Blast puts Sinn Fein leader in a bind If Adams condemns London explosion, he may alienate IRA

February 12, 1996|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BELFAST, Northern Ireland -- Gerry Adams is in a political bind in the wake of Friday night's Irish Republican Army bombing in east London.

The blast that killed two, injured scores and severely damaged the Northern Ireland peace process also created the gravest political crisis of Mr. Adams' career.

If the Sinn Fein leader condemns the bombing, he wins world approval but risks alienating those he represents politically, the IRA. So, Mr. Adams expresses his sympathy but doesn't scold the killers.

He says he did not know of the attack in advance -- a statement that enables him to remain a peacemaker but creates doubts about his authority among officials on both sides of the Irish border.

Mr. Adams is trying to salvage peace -- and retain his influence over IRA guerrillas who have ended a 17-month truce and, according to a Scotland Yard statement yesterday, could strike "any time, any-where," on the British mainland.

In a string of weekend interviews he gave at the heavily armed headquarters of Sinn Fein -- commonly referred to as the political wing of the IRA -- Mr. Adams sought to keep alive the peace process and keep Sinn Fein's place near a bargaining table.

"I don't want to be trying to apportion blame to other people," he said. "The responsibility for the bomb is squarely with the IRA. I have to examine my conscience and my stewardship of this process to ask and to ponder if there is something else I could have done in the last 18 months to consolidate the process. And [British Prime Minister] John Major needs to do exactly the same."

For now, Mr. Adams and Sinn Fein are being held at arm's length in Dublin and London. Irish Prime Minister John Bruton won't allow his government officials to talk to Sinn Fein leaders until the IRA resumes the cease-fire. The British also have isolated Sinn Fein.

But Mr. Adams remains adamant, saying all-party talks should begin immediately.

He also reiterated his opposition to Mr. Major's proposal earlier this month to hold elections in Northern Ireland. The idea, aimed at breaking the deadlocked peace process, also was rejected by Dublin.

Yesterday, a day of finger-pointing, Mr. Bruton slammed Mr. Major's handling of the peace talks and said the election plan should be dumped.

"I believe the idea of having an election of the kind suggested immediately after the resumption of violence would pour petrol on the flames. I think it would be a serious mistake," he said.

"What is the point of me going to the IRA unless I am able to go with a persuasive argument," Mr. Adams told Irish radio yesterday.

"The IRA are open to persuasion," he added. "We would not have had a cessation [of violence] if they had not been open to persuasion."

The IRA cease-fire that was declared Aug. 31, 1994, and ended the most recent 25-year period of "the troubles" has helped Mr. Adams, 47, earn acclaim.

From a Roman Catholic West Belfast working-class neighborhood, Mr. Adams has risen to become a world figure. Along the way, he has been a bartender, prisoner, writer and a political leader whose goal has been to create a united Ireland. The British jailed him as a suspected member of the IRA in 1971, and a year later, flew him to London with top IRA leaders to try to broker a peace deal.

Mr. Adams took control of Sinn Fein in 1983 and built a party that now commands up to 12 percent of the local vote. He has survived several assassination attempts, was once wounded and his home firebombed.

Mr. Adams denies being an IRA member and says he does not speak for the group. Still, he carries clout at the bargaining table, for he is seen as holding sway over guerrillas who have a vast arsenal at their disposal.

But now there are doubts about Mr. Adams' leadership.

"Obviously, Mr. Adams' authority will now be questioned, and these are matters which will have to be considered by everybody involved in the peace process," said Dick Spring, Ireland's deputy prime minister.

While some may be turning against Mr. Adams, he retains the support of John Hume, leader of the Social Democratic and Labor Party and the most influential Catholic politician in Northern Ireland.

"No one can have more influence [with the IRA] than Adams," Mr. Hume said yesterday.

Mr. Hume said he spoke at length with Mr. Adams on Saturday, and that the Sinn Fein leader "was in a serious mood and concerned about the situation."

Even some of Mr. Adams' critics have a sense of the difficulties he faces.

Chris McGimpsey, a local elected official from the Ulster Unionist Party, the majority Protestant party, said:

"Adams is worth talking to, but he has to make a commitment to peace."

But the IRA has apparently declared that time has run out on the peace process. For months, Mr. Adams warned politicians and citizens that talks had to start quickly, before violence returned to the streets.

At a rally here in August, a spectator shouted, "Bring back the IRA."

Mr. Adams replied, "They haven't gone away, you know."

The IRA showed Friday night that it was alive and lethal. Yesterday, Mr. Adams said he wants to put the peace process back together.

"Are we going to give up the ghost?" he asked.

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