Was it really so bad?: While Britain was outraged by Gerry Adams in New York, the IRA's opponents in the US and Dublin take a different view

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The Independent Online
THE RESERVATION at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel was made in the name of Shlomo Brezhnev, and only a few insiders were supposed to know the real identity of the guest. In the event, however, the subterfuge was wasted. Mr Brezhnev turned out to be Gerry Adams, and there was nothing in the least bit secret about his visit to New York.

In his 51 hours in America the Sinn Fein leader sought, and received, maximum public exposure. He covered the city's tabloid front pages for a day and made not just Larry King Live on CNN but also a nationwide breakfast show and a host of other programmes.

And it was an easy ride. Poorly briefed interviewers tossed him easy questions and left him ample room to knock out his well-rehearsed message of Sinn Fein reasonableness and British iniquity. If Adams had been a movie star plugging a new film he could not have hoped for better publicity.

Seen from the other side of the Atlantic, the spectacle was outrageous. A furious British government blamed the Clinton administration and relations with Washington turned icy cold. Ulster Unionists, who had boycotted the New York conference which was the centrepiece of the Adams trip, were bitter and angry.

Paul Johnson, writing in the Daily Mail, declared it 'the best thing that has happened to the IRA in 20 years', and 'the worst reverse we have received on the international scene . . . since the Suez debacle of 1956'. Conor Cruise O'Brien, in the Independent, said that the IRA were now 'well on the way to achieving the status of freedom fighters' in the United States, and the consequences would be felt in increased loss of life in Northern Ireland.

Was it really that bad? To people familiar with the IRA's record it was certainly galling, but will the consequences be quite so dire? Among the IRA's opponents in the US and in Dublin the visit is seen in a completely different light, and there is even some optimism that it may actually move forward the peace process.

THE obvious fear connected with the visit is that it will boost the flow of Irish-American money into IRA coffers, thus overturning decades of hard work by London, Dublin, the constitutional parties and churches in Northern Ireland and Irish-American political leaders such as Ted Kennedy and the late Tip O'Neill.

But this may reflect a misreading both of the nature of the visit and of the modern Irish-American community, which has come a long way since the early 1970s and the heyday of IRA fundraising.

Then its activities centred around Noraid, a New York-based organisation ostensibly dedicated to channelling funds to dependants of imprisoned IRA members, but always under suspicion of smuggling arms and cash to the IRA itself.

The organisation has been monitored by the FBI and its returns are registered with the US Justice Department. They tell a clear story. In the six months to January 1981, Noraid filed returns of dollars 250,000, most of which went to Northern Ireland. In the six months to January 1991 - the latest figures - it raised only dollars 199,000 and spent dollars 216,000 on political work in the US. It had a cash balance of dollars 28,000. In short, Noraid raises less money than it did a decade ago and spends all it gets in the US.

As for the smuggling of arms to the IRA from America, improved intelligence and security co-operation has reduced the flow to a trickle.

It is true that some money is probably raised and disbursed secretly, and it is probable that contributions to Noraid will rise after the Adams visit, but it is also beyond doubt that Noraid has been marginalised.

This was evident during Adams's visit. Noraid had no role in lobbying for his visa or organising his programme in New York. Martin Galvin, its publicity director, was among those who turned out to welcome Adams at the airport on Monday evening, but when the cavalcade left for the hotel there was no seat for Galvin.

The Irish lobby in the US is no longer the caricature collection of ill-informed stevedores in the bars of New York singing sentimental songs of British oppression in the 'old country'. It is a well-organised and powerful force, including some of the most wealthy and successful Americans (a recent survey found that one in five American chief executives are of Irish extraction). They are firmly opposed to violence, but they see themselves and their government as having an important role in the resolution of the Northern Ireland conflict.

