As the peace talks in Northern Ireland enter the end game, Bill Clinton made time to see all the key players involved. It could make a difference
A PRIVATE meeting in the White House with the president of the United States used to be a privilege reserved mainly for senior Washington politicians and visiting heads of state. Rarely, if ever, before can an American president have sat face-to-face with the leaders of five political parties representing a speck of distant land with a population smaller than Brooklyn's.

That was precisely what President Clinton did during his "30-hour marathon effort" to provide the peace process in Northern Ireland with a decisive push. On Monday night he sat with Gerry Adams, the leader of Sinn Fein. On Wednesday morning with John Hume of the SDLP. In between, on St Patrick's Day, he met David Trimble of the Ulster Unionist Party; Gary MacMichael of the Ulster Democratic Party; and Lord Alderdice of Ulster's Alliance Party, a group whose membership would possibly struggle to outnumber the women whom Mr Clinton has honoured with his manly heat.

Mr Clinton's initial decision to intervene actively in Northern Ireland five years ago may have been motivated by electoral considerations, but the extraordinary warmth of his reception on a visit to Ireland in 1995, billed in part as a trip to rediscover his ancestral roots, injected into his political calculations a sincere emotional edge.

As for the timing of last week's Irish invasion, it came as a blessed distraction from problems at home. What is more, Ireland presents Mr Clinton with perhaps the only thorny international issue of interest to the US where he can deploy his two strongest attributes. His intelligence and his keen grasp and analysis of the issues have earned him the respect of the contending parties. His charm will have whetted their appetite for more of the same. For at a very elemental level, by the very act of granting Mr Adams and Mr Trimble his time, he was appealing to their vanities. As an interested observer in Washington put it, "Party political leaders everywhere are flattered to have the attention of the president of the United States, all the more so when both his party and country are very small. Having obtained his goodwill, they do not want to lose it."

WHEN Mr Clinton uses his legendary capacity to make the person he is talking to feel like the most important person in the world, he does so, as he does everything, with carefully calibrated political intent. He understands that nationalist and Unionist leaders will be faced with some historically tough choices in the coming weeks, choices that will obey the dictates of the heart as much as the mind. If they are to make the compromises peace requires, they will have to draw on every ounce of courage they possess. Half an ounce of encouragement from Mr Clinton - as expressed in the appeal to all the leaders to seize "the chance of a lifetime for peace in Ireland ... for yourselves and your children" - could make all the difference.

This is so because the rational parts of Mr Adams' and Mr Trimble's brain tell them that Mr Clinton's goodwill is not an abstract quality, divorced from the reality of the Stormont talks. They understand that the relationship between Mr Clinton and Tony Blair is extraordinarily close. In recent weeks the British Prime Minister stood by the President as he confronted, in otherwise fearful solitude, the twin threats of Iraq and Monica Lewinsky. Even if Mr Clinton did not need much convincing, Ireland was always going to be the quid pro quo.

As Mr Blair prepares to make his own tough choices in the coming weeks - on whether, for example, to call an Irish referendum even if all the Ulster political parties are not fully on board - he will do so with the knowledge that Mr Clinton will back his judgement, whatever it may be. Mr Adams and Mr Trimble will also have grasped that the Irish Prime Minister, Bertie Ahern, thinks as one with Mr Blair and Mr Clinton on the way forward in Northern Ireland. As Mr Ahern put it in a US television interview on Tuesday night, the relationships between the British, American and Irish governments, and between the three leaders, are "extremely close". The St Patrick's Day gatherings, too, dramatised the fact that this triangle will be hard to break.

Every public declaration made by Mr Clinton, Mr Ahern and Mo Mowlam last week appeared almost as if it had been carefully orchestrated and jointly rehearsed. In John Major's time acrimony always lurked behind the diplomatic smiles. This time there was no doubting the common purpose: to woo Mr Adams and Mr Trimble into making love not war.

Mr Clinton, whose instinct when he detects tension is always to defuse it, strove to take the edge out of a St Patrick's Day reception in the White House when Mr Adams, Mr Trimble and their respective camps were sitting under the same roof. In the course of a solemn appeal to their better natures, reminding them of their responsibilities to future generations, he peppered his remarks with jokes.

