03/21/1994 at 01:00 AM EST
ON A RAW, WINTRY DAY LAST MONTH, three limousines pulled up to Belfast's High Court, still covered in scaffolding erected after a 1989 IRA car-bomb attack. From the first car stepped Robert F. Kennedy's widow, Ethel, 65, and her daughter Courtney, 37, who was holding hands with her husband, Paul Hill, 39. In the second car were Courtney's sisters Rory Kennedy, 25, a documentary filmmaker, Kathleen Kennedy Town-send, 42, a deputy assistant U.S. attorney general, and Kerry Kennedy Cuomo, 34, head of the RFK Memorial Center for Human Rights. Bringing up the rear was Father Michael Kennedy, a distant cousin from Tipperary. "The one thing about Kennedys," said Massachusetts Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy II, 41, who arrived a few hours later, "is there's a lot of us, and there'll be more coming."
The Kennedys were there to hear the case of The Queen vs. Paul Michael Hill. Before marrying Courtney last summer, Hill was best known as one of the Guildford Four, whose wrongful imprisonment for a murderous October 1974 IRA pub-bombing is depicted in the film In The Name of the Father. Bui he had also been tried and convicted of another crime: the murder of Brian Shaw, a former British soldier who was kidnapped from a Belfast pub in July 1974. Hill had confessed to the killing during the same grueling period of interrogations in which he admitted to the Guildford bombing. When the Guildford Four were released in 1989 after 15 years in prison, Hill was immediately rearrested. But a day later British officials released him on $6,150 bail, and he could have stayed free in perpetuity had he not pressed for an appeal on the Shaw conviction. "I know I'm innocent," he said. "I want to clear my name. This is something I couldn't walk away from."
But some observers wonder if the Kennedy invasion may sour the three judges hearing the case. Certainly the show of solidarity by America's most storied Irish-Catholic family has knocked some British noses out of joint. "It is absolutely unforgivable that members of the Kennedy clan should now come to Northern Ireland," complains one bystander. "It is in the worst taste." London's normally staid Daily Telegraph termed the Hill case a Kennedy circus that "opens another unhappy chapter in the history of the family's relationship with the United Kingdom."
Prior to Hill, the most infamous Kennedy involvement in Northern Ireland was an encounter in 1988 between Joe II and some British soldiers in West Belfast. When one of them shouted, "Why don't you go back to your own country?" Kennedy snapped, "Why don't you go back to yours?" Two years later he held congressional hearings into possible British human-rights violations in Northern Ireland.
Then last spring, Sen. Ted Kennedy persuaded President Clinton to appoint his sister Jean Kennedy Smith, 66, ambassador to Ireland. Smith broke protocol—arid embarrassed the Stale Department—by making a surprise visit to Northern Ireland last September during which she observed a juryless trial of seven teenage boys accused of throwing a coffee-jar bomb at British soldiers. (Under English law, trials without juries are permitted for terrorist offenses and have been criticized by Amnesty International.) At about the same time, Ted, along with other senators such as New York's Daniel Patrick Moynihan, successfully pressured Clinton into granting a visa to Gerry Adams, leader of the IRA's political arm, Sinn Fein. For two days, Adams was interviewed on numerous American talk shows, much to the consternation of the British government, which docs not allow his voice to be broadcast in the United Kingdom. "People in Britain dislike the Kennedys intensely, mostly to do with their pronouncements on Irish affairs," says one London journalist.
It wasn't always thus. When President Franklin Roosevelt appointed Joe Kennedy Sr. to be ambassador to the Court of St. James in December 1937, London at first seemed smitten with the millionaire. The British press dubbed him "The U.S.A.'s Nine-Child Envoy," and the royals were apparently amused by such gaffes as referring to Queen Elizabeth (now the Queen Mother) as "a cute trick." As the war approached, though, Brits were angered by Kennedy's shortsighted isolationism, which advocated appeasing Hitler. They found it especially cowardly when he fled London for a mansion in the English countryside to escape the air raids on London. Frustrated, he left England in 1940 and later resigned his post.
His children Jack and Kathleen, however, remained unabashed Anglophiles. In May 1944, Kathleen "Kick" Kennedy, 24, horrified her mother, Rose, when she married a prominent Protestant, the English nobleman Billy Cavendish, Marquess of Hartington, heir to the Duke of Devonshire. He was killed four months later in the war, and Rose later threatened to disown Kick when she fell in love with Lord Peter Fitzwilliam, who not only was Protestant but also a married man. They were both killed when their plane crashed into a French mountainside in 1948.
The eldest Kennedy son, Joe Jr., a Navy pilot, came to England in 1943. His job was a relatively safe one, flying B-24 Liberators just above the ocean surface hunting for German submarines. But Joe Jr. volunteered for one of the war's riskiest assignments, bombing a V-l rocket launcher site on the other side of the English Channel. In 1944 he was killed instantly when his explosives-laden plane accidentally blew up in midair.
As for John, his senior thesis at Harvard, a sympathetic analysis of how Hitler caught Britain off-guard, later became a best-selling book, While England Slept. His affinity for things British later helped President Kennedy establish an easy rapport with both Queen Elizabeth and Prime Minister Harold Macmillan. But the love of England inherited by his children had near-tragic consequences. In October 1975, Caroline Kennedy, then 17, narrowly escaped being killed by an IRA car bomb while staying at the home of Tory MP Hugh Fraser and his then-wife, writer Antonia Fraser.
During the '70s and early '80s, the Kennedys maintained a low profile on Northern Ireland. But in the late '80s, Rep. Joe Kennedy became a champion of the Guildford Four, and when Hill later visited the U.S., Ethel Kennedy was so taken with him that she asked him to visit her daughter Courtney, who was laid up in New York after a skiing accident. The couple married last June on a ship in the Aegean Sea and now divide their time between an apartment above a pub in the tiny Irish hamlet of Doolin, County Clare, and Courtney's apartment on Fifth Avenue, while preparing for Hill's appeal.
If the decision, due by the end of the month, goes against Hill, he could conceivably return to prison—though that seems unlikely because of the time he has already served. "We just hope that Paul—an Irish Catholic—can get justice in Northern Ireland," says Joe Kennedy, adding that the family will back him, win or lose. "Our Irishness is fundamental and instinctive," he says. "It is not something we were taught."
ELLIN STEIN in Belfast, TERRY SMITH and ELIZABETH TERRY in London, JEFFREY KLINKE in Dublin, and CAROLYN KRAMER in Washington.