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Jean Kennedy Smith – Last Surviving Sibling of JFK Passes Away at 92

Steve Palace
Jean Kennedy Smith. Getty Images
Jean Kennedy Smith. Getty Images

Jean Kennedy Smith, last sibling of the Kennedy clan, has passed away aged 92. The news was broken by her daughter Kym. The former US Ambassador to Ireland and humanitarian died in Manhattan on Wednesday, leaving behind a substantial political legacy. Her time as Ambassador only lasted a few years, between 1993 – ‘98. But she made one of the most crucial and controversial decisions of the Peace Process. With the cooperation of President Clinton, she granted a temporary visa to Gerry Adams, then head of Sinn Féin.

His 48 hour visit across the pond in February 1994 was an olive branch. Yet British and American officials disapproved, thinking she’d cosied up to the IRA. Kennedy Smith was even officially reprimanded by Secretary of State Warren Christopher. Six months later a ceasefire was called. NBC writes, “She later called criticism of her actions toward the IRA ‘unfortunate’ and said she thought history would credit the Clinton administration with helping the peace process in Northern Ireland.”

Quoted by BBC News, US special envoy Mick Mulvaney said the Ambassador played “a critical role in advancing peace in Northern Ireland, leveraging deep personal empathy and courage.”

Jean Kennedy
PC 1651 Jean Kennedy, circa 1953. Photograph in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.

What made Kennedy Smith the right woman for the job? Aside from the PR coup of a famous family connection, she had strong Irish roots. John F. Kennedy was the first ever Irish Catholic to enter the White House. His proud sister campaigned for him in 1960 and was no stranger to the political scene. However she was also known for being low key, a status that changed once Clinton offered her the Ambassadorship.

Another against-the-grain move was to attend Communion at a Protestant cathedral. Roman Catholic bishops were up in arms. NBC reports, “Her decision was a strong personal gesture of support for Irish President Mary McAleese, a fellow Catholic who had been criticized by Irish bishops for joining in the Protestant communion service.”

Kennedy family
The Kennedy Family in 1931. L-R: Robert Kennedy, John F. Kennedy, Eunice Kennedy, Jean Kennedy (on lap of) Joseph P. Kennedy Sr., Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy (behind) Patricia Kennedy, Kathleen Kennedy, Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. (behind) Rosemary Kennedy. Dog in foreground is “Buddy”. Photograph by Richard Sears in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.

As for how Kennedy Smith felt about her contribution to today’s Ireland, the BBC refers to comments she made in 1998: “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.” After stepping down, she was granted Irish citizenship before going back to relative obscurity. President Obama awarded her the Medal of Freedom in 2011. She later released a memoir – The Nine Of Us: Growing Up Kennedy (2016).

Second youngest of nine siblings and the youngest sister, Jean was born to Joseph and Rose Kennedy in 1928. Speaking to Town & Country, she considered her childhood fairly normal. Her family were “real people who loved each other and loved this country.”

That said, Town & Country writes: “The family dinner conversation was also influenced by Joseph Sr.’s work. A common topic of discussion was, ‘If you were president, what would you do?’ Prompts came from real-life 1930s dilemmas like: Unemployment is down; a hurricane killed hundreds; and Hitler is advancing.”

As successful as the Kennedy family were, they also suffered extreme tragedy. JFK’s assassination in 1963 still looms large in the American consciousness. Sen Robert Kennedy was murdered five years on. Older brother Joe died in World War II and Kathleen was killed in a 1948 plane crash.

Sister Eunice established the Special Olympics in 1968. Kennedy Smith was an active philanthropist, setting up the international organization Very Special Arts in 1974. VSA helps those with disabilities receive an education in arts and culture.

She was married to analyst and strategist Stephen Smith between 1956 and his death in 1990. The couple had four children. Kym Smith told NBC she’d led “an amazing life.” Niece Maria Shriver said on TODAY: “I take solace in the fact that she is joining every other member of her family up in heaven.”

Irish President Michael D. Higgins released a statement reading: “She will be forever remembered as the diplomat who had a sense of Irish history and of what had influenced the Irish in the United States. An activist diplomat, she was not afraid to break with convention or explore the limits of her mandate.”

Related Article: The Turbulent Life of Joseph Kennedy – Patriarch of the Kennedys

“Jean was an extraordinary human being,” said Gerry Adams on Twitter. “Her family can be very proud of her achievements”. Quoted by the Derry Journal, former MP Mark Durkan commented: “Her input to the peace process was more rounded and balanced than some suggest. She brought class and new clout to her role”.

Sinn Féin’s current leader Mary Lou McDonald said Kennedy Smith was “a great friend to Ireland” and that “she will be forever remembered and we will always have a special place for her in our hearts.”