If Gerry Adams had shown up at the White House in earlier years, he might have been arrested as a suspected terrorist. But Friday evening, the leader of Sinn Fein, the political arm of the Irish Republican Army, was a guest at the president’s annual St. Patrick’s Day reception.
Adams shook hands and chatted briefly with President Clinton and Irish Prime Minister John Bruton - the official guest of honor - in the elegant White House diplomatic reception room.
Next door in the East Room, among 350 other guests who ate smoked eel and corned beef to the strains of an Irish harp, stood another politician from Northern Ireland: Gary McMichael, a Protestant leader whose father was killed by the IRA in 1987.
“It’s very difficult for me to be in the very room Gerry Adams is in,” McMichael said before the reception. “I am not interested in talking to Gerry Adams, and I will certainly not be shaking hands with him.”
The scene reflected the prickliness of Ireland’s still-new peace process and the awkwardness of the U.S. role in it. Clinton can get leaders of Northern Ireland’s embittered Catholic and Protestant communities into the same house, but he cannot quite get them to speak to each other.
Nevertheless, it can be considered progress that four-way talks are under way at all - among the Catholics and Protestants of Britishruled Northern Ireland, the largely Catholic Irish Republic to its south and the British government.
And there were signs of more progress to come after several days of hurried diplomatic exchanges amid the hoopla of the traditional St. Patrick’s Day celebration.
The British government and Sinn Fein are close to agreeing on their first high-level face-to-face talks, according to U.S., British and Sinn Fein officials.
Ireland’s Bruton said that considerable credit for the progress should go to Clinton for reaching out to Sinn Fein, despite the party’s past as an apologist for the IRA, which has carried out bombing attacks from Northern Ireland to the heart of London.
A U.S. aide said the White House initially worried that its sally into the tangled politics of Northern Ireland might fail, but no longer.
“There was a risk when we started this process last year, a risk that we would put out our hand and Adams wouldn’t respond,” he said. “But that risk is gone now. We have succeeded in helping the peace process go forward.”
This week’s visit by Adams, in which he both met Clinton and was allowed to raise money for his political organization for the first time, was his second trip to the United States.
There are three particular Irish American voters Clinton wants to keep happy: Sens. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., and Christopher J. Dodd, D-Conn., new chairman of the Democratic National Committee. Kennedy and Dodd both urged Clinton to invite Adams for St. Patrick’s Day and to allow him to engage in fund-raising, despite the opposition of the State and Justice departments, officials said.