Clinton's Irish Gambit

February 03, 1994

The rationale for President Clinton's decision to let IRA spokesman Gerry Adams into the country was that such recognition is necessary to allow Mr. Adams and the IRA to bring themselves to cease fire and participate in the reconciliation scenario to which the Irish and British governments agreed.

Whether Mr. Clinton was right to reverse 19 years of U.S. policy, infuriate this country's most steadfast ally and overrule the CIA and State Department depends entirely on whether the IRA calls a permanent cease-fire soon. If it does, Mr. Clinton can claim to have been right. If it doesn't, he blew it.

The principal exponent of letting Mr. Adams into the country for 48 hours was John Hume, leader of the Social Democratic and Labor Party (SDLP) of Northern Ireland, the main political voice of the Catholic minority. Mr. Hume is Mr. Adams' adversary but has been negotiating with him to cease fire, and joined him on the platform at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York.

Mr. Hume does not normally call the shots in U.S. policy. But he is influential with the Irish government and Irish-American political leaders including Sens. Edward Kennedy and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who are essential to President Clinton's health and welfare policies. Jean Kennedy Smith, Senator Kennedy's sister, is ambassador to Ireland and favored the Adams visa. So did Nancy Soderberg, chief of staff of the National Security Council and a former Kennedy aide.

President Clinton is entitled to dislike British Prime Minister John Major, whose Conservative Party intervened scandalously in American politics to help sharpen the Republican Party's negative campaigning in 1992. But Mr. Major overcame that to become Mr. Clinton's most dependable ally in world politics, and now is alienated.

The object of the fuss, Mr. Adams, is president of Sinn Fein, the political arm of the Irish Republican movement of which the IRA is the "military" arm. He said nothing of consequence in this country. His visit was fundamentally unimportant.

What is vitally important is the Dec. 15 Anglo-Irish agreement negotiated by Mr. Major and Irish Prime Minister Albert Reynolds. It is the only hope for Irish reconciliation. Ulster Unionists and the IRA have refrained from signing on without categorically refusing. Mr. Adams' game is to demand British "clarifications" in hopes of showing that the British negotiated with him before the IRA agreed to a cease fire (if it does).

President Clinton's contribution to Irish history will be judged on whether he helped or hindered that agreement. He put his reputation in Mr. Adams' hands. If the IRA ceases fire, Mr. Clinton is a hero, and if it doesn't, he's the fool. That's putting an awful lot of faith in Gerry Adams.

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