The emergence of this new force can be traced back to 1984 and the inception of the MacBride Principles campaign, designed to use US investment in Northern Ireland as a lever to secure new equal opportunity arrangements there. It was opposed by the British government, but it attracted widespread support in the US and moved the agenda away from Noraid priorities.

Equally significant was a subsequent campaign to redress perceived discrimination against Irish immigrants in US visa laws. The hero of that movement, winning an amnesty for thousands of Irish illegal residents in the US, was a former congressman, Bruce Morrison.

Two years ago, Morrison co-founded Irish-Americans for Clinton-Gore, and it was at a meeting organised by that group, in April 1992, that Clinton made his famous promises to the Irish community - that he would give Adams a visa, appoint a special envoy to Northern Ireland and apply greater pressure on the British government to address human rights in the province.

Since Clinton's election, the Morrison group, re-named Americans for a New Irish Agenda, has become the focus of Irish-American political activity. It was the prime force in persuading the President to grant the Adams visa.

Morrison is a fully paid-up FOB - Friend of Bill. He studied law with him at Yale and worked as a lawyer with the First Lady. In the days up to last Sunday, when the President finally gave Adams the green light, he was in daily contact with the White House.

The momentum for the visit began to build last September when Morrison led a remarkable American delegation to Ireland, north and south. Its four members were himself, Niall O'Dowd, founder of the Irish Voice newspaper in New York, Bill Flynn, chairman of the big Mutual of America insurance company, and a billionaire Irish-American business magnate, Charles Fieney.

The group spent several days in Belfast talking to a range of people, nationalist and Unionist. The IRA agreed to observe a seven-day ceasefire for the duration of their stay. 'That mission really was the crucial thing,' says Patrick Farley, a former Irish Voice editor. The ceasefire, he added, 'sent a critical signal to the delegation and to the White House'.

Next came the announcement in November of the Hume-Adams agreement, between the Sinn Fein leader and Northern Ireland's main constitutional nationalist leader, John Hume. Still a secret document, this was presented to the British and Irish governments as a blueprint for ending violence and gave fresh impetus to the search for peace.

The Hume-Adams initiative had a powerful impact in the US. 'It united the Irish-American community in a big way,' says Patrick Doherty, who oversees the MacBride campaign for the city of New York. 'It was as if Hume had given the green light and then, 'boom]', it began to come together.'

The final impulse came from the Anglo-Irish declaration itself last December. At that point Morrison and Flynn together went into overdrive to organise the New York conference and assure a visa for Adams. They secured the help of almost 40 other members of Congress, placed two full-page advertisements in the New York Times and recruited the AFL-CIO, the umbrella union movement, to the visa cause.

Beyond doubt, it helped their case that the President had everything to gain, in domestic political terms, by acceding to the pressure. Senators Kennedy and Daniel Moynihan both face re-election this year and need strong Irish support. And Clinton needs them to help drive through his health and welfare reform programmes. Talking about his role last week, Morrison was in no doubt about the significance of the new Irish-American coalition. 'The point is that this maturity in the community is broader than just Bill Flynn and Mutual of America. It is much more significant and not just a facelift.'

Part of the purpose of the September delegation was to reassure both nationalists and Unionists that the Irish-American lobby is 'not some green monster coming to swallow Northern Ireland but rather the facilitator of a dialogue that for the moment does not occur in Northern Ireland'.

Morrison believes that allowing Adams to speak in America was correct. He contends that Adams has moved further towards a non-violent, centrist agenda than Britain gives him credit for. 'The range of debate has narrowed dramatically. Sinn Fein is no longer talking about a 32-county socialist state. I would say there has been more movement on that side than on the Unionist side in terms of steps towards new constitutional structures.'

Like almost any Irish-American you care to ask, Morrison also decries what he considers British double standards in publicly clinging to the principle that Adams must renounce violence before he can join negotations, when for three years before last December it had conferred secretly with the IRA itself.