Here is an extract from the official White House transcript of the President's language:

"Tonight, we have here in this room representatives, leaders of all the parties to the peace talks. It is a great night. I was thinking in sort of my impish way that I almost wish I could give them a perfectly harmless - perfectly harmless - three-day cold, which would require them all to be quarantined in the Green Room. (Laughter and applause.) It's not a very big room, the Green Room. (Laughter.) And we have a lot of parties to the talks. So in just three days of getting over a cold together, I think all these problems would be solved."

Having lowered the defences of his audience, clearly targeting the nationalist and Unionist contingents in the room, he hammered home, to earnest nods all around, his deadly serious entreaty.

"Well, the peace talks won't be that easy, but all of you, you have to seize this historic moment. Just think - in just a few weeks, you could lift this enormous burden from the shoulders of all the children of Ireland."

On St Patrick's Day morning when he presented Mr Clinton with a bowl of shamrocks, Mr Ahern couched his appeal in identical moral terms: "We are now in the end game; success will require courage, a willingness to compromise and, perhaps above all, a generous vision which transcends partnership and focuses on the common interest of all who are in the talks and all who share it."

Mrs Mowlam, a less grandiloquent, more practical foil to the two national leaders, was at pains in a series of radio and television interviews with the American media to hand laurels to both Mr Adams and Mr Trimble, both of whom she met over lunch, remarkably, at the British embassy on Monday.

"I think Mr Adams is seriously engaged in negotiations to find an accommodation that is a non-violent way forward," she told National Public Radio. "There are obviously elements at the IRA which aren't. But I have no doubt, I don't think, in my mind about Mr Adams' commitment."

But when the interviewer suggested in a question that Mr Trimble's enthusiasm did not match Mr Adams', she was quick to leap to the Ulster Unionist's defence. "David Trimble and the Unionists have also moved. They're in the talks ... without weapons being handed in. Now, many of their community have been maimed, injured, murdered by the IRA. Now, it's very tough for him to be there, so all I would ask is that we don't start weighing one person's progress against another."

MRS MOWLAM'S instinct to stand up for Mr Trimble responded to a feeling she must have had that the US media were treating Mr Adams last week as a sort of Mandela figure, a romantic revolutionary turned paragon of reconciliation, while Mr Trimble tended to be portrayed as a curmudgeonly, apartheid-loving Afrikaner type - that is when he received any media attention at all.

Mr Adams did his best to encourage the perception, repeatedly needling Mr Trimble in interviews by pointing to his failure to say "hello" when they crossed paths. But in public and private Mr Ahern and Mr Clinton, made a point of appearing as scrupulously even-handed as Ms Mowlam.

"There is a sympathetic understanding in all three capitals that David Trimble has limited room for manoeuvre," said an Irish government official involved in the peace process. "Everyone realises it's counter-productive to box him in or beat up on him in public and all three governments enjoy good relations with him."

Anne Smith, the Ulster Unionists' representative in Washington, said she was painfully aware of the negative light in which her party leader was portrayed by the US media, but she expressed satisfaction in the reception he received from the people in Washington that count. Mr Clinton did try to persuade Mr Trimble to meet Mr Adams but when Mr Trimble plainly explained his reasons why he would not the President politely backed down.

While acknowledging that, for obvious historical reasons, American sympathies are closer to Sinn Fein than to the Unionists, Ms Smith described the Clinton administration as "a balance" to the Irish-American lobby, and as "a moderating influence". It is a measure of the skill with which Mr Clinton handled his Irish guests that she should have said that Mr Trimble had been given a fair chance to air his views. For that reason, she pronounced his visit a success. Sounding almost like Mr Adams in his less propagandistic moments, she reflected two days after the visitors had returned home that the role of the Clinton administration was indeed to encourage and facilitate dialogue.

She would not have said that so easily one year ago, much less five. Nor would the UK Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. Mrs Mowlam said in an interview on American breakfast television: "I think that if anybody had said five years ago that we'd be celebrating St Patrick's Day at the British Embassy in Washington with Unionists, nationalists, loyalists and republicans present, and that we were all going back to Belfast next week to get round the same table to continue the talks, they wouldn't have thought it possible."