Robinson guest of honour in Belfast: David McKittrick tells how the Irish president shook Gerry Adams's hand in a Sinn Fein stronghold

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The Independent Online
MARY ROBINSON, President of Ireland, sat in the place of honour in the west Belfast hall as Sean Maguire, virtuoso on the violin and pipes, led a group of traditional musicians in some stirring jigs and reels.

Behind her stood her minders, tallish policemen in conspicuously good suits, each facing in a slightly different direction, flicking their eyes around the hall.

If they were searching for Provos, they did not have far to look. Gerry Adams, president of Provisional Sinn Fein, stood a little way away in his best blue jacket, tapping his foot to the infectious airs. Close by was his own minder, in his accustomed place a few feet behind him, eyes hidden by tinted glasses.

On this day, however, all the minders were superfluous, for the atmosphere in the hall could not have been more welcoming and good-natured. While the minders did not actually shake hands and exchange tips on the finer points of bodyguarding, there was no tension in the air.

Photographers jostled as they contrived to get a picture of the two presidents together, but the media were asked, courteously, to leave before Mrs Robinson mingled with the guests, shaking Mr Adams's hand and holding a short conversation with him. Those present said that in the brief encounter 'she greeted him like everybody else, with no more and no less attention'.

Any tension appears to have been in Downing Street where John Major reputedly took angry exception to the idea of the Irish president staging a visit to Sinn Fein's strongest area.

The Prime Minister's concern that the republicans would exploit such an occasion was probably unfounded, for nobody in the hall turned a hair at Mr Adams's presence. His party is the largest in the area, part of the west Belfast community, and in this context impossible to ignore.

To demonstrate that this was a community-oriented occasion, Mr Adams appeared on the guest-list as, improbably, 'founder of west Belfast community festival'. Some of those in the hall supported Mr Adams; some, like the Protestant clergymen who were there, presumably disapproved of him.

Mrs Robinson has carved out a unique niche for herself as the people's president, establishing links with all sorts of groups, including northern unionists. Yesterday was the turn of the nationalists.