Irish debate fails to demolish barriers: Unionist rebuffs overtures by Gerry Adams as US talk show transmits historic meeting between Ulster opponents. Rupert Cornwell reports

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The Independent Online
THE IRISH question was not, after all, solved by CNN's Larry King Show and the live 50-minute verbal brawl between Ken Maginnis and Gerry Adams on Tuesday night. Nor has an answer been brought much closer by this week's contacts between the Sinn Fein leader and Clinton administration officials. But if knowledge is the key to understanding, then the Adams visit to the United States may not have been in vain.

The prime-time confrontation on the premier US talk show, said to be the first on television between Unionist and Sinn Fein leaders, was not pretty. But at least the million or more who watched can have been left in no doubt that there are two sides to this dispute.

The chemistry was explosive: Mr Maginnis bristling and dismissive - 'No, I don't trust Gerry Adams . . . He doesn't even know who he is . . . I can't talk to terrorists' - Mr Adams fluent, conciliatory, but ever evasive. 'I want a permanent peace,' he said when pressed to add that adjective to the ceasefire.

On screen their eyes would never meet. Twice at least Mr Adams proffered his hand, and each time Mr Maginnis refused to take it. 'I'm not going to get involved in a gimmick for the American public; Gerry Adams controls an organisation which controls 100 tons of guns.'

The Independent even made an appearance. To back his claim that the IRA had not changed its ways, Mr Maginnis answered an anti-Adams woman caller from Belfast by brandishing an article from this paper entitled, 'What the IRA is doing now', showing a 16-year-old whose legs had been broken by an IRA punishment squad. 'That planted woman,' sneered Mr Adams.

But if viewers learnt something from Tuesday's sound and fury, the US Administration must have learnt even more from the stream of Irish visitors - ministers from the Republic, SDLP members, Unionists and now Sinn Fein supporters - during recent weeks. If Mr Adams's media coverage has been less copious and less adoring than when he came in February, so the US government has been strenuously even-handed. 'We can only be a catalyst,' a senior White House official acknowledged. 'We are not making substantive proposals. The problem can only be solved by the Irish themselves.'

Behind suitably rigid upper lips, the British are still miffed that Mr Adams was thus honoured and intensely suspicious of American meddling and a possible Clinton 'tilt' to the nationalist cause under prodding from the Irish-American lobby. The 1996 election, after all, is only two years off. But this unprecedented exposure to the complexity and sensitivity of the Irish question is breeding caution among Washington policymakers. As for Mr Adams, he has learnt that American public opinion and the Administration are not pushovers for his cause and that by coming here he has laid his credibility on the line.

His standing was tartly summed up by a British official: 'If the IRA revert to violence again, then the whole lot of them - IRA, Sinn Fein and Gerry Adams - are dead in the water in the US. But if they behave themselves, then there'll be more visits, and soon. Like it or not, next time Adams will get into the White House.'