From Ballymurphy to White House

March 17, 1995|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,London Bureau of The Sun

BELFAST, Northern Ireland -- To Teresa Cahill, Gerry Adams remains the shy, gangly teen-ager her late husband, Frank, recruited as a community volunteer 30 years ago in a Roman Catholic neighborhood called Ballymurphy.

"Just an ordinary boy, he was," Mrs. Cahill says. "But my husband, Frank, loved Gerry with such a passion. He said to me, 'That fellow is going places.'

"We just didn't know how far he'd go."

Today, Mr. Adams, leader of Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army, goes to the White House for a St. Patrick's Day reception with President Bill Clinton, marking the official entry of the IRA and Mr. Adams into respectability in the United States.

Not everyone in Northern Ireland is pleased. For Bertha Osborne, Mr. Adams is a villain. He helped carry the coffin of an IRA bomber who blew apart a store in the heart of Protestant West Belfast in 1993, killing nine. Mrs. Osborne was working in the shop next door.

"I don't think President Clinton is fit to run a brewery, let alone a country," Mrs. Osborne says. "I think it's ridiculous he'd let the likes of Gerry Adams into his country. Gerry Adams is a terrorist."

Viewed from the epicenter of the religious and political conflicts of Northern Ireland, the White House event is one more stop on a long journey from violence to peace, from war to co-existence between Protestants wanting a continued union with Great Britain and the minority Roman Catholics wanting Northern Ireland to break free.

Political leader or leader of terrorists, Mr. Adams arouses fierce passions in his hometown.

"The Pope of Belfast," says Tony Lavery, an admiring caretaker.

Reg Empey, former lord mayor of Belfast and a spokesman for Northern Ireland's largest party, the Protestant-led Ulster Unionists, says, "Some of my people would regard Adams as Jews would regard Hitler."

There is no better place to understand Mr. Adams' political journey than in West Belfast, where he was born.

The home just off the Falls Road where Mr. Adams lived as a child has been replaced by the bricks and mortar of urban renewal. The neighborhood of his teen years, Ballymurphy, is no longer patrolled during the day by the British army, because the British, the IRA and the Protestants have maintained a cease-fire for six months.

"For Gerry to come from all of this and go to the White House, it's like going from here to the moon," says Margaret Tolan, an Adams supporter.

For the Catholic community, Mr. Adams embodies hope and change, because he has gone from British prisoner to political leader, invited to speak with presidents. Even his opponents within the Catholic community give him credit for persuading the IRA to put away its weapons, at least for now.

"What he has done over the last 12 years has been historic, courageous and dramatic," says Alex Attwood, a Belfast city councilman and member of the SDLP, the majority Catholic party. But the past has not been forgotten.

"The pain is very deep and the rehabilitation has been very quick," Mr. Attwood cautions. "Some will be swallowing spittle and biting their tongue."

There are some who are already infuriated watching the television news of Adams of America: Gerry Adams at fund-raising dinners; Gerry Adams meeting the governor of New York; Gerry Adams talking to members of the U.S. Congress.

"A person we know, who has created one of the most vicious terrorist campaigns ever, is feted like he is some sort of messiah," says Mr. Empey, the former lord mayor.

"One thing that annoys me is when I see so-called celebrities, people like Bianca Jagger, photographed with Adams. These people identify with him because it's fashionable. They don't have a clue what happens here."

Mr. Empey adds: "The president had better understand who he is shaking hands with."

David Ervine has an idea what Mr. Adams is like, though the two have never met. They were, in a sense, in the same business. Mr. Ervine, like Mr. Adams, has spent time in jail -- 5 1/2 years for possessing explosives.

Mr. Ervine, a Protestant, is a former member of the Ulster Volunteer Force and now leader of the Progressive Unionist Party, the enemy of the Sinn Fein and the IRA. He refused an invitation to join Mr. Adams in Washington.

"The trust has not yet begun to exist between our divided communities," he says.

But one day, he wants to sit down and negotiate with Mr. Adams: "I'd tell him, 'Cut the garbage and let's talk turkey.' "

Dr. William Rutherford, a Protestant physician, has more insight than most into what makes Mr. Adams tick.

In 1984, he and Mr. Adams met in the emergency room of a West Belfast hospital. The Protestant doctor placed a drain in the chest of the Catholic politician, who had been wounded by a gunshot.

The procedure took 30 minutes. The tenuous link has lasted years.

"Gerry Adams is very skillfully presenting himself to the American public as the architect of peace," Dr. Rutherford says. "He saw that by argument and persuasion, he could accomplish a lot more than by bombing and shooting.

"I hope he succeeds."

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