He is similarly dismayed by British resistance to US mediation. 'I can't believe that serious people in Britain don't want help settling Northern Ireland. I can't believe that there is so much pride that they don't feel that way, because that is nuts.'

IF THERE was a disaster in New York last week, it may have been a disaster of British diplomacy. Not only has further doubt been cast on the survival of the historic 'special relationship' between London and Washington, the affair has also caused friction with Dublin. Britain had counted on the US to reject Adams's visa application, as it has done before. The US State Department was opposed, as was Ray Seitz, the US ambassador in London. As late as 10 days ago, the British embassy in Washington was convinced they 'had it in the bag', as one source put it.

Even when Adams was invited into the US consulate in Belfast for discussions about his intentions over the renunciation of violence, the British were unconcerned. They thought a repudiation of terrorism highly unlikely. But Adams produced an ambiguous form of words which, together with the Irish- American lobbying in the US, was enough to win him his first trip to the US for 20 years.

In Whitehall there was barely disguised fury. Sir Patrick Mayhew, the Northern Ireland Secretary, departed from diplomatic niceties when asked whether he was disappointed. 'Yes, I am,' he said bluntly. From then on, British diplomacy appeared continuously to be left on the wrong foot.

The British propaganda machine in the US is normally a well-oiled one, especially where Northern Ireland is concerned. There are two full-time diplomats on permanent assignment in New York to propagate London's point of view. At the embassy in Washington, at least three senior diplomats are also on permanent alert to put the British spin on Irish issues. If things get really difficult, as they did last week, the ambassador himself, Sir Robin Renwick, can be called upon.

On this occasion, though, the engine appeared to be idling just when it should have been racing. It was only on Thursday, when Adams was already back in Ireland, that Sir Robin finally made an appearance on CNN's mid-morning news show to, in the words of an aide, 'rebut the kind of garbage coming out Adams's mouth'.

Sir Robin did not mince his words. 'When I listen to Gerry Adams, I think, as we all do, it's reminiscent of Dr Goebbels.' Douglas Hurd, in Washington to consult on Bosnia, offered only the briefest public denunciations of Adams. Explaining why the Foreign Secretary was not willing to plunge deeper into the fray, an embassy official said: 'I just don't think we can dignify Adams or enhance his status by putting up government officials to debate him.'

American television viewers were amazed - almost amused - to learn that transmission of the Larry King show to Europe had to be delayed to dub an actor over the voice of Adams to comply with the British broadcasting ban on the Sinn Fein leader. (It was their second such surprise recently; the Adams blitz followed the US release of the film In the Name of the Father, about the Guildford Four. It is a movie that shocks people accustomed to an Upstairs, Downstairs vision of Britain.)

Irrespective of what Adams said, Britain was made to look foolish, unreasonable and intemperate. Throw in Adams's words and Britain appeared also to be blocking the path to peace in Northern Ireland.

On the British side, there was fury at the White House, both for granting the visa and for intervening only belatedly with its criticism of Adams.

Relations between the Major and Clinton governments have never been warm - there is no chemistry between the two men, or between Douglas Hurd and his US opposite number, Warren Christopher. White House resentment at Tory party assistance to the Bush campaign in the presidential election has never quite died.

Now here was another bone of contention, and it was all the more infuriating for London that the Americans did not seem to view the matter nearly as seriously as they did.

Hurd gave vent to British anger in a meeting with Vice-President Al Gore. His message was, according to one source: 'We said that this would happen, that he would present himself as a normal human being, smiling, laughing and saying 'I want to talk peace; it is the British government which is being obstructive.' '

As tempers cooled at the end of last week, Downing Street was seeking to cast the affair in a different light. The Clinton administration had perhaps been nave, and may have learnt its lesson. 'The administration really did think that the advice of people they knew was that it would help the peace process. The fact of the matter is that Adams let them down. If the result of this visit is to lift the scales from the eyes of those American officials who thought it was a good idea to admit Gerry Adams, then that is a good thing.' On the American side, one White House aide remarked that the whole affair had begun to look like 'a storm in a British tea-cup'.

