Sinn Fein leader operates with elan of a superstar

October 05, 1994|By ROGER SIMON

WASHINGTON -- Critics can find fault with Gerry Adams' current trip to the United States on many grounds, but style is not one of them.

Adams, the head of Sinn Fein, the political arm of the Irish Republican Army, easily could have been overwhelmed by the media attention he has gotten, by the people jostling for his attention, or by the British journalists dogging his heels with tough and provocative questions.

Instead, Adams has not only been operating with the flair of a born politician, but with the elan of a born media superstar, which, these days, has become much the same thing.

From a visit to civil rights heroine Rosa Parks in Detroit, to trips to Ellis Island in New York and Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va., Adams has pushed all the right buttons in portraying himself as a man of peace on a crusade for justice.

Not that everyone buys it.

Back in April, a lengthy profile by David Remnick of the New Yorker concluded: "Adams is a seductive performer. . . . His talent is his ability to be the appealing face of a repellent organization, an army that has soldiers but meager popular support."

That, however, was before the IRA's stunning declaration of a cease-fire in August and its stated commitment to join peace talks between the British government, the Republic of Ireland and other interested parties as to the future of Northern Ireland.

Now, though his critics are neither convinced nor silenced, Adams is being accepted in the highest American circles: Politicians like Mario Cuomo and New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani compete to be near him. Members of Congress are host to lunches for him on Capitol Hill. Mid-level officials from the State Department and the National Security Council receive him.

And, in the highest honor America can bestow, Larry King puts him on the air.

For his part, Adams knows his audience. While the mass of Americans know little to nothing about the complex stew of Irish politics, there are 44 million Americans of Irish descent in this country; they command considerable political and economic clout, and many of them follow what goes on in their ancestral homeland.

"I want to thank those people here who have kept the faith, who have not forgotten their roots," Adams said in a speech yesterday at the National Press Club. But he was also careful to note he was spending part of his time here with "the Jewish community and the Italian community and the Hispanic community and Black Caucus."

"When I come here to Washington," Adams said, "I am reminded that we who could not live in our own country, we who because of repression at home, because of famine, because of economic climate, when we came here we were able to join with all of these other races, all of these other nations, and build this union into what it is today."

Adams also noted that Ireland had given America 13 presidents of Irish descent. So what would he like in return?

"The everyday rights you have here," he said. "The British want to slow the momentum of peace. But if it [freedom] works in South Africa, why not in Ireland? Have the Irish people not got the wit, have we not got the intelligence, do we not have the creativity -- is the air in some way strange, is there something in our genes, is the water that we drink in some way polluted -- that we need a foreign power to come in and look after us?"

The British government has its own officials in this country this week telling its side of the story. But British officials tend to be sleek and educated men with Etonian accents and Savile Row suits. Gerry Adams speaks in the harsh working-class accent of West Belfast, wears a shiny black suit, and looks as if he would be more comfortable talking in the pubs where he used to tend bar.

But this does not disguise the fact that he is a masterful politician, the kind who knows his audiences and knows what they want to hear.

Though this is only the second time Adams has been allowed in the United States, he knows our mood very well.

And he knows Americans today have an abhorrence of violence, no matter what the cause.

"A friend of mine, Bobby Sands, died on a hunger strike, the ultimate pacifistic, non-violent act of protest," Adams was careful to note at the conclusion of his speech. "He wrote, 'Our victory will be the laughter of our people. Our revenge will be the liberation of all.' That, I think, is the future that is before us."

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