Late one evening during Gerry Adams's sparkling visit to the Big Apple, I was stuffed into a sweaty Manhattan hotel room with 1,200 Americans of Irish descent to hear the Sinn Fein leader speak - I know the precise number because the fire department allowed no more, and many disappointed followers were left to wait and wander in the hotel foyer. For this media event, even reporters were being turned away.
I was minding my own business, writing down what Mr Adams had to say about the role in Irish politics of the British 'yellow press' and Punch cartoons, when a man and his wife approached. Pointing to the small black bag containing journalist's paraphernalia slung from my shoulder, the man warned me in an Irish brogue, 'You should not be carrying that bag with those letters on it, you know what they stand for? E R - Elizabeth Regina.'
Indeed the bag, which belongs to my wife, bears her initials, which happen to be the same as the Queen's. I blurted, 'This bag is my wife's. Those are her initials, not the Queen's, and she is as sensitive about the Irish question as you are.' The man, startled by my response, backed away and disappeared into a group singing 'Come on Gerry'. They could not remember when they had had such an important time.
'Tell them about the 60 years of repression under British rule,' yelled one young woman. Then another: 'Not 60 years, Gerry, tell 'em it was 80 years.' 'Yes, Gerry,' said another, 'tell 'em like it was, and like it is. Tell 'em.'
In the end, Mr Adams offered nothing new, no magic formula to break the deadlock in the peace process, no olive branch for Downing Street, but it didn't matter. To millions of Americans, whether Irish, Poles, Germans, Russians, Jews, Greeks or Chinese, who had come to America to escape religious or political persecution, Gerry Adams was living proof that the United States can still make sweeping gestures of freedom to victims of oppression.
For many Irish Americans, he was the latest son of the soil to become a celebrity with a moral edge. They had been warming to such things since the release of the Guildford Four, and the film based on the affair, In the Name of the Father. Never mind that some couldn't spell his name. One woman arrived at the airport with an armload of 'Welcome Jerry' (sic) posters for anyone who wanted to join the reception party. Never mind that he had no new message. Even the Irish Gays and Lesbians group, excluded again this year by the Hibernian Society from the St Patrick's Day parade, was on hand to thank him for coming. And New York's Daily News declared: 'He came and was seen. Therefore, he conquered.'
Behind the headlines were other success stories in two days of instant publicity for Mr Adams that could not have gone better if it had been arranged a month in advance. About 40 million Americans claim to have some Irish blood - at least that is the popular in-house figure - but only one of them is credited with conceiving the formula that brought Mr Adams to America. He is Bill Flynn, who has family roots in counties Mayo and Down and is chairman of Mutual of America, an insurance company with assets of dollars 6bn. Last year he organised an international conference in Derry on conflict resolution. It was called 'Beyond Hate: living with our deepest differences', and for the first time put representatives of Unionists and republicans side by side.
Mr Flynn is also chairman of the National Committee on American Foreign Policy, a small independent group composed mainly of retired ambassadors, which he persuaded to try to get Mr Adams and the leaders of the other major political parties in Northern Ireland to speak at a one-day conference. The SDLP's John Hume and the Alliance Party's John Alderdice were always coming, but when Mr Adams was granted a visa at the last minute the Unionists stayed away.
The National Committee has Henry Kissinger, Jeane Kirkpatrick, the former American ambassador to the UN, and Richard Pipes, the Soviet expert from Harvard University, on its board, but its tiny staff was overstretched by the conference. Within 24 hours they had to get the US Secret Service to 'sweep' the rooms for Mr Adams and Mr Hume in the Waldorf Astoria to make sure there were no bombs or other devices, and also to get the two men booked in under assumed names. When Mr Hume arrived at the hotel, once favoured by stars and princes and still a leading Manhattan hostelry, he didn't know of the arrangement and so booked under his own name. The Secret Service had a fit.
For the 48 hours of his visa Mr Adams was escorted by the leaders of Noraid, the American group that has been collecting for Irish nationalist causes for many years in the bars of Manhattan and the traditional Irish neighbourhoods - Norwood in the North Bronx, Woodside and Sunnyside in Queens, and Bay Ridge in Brooklyn. In the North Bronx it is not uncommon to see IRA fund-raising socials, but the events that collect the big sums are by invitation only.
