JWR Roger SimonMona CharenLinda Chavez
Jacob SullumJonathan S. Tobin
Thomas SowellWilliam PfaffRobert Scheer
Don FederCal Thomas
Left, Right & Center
Jewish World Review / March 20, 1998 / 22 Adar, 5758

Roger Simon

Roger Simon Peace for Ireland?

WASHINGTON -- As the white Chevy van passed through the gates of the British Embassy, Gerry Adams just could not help himself.

As head of Sinn Fein, the political wing of the outlawed Irish Republican Army, he had never been invited to the British Embassy before.

Just a year ago, it would have been unthinkable. The prevailing view in England was that if Adams was not a terrorist himself, he was at the very least a front man for terrorists.

But now, Adams was invited to lunch by the British ambassador and then to his first Gerry Adams Oval Office meeting with President Clinton.

As the van pulled to a halt, Adams gazed at the elegant buildings around him.

"Shall we take over the embassy and hold it until Ireland is free?" he said to me with a wicked grin. "And are you with us?"

Which is the humorous side of Gerry Adams, a man of considerable charm and engaging wit. The unfunny side, his opponents would say, is the side that refuses to promise an end to the violence that has claimed more than 3,000 lives since 1972.

The violence has come from both sides, of course, both Catholic and Protestant. But Adams had come to Washington at a pivotal moment in the Irish peace process. Clinton, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahearn all agree that the warring factions in Northern Ireland can be pushed to sign a historic peace accord by April and have a peace settlement voted on by the Irish people, north and south, by May.

Clinton has had one clear message for all sides: They might never get a better chance for peace in their lifetimes, and they cannot afford to blow it.

"People have been engaging in conflict because they don't see an alternative," Adams said. "We need a bridge to the future, a bridge built out of conflict to a new peaceful future."

That Adams uses the same "bridge to the future" metaphor that Clinton did in his re-election campaign is no accident. Clinton and Adams have been very useful to each other.

By granting Adams visas to visit the United States and raise funds here, Clinton has given Adams new status and influence. But Clinton wants a payoff. He wants Adams to use that influence to persuade the IRA that a political solution -- and not what it calls armed struggle -- will achieve its goals.

As Adams traveled in his van through the streets of Washington on his way to the British Embassy, he passed a man preaching on a lonely street corner, shouting loudly and flapping his arms to an audience of nobody.

"I know just how he feels," Adams said.

Adams' precise relationship to the IRA is not known. It would be illegal for him to be a member of the IRA, but at the very least, he has considerable influence with the military council that runs the IRA.

When asked what the role of armed struggle is, Adams grew careful in his speech and measured in his words.

"It is a prickly issue," he said. "The task of political leadership is to build alternatives to armed struggle. We need healing. It has been painful. You end up negotiating with your own side. You negotiate with the enemy, and then, you go back and negotiate with your own side and try to bring your base along with you."

It is especially complex because two factions within the IRA have considerable clout: the IRA members now in prison and the widows and other loved ones of IRA members who have been killed over the years.

When asked what would be a deal breaker in the current peace talks, Adams answered instantly: "We can't have peace if the prisoners are still in prison. The prisoners have to be released as part of any package."

The Clinton administration indicated, however, that this might not be a barrier.

"It's resolvable," Jim Steinberg, the deputy national security adviser, said. "Already, a number of steps have been taken in that direction."

And Steinberg, who just a few days ago was signaling caution as to the possibilities of a peace settlement, was now sounding cautiously optimistic.

"We certainly now think a peace settlement is achievable," he said and then added, "if the parties want it."

Adams says he wants it but also does not want to get swept up into a peace settlement he cannot sell to the IRA.

"There is a lot of hyping and spinning going on," Adams said. "Yes, it is possible to get an agreement by May, but the question is not really whether there will be an agreement, but what type."

While Sinn Fein will accept a peace settlement that does not immediately unite Ireland, Adams makes clear that a united Ireland remains his unalterable goal.

"Peace demands justice," he said. "A cessation of conflict isn't peace. It's useful and important, but it's not peace. Ireland is Ireland, and Britain is Britain. The British should not be in Ireland. We want an end to British rule."

Adams does envision a day, however, when all the warring factions decide that justice has been achieved and peace flows gently over the land.

"After World War II, the French resistance went home," he said. "People went back to being doctors and being housewives. The same will happen in Ireland."

Adams, who as a youth marched through the streets of Belfast singing "We Shall Overcome," often stresses the connection between Sinn Fein's current struggle and the struggle that Americans concluded long ago.

"Sinn Fein is still influenced by what happened here in America 200 years ago," Adams said. "We are trying to get a level playing field."

Asked what he would be doing if he were home in Belfast on St. Patrick's Day instead of meeting with world leaders, Adams sighed.

"At home, I'd go off and have a couple of pints and relax," he said wistfully.

Not all believe Adams has quite so benign a personality, however. And the charge often leveled against Sinn Fein is that it has bombed its way to the peace table.

This is an accusation that the Clinton administration flatly rejects, however.

"It's quite the opposite," Steinberg said. "We made clear that Sinn Fein could not get to the peace table as long as the bombing continued. The next step (after St. Patrick's Day) is to get these people back to Northern Ireland and sprint to the finish line."

The Clinton administration wants a speedy solution to make sure that future violence by splinter factions does not sink the peace process.

"There will be future violence," said Bruce Morrison, a former Democratic congressman the Clinton administration has used as a go-between among the various factions in Northern Ireland and England. "But to fail to achieve a peace settlement now would be unforgivable."

But, Morrison was asked, can Adams really sell peace to the IRA?

"He doesn't take on a selling job he can't succeed at it," Morrison said.

"We are trying to make peace with our enemies," Adams said. "It's easy to make peace with your friends. But I am optimistic, I am hopeful. We will get an agreement. And I will live to see the day that there is a united Ireland."


3/18/98: Flat tire? Spare me
3/13/98: Latrell Sprewell's genius
3/10/98: On truth and reality
3/5/98: No, I'm not harrassing Hillary
3/3/98: The Unforgettable Henny Youngman
2/26/98: Grow up, boys!
2/24/98: Go get 'em, Bill!
2/19/98: My 15 minutes
2/17/98: The manic-depressive presidency
2/12/98: Drip, Drip, Drip
2/10/98: Clinton tunes out the networks
2/5/98: The flight of the Beast: America's love-hate relationship with scandal
2/3/98: Speaking Clintonese
1/29/98: What the president has going for him
1/27/98: Judgment call: how Americans view President Clinton
1/22/98: Bimbo eruptions past and present
1/20/98: Feeding the beast: Paula Jones gets the full O.J.
1/15/98: Let's get it over with: it's time to deal with Saddam, already
1/13/98: Sonny Bono is dead, let the good times roll
1/8/98: Carribbean Cheesecake: First couple has cake, eats cake
1/6/98: PO'ed: a suspected druggie jumps through the employment hoops
1/1/98: Cures for that holiday hangover
12/30/97: Buy stuff now
12/25/97: Peace to all squirrelkind
12/23/97: Home for the Holidays: Where John Hinckley, never convicted, will not be
12/18/97: Bill's B-list Bacchanalia: Press and politicos get cozy, to a point
12/16/97: All dressed up... (White House flack Mike McCurry speculates on his next career)

©1998, Creators Syndicate, Inc.