WHOEVER it was that first thought of awarding Edward Kennedy an honorary knighthood -- and of announcing it on the day that Gordon Brown was due to address the Joint Houses of Congress in Washington - can be considered a political and diplomatic genius. It was the perfect gesture for the occasion.

Ted Kennedy is probably the most respected of all Democratic Senators for his effective life-long commitment to social equality in his own country and his recent brave fight against a brain tumour has increased the admiration that he commands. In Britain and Ireland his readiness to use his enormous influence with Catholic communities was an important factor in the later stages of the Northern Ireland peace process. Unfortunately there was niggling about the award in some quarters yesterday. The Times raised the Mary Jo Kopechne incident in 1969 - forty years ago! - and the pressure that he allegedly put on President Clinton to give the Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams a US visa during John Major's premiership.

The latter initiative proved to be a contribution to peace in Northern Ireland since it showed that Sinn Fein politicians were people to deal with rather to ignore.

The only down-side to Senator Kennedy's award from the Queen is that he becomes an honorary Knight of the Order of the British Empire - not a comfortable position for an Irish American, and a further reminder that it is high time this out-of-date nomenclature was abandoned.