LITTLE noticed amid all this was the effect of last week's events on relations with Dublin. The Irish government is widely assumed to have been sympathetic to the Adams visit, and this annoyed London. 'Before this,' said one British minister, 'the great advantage was that the British government and the Irish government were seen to be standing together - whereas people in the US had somehow assumed that it was the Irish government versus the British government. All that advantage has now gone.'

From Dublin, however, the Adams visit was seen as a step forward. One Irish source said the celebrity status accorded to Adams 'will have been a small price to pay, if it helps the peace process along'. Americans now expect progress and not atrocities in Northern Ireland, he said, and 'if Adams cannot deliver, then the fall for Sinn Fein will be all the greater'. On the other hand, by showing the IRA what may be available to them if they lay down their arms, the visit may strengthen Adams's hand in the coming weeks.

Relations with Dublin were ruffled again last week when Sir Patrick Mayhew outlined his plans for progress in Northern Ireland involving the constitutional parties. Dublin was angry that he played down the role of the peace process, neglected to take into account Irish thinking on timing, and went too far towards satisfying the Unionists over local government.

The Irish, while also gloomy about the prospects of the IRA renouncing violence, wanted any new proposals for the parties put back until after Sinn Fein has declared its hand. It is important, they argue, not to give the Provisional propaganda machine a reason to back out of the joint declaration by setting out constitutional proposals before then. By the weekend, Downing Street was indicating that Irish thinking on timing would be taken into account.

IT WAS a week that British ministers and diplomats will be in a hurry to forget. But if they have been left looking clumsy, it may be partly because they had less room for manoeuvre than is widely recognised. Three days before the Adams visa was granted, a meeting is thought to have taken place between James Molyneaux, leader of the Ulster Unionists, and John Major. Such meetings have become common since the accord struck between the Tories and the Unionists during the Maastricht votes last summer.

Senior Unionists now believe that the IRA decided weeks ago to reject the declaration and have merely been exploiting the intervening time for propaganda purposes. Meanwhile Molyneaux's party, which has tacitly supported the peace process, is under pressure from the Democratic Unionist Party, led by Ian Paisley, which has resolutely rejected it.

With Sinn Fein demanding 'clarification' of the Downing Street declaration, one British minister said last week, 'Molyneaux is on the verge of backing out. His message is, don't even think about clarification, remove one comma from the declaration and I'm off.'

THE ADAMS ITINERARY: 51 HOURS IN NEW YORK

Monday

4.15pm Aer Lingus jet lands at John F Kennedy airport.

4.30pm Press conference at JFK.

6pm Check in to Waldorf Astoria.

9pm Record Larry King Live at CNN studio.

10pm Dinner and private meetings with friends, Noraid associates and trip organisers.

Midnight To bed, to work on speech to be delivered to National Committee on American Foreign Policy (NCAFP) conference on Northern Ireland.

Tuesday

7am Interview, Good Morning America.

7.30am Interview, Canadian Cable News.

8am Interview, Good Day New York.

8.30am Breakfast at Southgate Hotel given by Congressional Ad Hoc Committee on Northern Ireland.

9am Press Conference.

9.30am Interview, New York Daily News.

10am Private meetings.

11am Second press conference.

Noon Prepare NCAFP speech.

1.30-8pm Attend NCAFP conference.

8-10.30pm Gathering of friends and supporters at the Sheraton Towers hotel.

Midnight Sleep.

Wednesday

10am Meeting with Irish American Labour Coalition.

Noon Press conference.

1pm Interview, Charlie Rose Programme.

3pm Meetings with friends and politicians.

4pm Interview, The MacNeil-Lehrer Newshour.

5pm Leave for airport.

6pm Final press conference.

7pm Depart for Ireland.

(Photograph omitted)

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