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The Kennedys: from Camelot to tawdry soap opera

Many British people wondered whether to laugh or sob quietly at the extraordinary Parade of the Kennedys in Belfast last week.

A seven-car motorcade transported them through the icy, fortified streets _ a bizarre sight, as if half our Royal Family were to appear at a terrorism trial in, say, Turkey.

America's own royalty was present because of Paul Hill. Hill was one of the Guildford Four, who were wrongly convicted in a 1974 pub bombing. Those convictions were overturned in 1989. But Hill in 1975 was also convicted in the murder of a former British soldier thanks to a confession Hill says was forcibly extracted by the same police who made him admit to the pub bombing.

Hill is now a Kennedy by marriage, having plighted his troth last year to Mary Courtney, daughter of the late Robert Kennedy.

Not long after his release (he is free on bail in the murder case pending appeals), Hill went to Washington, D.C., for a human rights conference, where he met Ethel, Courtney's mother. She suggested he visit her daughter, who was in the hospital and needed cheering up. Romance flowered. The next year, 1991, Courtney was divorced from her first husband and Hill moved into her Fifth Avenue apartment. They married in July 1993 in the Aegean, on board a yacht owned by a Greek millionaire.

Hill now has hair bleached blond by the sun and a permanent tan, fashionably offsetting his designer clothes. It's a remarkable change for a construction worker who left school at 14 and has spent nearly half his life in prison.

No wonder British people feel somewhat paranoid about all of this. Our national standing is not high in America at the moment _ at least among the small minority who ever consider it. We are judged to have been wimpish in Bosnia. And Gerry Adams' visit earlier this year allowed some TV viewers to imagine that only British government intransigence was standing in the way of an Irish settlement. (To many ordinary Americans, as to most Republicans in Northern Ireland, the Protestant majority simply doesn't exist).

Worst of all, the success of the film In The Name of The Father, with its distortions and evasions, has inserted into the public consciousness the notion of corrupt British justice in the way that a hundred newspaper articles never could. For which, you may say, British justice has only itself to blame. On the other hand, there is no appeal against Hollywood.

Yet the Kennedys' Grand Belfast Reunion does tell us something about the decline of that family. For one thing, they don't have a great deal else to do.

The last big family trial was two years ago, when William Kennedy Smith (Courtney's cousin) was acquitted in the Palm Beach rape case.

The most powerful remaining member of the family is Sen. Edward Kennedy, though it is a rare year that goes by in which another book does not level serious charges at him; recently, authors have virtually said that he left Mary Jo Kopechne to die in order to save his political career, and his boozing and womanizing are simply too familiar to matter any more.

The Adams visit was a considerable failure for Kennedy, who has always stood against IRA terrorism. The theory was that Adams would use the visit to declare peace, and Kennedy would pick up the kudos. In fact, Adams' subsequent prevarication has done him great harm in the United States and humiliated his Irish-American sponsors.

Meanwhile, Joe Jr., Bobby's son, is the only other national legislator left in the family. After seven years in Washington, he has risen to the giddy pinnacle of chairman of the House Subcommittee on Consumer Credit and Insurance. On the way, he has made himself generally unpopular with his arrogance, willingness to filch others' ideas and campaigns and sheer lack of brains.

Like Britain's Royals, the Kennedys have declined into tabloid newspaper fodder with their drug addictions, infidelities and exotic attachments (JFK's son John has had an on-off affair with film star Daryl Hannah, selling millions of newspapers). Unlike our Royals, they have no automatic position. The hope of Camelot has turned in 30 years into the tawdry couplings and false emotions of a soap opera.

There is certainly reason to worry about British justice, but we don't need to trouble ourselves so much about the Kennedys now.

Scripps Howard News Service