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ireland, irish, ulster, ireland, irish, ulster, Sinn Féin, Irish America

Adams under pressure in America, but not in N. Ireland

(Paul Bew, Yorkshire Post)

Gerry Adams is having a tough time in the United States this St Patrick's Day. When he talks about Sinn Féin/IRA today, President George W Bush is likely to use language which will not be music to Mr Adams's ears: even worse, the president of Sinn Féin will not be in the White House to hear him in person.

For the first time in several years, Mr Adams, a favoured guest in the Clinton era, finds himself out in the cold at the keynote event in the Irish-American political jamboree, while the relatives of Robert McCartney, murdered by the IRA in a Belfast bar, take centre-stage.

The embarrassment for Mr Adams does not end there. Perhaps even more importantly, Senator Edward Kennedy, still the prince of Irish-American politics, has cancelled his own meeting with the bearded Belfast politician.

Only Richard Haas, on whose watch as US envoy the good ship Agreement began to sink, was prepared to provide the Sinn Féin leader with a prestige venue at the Council on Foreign Relations.

The "A-word" is being bandied about. Some in the administration already regard Mr Adams as another Arafat, a reference to the former Palestinian leader. In Washington lingo, this means a politician who has to pass on before the concerns of his constituency can be addressed.

Others simply suggest that Mr Adams may be heading in the general Yasser Arafat direction. Either way, it is not good news when one recalls the prestige which the White House used to bestow.

In a White House much given to revelry, President Clinton used to love a good Irish sing-song with his friend Gerry. Indeed, Britain, the long-term ally of the United States during the Second World War and the Cold War, was snubbed in favour of this new and exciting friend.

As one very senior US ambassador told Tim Lynch, the author of the important recent book Turf War: The Clinton Administration and Northern Ireland: "When the President said, 'Anti-terrorism is the number one priority for the United States', the State Department said, 'Fine - the IRA is one of the most sophisticated terrorist organisations we face and we've got to do something about them'. Well, that's not what Clinton meant when he said, 'Counter-terrorism is our number one priority'. What he really meant was, 'The IRA is separate and distinct. We don't care if they're terrorists'."

Things have certainly changed. But has it all come two, or perhaps three, years too late? There were always senior figures in the George W. Bush camp who did not like the cut of Mr Adams's jib. They did not like the IRA gun-running in Florida, a subject on which the Clintonistas were notably permissive. They did not like the IRA's revolutionary adventure with the FARC guerillas in Colombia. They did not like the intense anti-Americanism of Sinn Féin propaganda. They were even aware that many ordinary British people regarded America as guilty of double standards: hostile to terrorism in general, but soft on Irish terrorism in particular.

But the Bush people (with some misgivings) were responsive to the British Prime Minister, to whom they felt they owed an enormous debt. For it is Tony Blair who has been holding the door open for Mr Adams in Washington over the last few years.

Even now there is no suggestion that Britain campaigned to have that door closed. It was simply the accumulation of scandal around Mr Adams that made it impossible to place him in the same room as the President.

But what does all this mean for the broader evolution of the peace process? Mr Adams is under pressure in America, but not in the narrow ground of Northern Ireland. The most recent polls confirm that Sinn Féin can expect to do well in the General Election. While the moderates are facing the voters with trepidation, the DUP and Sinn Féin, in a dynamic of mutual polarising reinforcement, are full of optimism.

Mr Adams's striking electoral advances in the South may be stalled, but it is still possible for Sinn Féin to reinvigorate momentum in the Irish Republic, especially if it gets back into government in the North before the next general election south of the border.

Above all, the Blair Government still wants to facilitate him. Senior Dublin government sources now openly declare that Mr Blair wanted to sideline the issue of IRA criminality throughout the negotiations which took up most of 2004.

The message from Downing Street is still "business as usual". The Prime Minister, a very late convert to the concept of a DUP-Sinn Féin deal to revive the Good Friday Agreement, now believes that he can bring it about this autumn. And there are some in the Sinn Féin leadership and the DUP leadership who still share the Prime Minister's perspective that a deal cannot be ruled out.

But how realistic is all this? The policing agenda, so to speak, has intersected with the mainstream political agenda in a novel way.

The tacit basis of the DUP-Sinn Féin deal was the carve-up of new ministries of Policing and Justice, one of which was to go to Sinn Féin.

But the Irish government now declares that the IRA is the largest criminal organisation on the island of Ireland. The implication is clear. In any new likely deal, the IRA will have to offer more than it offered in the past, but in return for concessions amounting to less than it has received in the past.

This may happen, but the governments have been trying to bring about such a negotiation for several years without any success.

The fact is that the British Government still does not have an understanding of how the Republican movement works. They fear its recent threat of a return to violence but do not know how serious it is. Amusingly, political leaders who run New Labour on the basis of control-freakery, and Whitehall mandarins who run their departments in the same way, like to hope that the IRA's recent misdeeds have not been driven by the most notoriously control-freakish leadership of all: the Adams-McGuinness leadership of the Republican movement.

In short, as regards the peace process, we are travelling on a hope and a prayer.

March 17, 2005

Professor Paul Bew is a specialist in Irish political affairs at Queen's University, Belfast.

This article appeared in the March 17, 2005 edition of Yorkshire Post.