The main Noraid organiser was Martin Galvin, a pale, reptilian figure who is the group's publicity director. Among other things he had the unenviable task of suddenly finding places for Mr Adams to have four press conferences, plus meet congressmen, local labour leaders and then spend the evening with supporters who were bused into the hotel where Jimmy Carter stayed during the New York Democratic Convention in 1976. It's a bit shabbier now, but Mr Galvin found bagpipers in kilts from the New York Police Department to brighten things up. Judging from the hotels chosen, Noraid is not doing so well, but then again they may be on a tight budget. The farewell press conference was held in a location quite well known for ladies of the night.
Overworked and constantly badgered by reporters, Mr Galvin managed to keep his cool until the very end when it emerged that Mr Adams had been taken for an evening sightseeing drive by a former IRA member, who was imprisoned in Long Kesh in the Seventies. Cornered and emotional, Mr Galvin had to admit the silly mistake. He went a bright puce, and complained bitterly about a British press smear campaign.
Mr Adams went most places by cab, which he found a delight, he said, because the cab drivers - as well as the bellhops and the television make-up crews who were the only other people he met casually because his schedule was so tight - were all so welcoming. 'I appreciate the openness of the people here,' he said, 'It's a new experience for me even to be interviewed in a studio and for my voice to be broadcast.'
Could it be that this man who had spent so many years in the shadows was warming to the idea of being a celebrity? After appearing on more high-profile television shows in two days than most US presidential candidates can book in two months, it seemed so.
Perhaps he even now sees himself as a man of destiny. Listen to this passage from the Charlie Rose Show, a usually sober-minded late-night programme of talking heads. Mr Adams was attacking the British again. 'They describe George Washington in exactly the same way as they used to describe Yasser Arafat and Nelson Mandela and Michael Collins and de Valera . . . and as they used to describe Menachem Begin, and as they are now describing me.'
Does he think history is about to place him on this illustrious list? Perhaps it is. There is no telling what political changes the force of the electronic media can bring these days: the removal of dictators, peace in the Middle East.
Mr Adams certainly played the part. Articulate and quick-witted, he wore a white shirt and tie with a button-down collar and a blue blazer. His oversized designer glasses reminded me of when Daniel Ortega of the Sandinistas came to New York in the Eighties. He looked more like a computer salesman than a leader of Sinn Fein.
And he came with a holster full of soundbites: to help to build his man-of-peace image ('I want to take the gun out of Irish politics'); to promote his flexibility ('I'll go the extra mile with John Major' and 'We seek to reach out the hand of friendship, you respect us and we'll respect you'); and to attack the British government's stubbornness ('They won't clarify peace') and London's censorship ('The British have built a paper wall around Ireland'). Normally solemn and serious, he even mustered a few jokes. 'Next time I'll expect to see some women on the platform,' he said of the evening gathering at the hotel.
In off-camera moments he could be found swigging Diet Cokes and orange juices, nothing more. And towards the end he complained about being totally exhausted, which was not surprising. 'If I drop off, excuse me,' he said at the beginning of a press conference.
Grilled - he used the word 'interrogated' - ceaselessly about whether he was, or is now involved in any terrorist acts, Mr Adams was clear, up to a point.
Question: 'You have never been part of violent acts?'
Answer: 'I have never been part of violence in my country.'
Question: 'Or known ahead of time, or had any knowledge of what was to take place?'
Answer: 'A charge brought against me by the British was thrown out by their own court. I was imprisoned by the British without charge.'
His most memorable response was to CNN's Larry King, who, bemused and befuddled by the denseness of Irish politics, suggested that CNN might host a round-table conference of all the political parties in Belfast. Mr Adams agreed, saying, 'You'd be very welcome. I'd also buy you a pint of Guinness in the Falls Road.'
Solving political problems via television is seductive, and Mr Adams was either too tired to resist, or he really felt something could be done. Before leaving, he promised: 'Those who stuck their necks out for me will not be let down.' And he included Bill Clinton, who, like most others, wants to see a peace deal concluded.
In the final television interview, Charlie Rose suggested Mr Adams might like a round-table discussion with the British Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd, who has dismissed Mr Adams as a man of words, not deeds. 'I would love to have further discussions on Ireland,' said Mr Rose. 'Well,' said Mr Adams, 'let's do a link-up.'
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