How Dublin urged JFK to press for British statement on partition ahead of 1963 visit

Ahead of his historic visit to the Republic in 1963 US President John F Kennedy was lobbied by the southern government to press for Britain support for ending partition, writes Mary Daly

United States President John F Kennedy during his 1963 visit to the Republic. Picture by PA
Mary Daly

JOHN F Kennedy’s brief presidency and his visit to Ireland in 1963 offer a framework for examining the relationship between Ireland, the United States and Irish-America at a critical period in the history of independent Ireland.

The early 1960s was a time of transitions in Ireland; the disappearance of the founding generation of political leaders; a reorientation of economic policy and policy towards Northern Ireland, and efforts to engage more fully in international relations, both at the United Nations, and as an aspiring member of the European Economic Community.

Éamon de Valera, the dominant political leader since independence, had left active politics in 1959 to assume the role of president of Ireland. Although Seán Lemass, his successor, was also a veteran of the 1916 Rising and the struggle for independence, he expressed a different political and economic philosophy, highlighting the importance of economic development as a national aspiration.

The advance preparations for Kennedy’s visit revealed some of the tensions between change and continuity that were continuing to play out within the Irish government.

Lemass was determined to promote a closer relationship with the government of Northern Ireland. He believed that the ultimate solution to partition might be found through developing a prosperous Irish economy that would prove attractive to Ulster unionists. But Minister for External Affairs Frank Aiken remained a supporter of the post-war anti-partition campaign, and a key element of that failed strategy was to persuade the United States to use its influence with Britain to urge Britain to support a united Ireland.

When TJ Kiernan, the Irish ambassador to the US, met Kennedy ahead of his visit to Ireland he broached the possibility that Kennedy might take the opportunity of urging the British that they should indicate publicly that a solution to the partition question "is desirable from the point of view of both Britain and Ireland".

Kennedy was flying to Britain to meet the Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, following his visit to Ireland, and it was known that the two had a close personal relationship. Kennedy expressed the opinion that "no British minister would feel able to make a public statement of the kind suggested".

Kiernan added that: "He [Kennedy] is by his education, British-inclined. And in the present international conjuncture, he makes no secret of his firm attachment to Britain. So that, to raise a new issue (or renew an old issue) now when Britain has so many pressing problems to solve, is something he would avoid and would seek an alternative. He would, therefore regard our suggestion as embarrassing to the British at this troubled stage in their history."

Kiernan’s assessment of Kennedy’s attitude was correct, but he failed to convince his minister. Aiken persisted in his efforts to use Kennedy’s visit to exert pressure on Britain. Kiernan was sent back to the White House for a further meeting with the president, duly armed with 44 pages of statements by US politicians and others, including British Prime Minister WE Gladstone, all ostensibly justifying the case for Irish unity.

Aiken urged the ambassador to present these to the president, in the hope of persuading him "to avail himself of any suitable opportunity with the British to encourage them to play their part in bringing partition to an end".

When Kiernan raised the matter with Kennedy and summarised some of the extracts, he reported that "The president looked as if another headache had struck him and asked me was he expected to say anything in public. I repeated we were not asking for this but only that we hoped for his continued goodwill towards a solution of the reunification of the country."

Partition did not figure at any point in Kennedy’s visit.

Changes in Ireland and the US meant that by the 1960s Ireland had to develop new methods of engaging with the US and Irish-America at multiple levels – communicating the pragmatic economic arguments about Ireland as a destination for US investment and a modern society; beginning the process of developing an Irish-American network that was more focused on economy and culture than traditional Irish politics, and learning to make productive use of what Jack Conway described as ‘a sentimental regard for their ancestry which does not involve financial expenditure’.

These relationships underwent much greater challenges after Kennedy’s presidency. The removal of ethnic quotas – which Irish authorities did not oppose – effectively ended legal Irish emigration to the US after almost 200 years, and the onset of violence in Northern Ireland meant that Irish politicians and officials had to communicate Irish policy towards Northern Ireland in a much more forthright manner than Lemass did in 1963.

:: Mary Daly is Emeritus Professor of History at University College Dublin. This is an extract from From Whence I Came: The Kennedy Legacy, Ireland and America, the new book edited Brian Murphy & Donnacha Ó Beacháin and published by Merrion Press.

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