Britain will award an honorary knighthood to veteran U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy.
Prime Minister Gordon Brown made the official announcement today when he addressed Congress in Washington. His words met with a standing ovation. Brown is in the United States for his first meeting with President Obama. The purpose of the trip is to cement the "special relationship" between the two countries and to fight the economic downturn, he said.
Knighting is carried out by Queen Elizabeth II, but the British government chooses upon whom to bestow the honor.
Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat, has been in the U.S. Senate since 1962. He is the second-most senior member of the Senate and, at age 77, is being treated for an brain tumor.
Part of the hugely prominent Kennedy dynasty, and brother of the late President John F. Kennedy, Kennedy is best known in Britain for his involvement in helping to bring about Northern Ireland's 1998 Good Friday peace accord.
Kennedy founded the Congressional Friends of Ireland in the U.S. Congress, an organization that declared its mission in 1994 as being "opposed to violence and terrorism in Northern Ireland and dedicated to maintaining a United States policy that promotes a just, lasting and peaceful settlement of the conflict that has cost more than 3,100 lives over the past quarter century."
Of Irish-American heritage, Kennedy is being recognized by the British government for services to Northern Ireland and to British-American relations.
There is, however, an element of contention over the knighthood. During the Northern Ireland peace process, Kennedy, with his ability to sway Irish-American opinion, called for Britain's immediate withdrawal from Ireland in 1971, saying that Protestants who could not accept a united Ireland should go back to Britain.
Kennedy compared the British presence in Northern Ireland to America's involvement in Vietnam in 1971.
Such a comparison, along with Kennedy's actions in Ireland, may be the reason behind today's mixed reaction. Some say Kennedy did not have British interests at heart.
Several Conservative members of parliament have condemned the move to honor a man closely linked to the Irish Republican movement. Former Home Office Minister Ann Widdecombe told the The Daily Mail, "It seems to me a bit of an odd choice, but diplomacy has no bounds."
Downing Street refused to comment. But Will Littlejohn, personal assistant to ex-Conservative Party leader William Hague, told ABC News, "The refusal to comment may have something to do with the ambiguous nature of Kennedy's history."
It is no secret that Kennedy's life followed an unusual path, but for his more than 46 years in the U.S. Senate, President Obama has hailed Kennedy as a "giant in American political history."
Only British or Commonwealth equivalents are permitted to use the title Sir or Dame. But Kennedy will join an elite group of U.S. citizens with KBE initials (Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire) before their names. The others include Microsoft pioneer Bill Gates, who was honored in 2005 for his work on reducing poverty and building business skills; New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani for his actions after 9/11; and Stephen Spielberg for his contribution to the world of movies. And, on a controversial note, Alan Greenspan was knighted for his services to global financial stability. It was 2002 after all, long before the credit crunch loomed.