By Susan Milligan, Globe Staff
WASHINGTON -- Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts will receive an honorary knighthood, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced during his address this morning to a joint session of Congress.
A British government official said Queen Elizabeth is bestowing the accolade to Kennedy in part for his services to Northern Ireland, but also for his work over a lifetime providing greater access to healthcare for children and greater access to education around the world.
"I hope that you will allow me to single out for special mention today one of your most distinguished senators, known in every continent and a great friend," Brown said. "Northern Ireland today is at peace, more Americans have healthcare, children around the world are going to school, and for all those things we owe a great debt to the life and courage of Senator Edward Kennedy."
Brown drew a sustained standing ovation from members of Congress for his announcement, and again when he called him "Sir Edward Kennedy." Officially, though, since Kennedy is not a British subject, he will have "K.B.E." -- for Knight of the British empire -- after his name.
Brown said he spoke to Kennedy on Tuesday night to tell him of his latest honor. He was not in attendance at the speech.
"I'm deeply grateful to Her Majesty the Queen and to Prime Minister Brown for this extraordinary honor," Kennedy said in a statement. "I have always prized the opportunity to work with the British government and strengthen and deepen the role of our two countries as leading beacons of democracy in the world. I am proud that I was able to play a part in the decades-long effort to bring peace to Northern Ireland.
"I also think of my ties to Britain that stretch back across the years-from my childhood to the Kennedy Scholars today who come from Britain to study in America. It was from Britain that my oldest brother left for his last mission during World War II. It is in Britain that a portion of land at Runnymede, where the Magna Carta was signed, is now designated as American soil and dedicated to President Kennedy as a gift of the British people. So for me, this honor is moving and personal- a reflection not only of my public life, but of things that profoundly matter to me as an individual. I accept this honor in the spirit in which it is given, with a continuing commitment to be a voice for the voiceless and for the shared ideals of freedom and fairness which are so fundamental to the character of our two countries."
The ailing lawmaker has been recuperating and receiving treatment for brain cancer in Florida but is expected back in Washington this week, possibly for Thursday's healthcare summit hosted by the White House.
Representative Patrick Kennedy, one of the first to greet Brown after his speech, joked that he would have to start calling his father "sir'' -- although the honor does not, under British tradition, entitle the senator to the moniker "Sir Edward Kennedy,'' as Brown informally called him.
"Typical of my dad, he said, 'I hope the Irish don't get angry with me for accepting this,' '' said the younger Kennedy, a Rhode Island Democrat who said he assured his father that his long work on the Irish peace process would erase any resentment over accepting a title from the queen.
Notably, Brown made no mention of violence in Northern Ireland in his address -- an omission Representative Richard Neal, a Springfield Democrat long involved in the Irish peace process, called a "staggering'' commentary on the progress that has been made. Neal joined several other Irish-American lawmakers in escorting Brown down the aisle of the House floor, a courtesy that would have been unthinkable during the darkest days of the conflict.
The British consul general in New England, Phil Budden, said in a statement: "The British Prime Minister today honored Senator Kennedy for his service, friendship, and vision, especially in building bridges among our nations. Only a year ago, the Senator generously welcomed the Prime Minister to the JFK Library here in Boston, where he gave a speech building on the reconciliation in Northern Ireland and opening a new chapter of collaboration on dialogue with many more nations. For this and for the reasons outlined by my Prime Minister, I am delighted to add my own personal thanks and congratulations to the Senator."
Brown, who met with President Obama on Tuesday, also reinforced the friendship and cooperation of Britain and Europe for the United States. He said he wanted to renew the special friendship between the two countries, saying it was more important than ever to deal with the "economic hurricane" sweeping the world.
About Political Intelligence
Glen Johnson is Politics Editor at boston.com and lead blogger for "Political Intelligence." He moved to Massachusetts in the fourth grade, and has covered local, state, and national politics for over 25 years. E-mail him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.