backed one side very openly, that being Protestant unionists who want to remain British subjects.

But hypocrisy is one thing. Lying is another. Many British commentators have in the past week repeated the canard that Ted Kennedy was a supporter and cheerleader of the Irish Republican Army. Indeed, in 1971 Kennedy said the British should withdraw from Northern Ireland. But, unlike his critics, Kennedy actually learned more about the situation and recognized quickly that Brits Out was not a fair or realistic goal on an island called Ireland where a sizable minority of people are British.

Writing in the Daily Mail, whose opinion page makes the Wall Street Journal's editorial page read like Pravda, a historian named Andrew Roberts suggested Kennedy had long played footsie with the IRA because it played "exclusively to his own Catholic-Irish voters in Massachusetts," which is ludicrous, and Kennedy had distanced himself from the IRA only after 9/11, which is preposterous.

Ted Kennedy did as much as anyone to make the IRA stop killing people and eventually disband. His embrace of Sinn Féin, the IRA's political wing, was always conditional, and the condition was that the IRA stopped killing people. He used his influence to end conflict, while his most vociferous critics in Britain used theirs to perpetuate it.

Kennedy-haters in England, like those on these shores, love to bring up Chappaquiddick. But British animosity toward Kennedy goes back much further and is often as much about his father as it is about him. British Kennedyphobes like to say old Joe Kennedy made his fortune as a bootlegger and, as US ambassador to the Court of St. James's, was a Nazi sympathizer. Like the critique of his son, British complaints about Joe Kennedy don't let facts get in the way of a perfectly good ideological screed.

Left to the devices of British reactionaries, the sort of mindless violence that saw two British soldiers murdered outside an army base in Antrim on Saturday night would be common. In fact, it was the first time in 12 years that dissident Irish republicans had killed a British soldier in Northern Ireland, and it was carried out by people who oppose Sinn Féin and the whole peace process.

Only 85 Americans have received honorary knighthoods. And the truth is the British right is no more indignant and self-righteous about Ted Kennedy receiving a gong than the British left was when Henry Kissinger was honored years ago.

The only way to avoid these silly controversies is to take the approach of John Singer Sargent, the great painter whose murals grace the Boston Public Library. In 1907, when King Edward VII offered to make him an honorary knight, Sargent said thanks, but no thanks.

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at cullen@globe.com

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