Pressure growing on White House to let IRA political leader into country

January 19, 1994|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- The Clinton administration is coming under growing political pressure to soften its opposition to the Irish Republican Army and allow a key political leader to visit the United States later this month.

For years, backed by a bipartisan consensus, administrations of both parties actively opposed IRA efforts to generate support in the United States, labeling it a terrorist group. As a result, the United States has consistently refused to grant visas to members of the IRA or to leaders of Sinn Fein, the group's political wing.

But in a major shift, four powerful Irish-American senators, all Democrats, have urged President Clinton to grant a waiver allowing Sinn Fein's leader, Gerry Adams, into the United States for a conference in New York at the end of this month focusing on Northern Ireland's peace process.

The appeal from the senators -- Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York, Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut and John F. Kerry of Massachusetts -- followed recent breakthroughs in negotiating an end to the generations-long war between Protestants and Roman Catholics in British-ruled Northern Ireland.

Mr. Adams has accepted an invitation from the National Committee on American Foreign Policy, which has invited all of Northern Ireland's major parties to send representatives, although it is unclear how many of them will appear.

Besides the senators, his bid for a visa is being supported by the pro-IRA Irish Northern Aid Committee. Noraid's Baltimore-area representative, John P. McNichol, said efforts might be made to bring Mr. Adams to the Washington area.

The request has triggered sharp debate within the administration between officials who say allowing Mr. Adams into the United States would undercut the fight against terrorism and others who say it could advance the dialogue in Northern Ireland.

The prevailing State Department view is that Mr. Adams should renounce violence before the United States grants him a waiver. Otherwise, one official said, Mr. Adams would be getting a concession that the United States has refused for other one-time backers of terrorism, such as leaders of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

But because of its political sensitivity, the request is getting a high-level review in both the State Department and the National Security Council staff.

In their letter, the senators cited a changed atmosphere caused by a series of recent events pointing to progress in settling the Northern Ireland conflict.

These include a joint Irish-British declaration paving the way for negotiations between Protestants and Catholics; talks between Mr. Adams and John Hume, head of a nonviolent nationalist party in Northern Ireland, and disclosure of British contacts with the IRA.

"Under these circumstances, we believe that it is important for the United States to facilitate the emerging dialogue as an alternative to violence by granting Mr. Adams the right to travel to the United States," they wrote.

Aides to the senators and other proponents of allowing Mr. Adams into the United States argue that he should be given an incentive to move away from the IRA's violent wing and that he might in fact renounce violence in addressing an American audience.

So far, Sinn Fein has demanded clarifications of the Irish-British declaration before abandoning violence. Britain would allow Sinn Fein to join peace negotiations if it not only renounces violence but maintains a cease-fire for three months. Ireland, however, is prepared to talk with Sinn Fein as soon as it abandons armed struggle.

Granting a waiver for Mr. Adams would be a major public relations coup for the IRA, however, and would infuriate Britain.

Mr. Clinton alarmed Britain during the election campaign last year when he suggested dispatching an American special envoy to help solve the Northern Ireland conflict.

In October, President Clinton flatly rejected a request by then-New York Mayor David N. Dinkins to allow Mr. Adams into this country, saying that "credible evidence exists that Adams remains involved at the highest level in devising PIRA [Provisional IRA] strategy. Moreover, despite his recent talks with [Mr. Hume], Adams still has not publicly renounced terrorism."

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