A fox loose in the henhouse: Washington, Dublin and London share the blame for Gerry Adams's US triumph, says Conor Cruise O'Brien

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GERRY ADAMS's visit to the United States has been a triumph for the cause he represents. And the cause he represents is that of the Provisional IRA. We forget that last fact at our peril. And we have been forgetting it, in a fog of disinformation and wishful thinking. This is how it came about that Mr Adams got to the US in a blaze of glory.

He will also get a great reception on his return to Belfast, and the morale and recruitment of the IRA will benefit accordingly. The lives of British soldiers serving in Northern Ireland, and of members of the RUC, and of all persons incurring the displeasure of the IRA will be at correspondingly higher risk.

The most sinister aspect of this ill-omened event was the nature of the statement in virtue of which Mr Adams was officially admitted to the United States. The initial position of the Clinton administration was that Mr Adams must explicitly 'renounce violence', or be excluded. He declined to renounce violence. Instead, he offered the thought that he personally is against the killing of 'innocent civilians'.

The acceptance of this formula, as a basis for the admission to the US of the political representative of the Provisional IRA, is equivalent to conceding the existence of legitimate targets for political terrorism. Under all previous US administrations, the IRA were regarded as terrorists. They are now well on the way to achieving the status of freedom fighters. And this is the most significant result to date of what is still being hailed as a peace process.

It is important not to minimise the scope and scale of Mr Adams's American success, or of its implications for Ireland and Britain. No other living Irish leader - not Mr Reynolds, not Mr Spring, not even Mr Hume - has ever made a hit like this in America. Yet all the latter leaders have important electoral mandates. Mr Adams is not now an elected parliamentarian. Sinn Fein's democratic base is tiny in the island as a whole, and virtually non- existent in the Republic. Yet Mr Adams became, overnight on Larry King Live, the most visible Irishman in the US. He was also treated with great respect in the upmarket media, headed by the New York Times, which ran two grovelling profiles of him on Tuesday. He also totally dominated the media coverage of the proceedings at the upmarket Kissinger-chaired conference, participation in which was the ostensible object of his journey.

Gerry Adams's media magic is not due mainly to his skills as a communicator, although these are not negligible. It is mainly due to his personal status, which is romantically ambiguous. On the one hand, he is known to be the principal spokesman for a terrorist organisation. On the other, he comes before the public in the role of peacemaker. On the box, he is a fascinating twofer: Jekyll and Hyde, making a joint appearance. From Jekyll, you get the reassuring aura of the pacific quest: from Hyde, the delicious frisson of a safe encounter with a killer. It is the last that is Adams's trump card on the box. No interviewer, no interlocutor can match that. And none did, on this trip.

Broadcasting mandarins, defending the principle of allowing terrorists to broadcast, used to maintain - and probably still do - that exposure to broadcasting, and skilful interrogation by dedicated broadcasters, would damage the terrorists. The fact is that letting terrorists on to television is giving the fox the run of the henhouse. In the presence of the Adams fox, on Irish and American television, the dedicated broadcasters have been no more effective than the hens.

But who gave the fox the run of the henhouse? Who got for Mr Adams the degree of official approval without which he would never have been admitted either to the territorial US or to its airwaves? Three governments share in the responsibility for this: Dublin, London and Washington.

The responsibilities are unequally shared. That of Dublin is primary and pivotal. Since the beginning of the Provisional IRA offensive, in 1971, every Dublin government has refused to countenance the IRA, and has thrown its weight against the admission to the US of the Sinn Fein president. The leading 'friends of Ireland' in congress went along with this and a policy of exclusion prevailed. The British government alone could not have held that line. The two governments together could end it. But this time round, the Dublin government shifted its line. Irish officials now advised senators Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Edward Kennedy to throw their weight behind the admission of Gerry Adams. To continue to exclude him might (in a fashionable and toxic phrase) injure 'the delicate balance of the peace process'.

The State Department and the Department of Justice continued to oppose admission. But Moynihan and Kennedy were too much for them. Moynihan, as well as being a greatly respected figure in his own right, is now chairman of the Senate finance committee. He is essential to the success of the president's legislative programme, and also a faintly menacing figure for the presidential future as Whitewatergate develops. (It was Moynihan who forced the president to appoint a special council to investigate that matter.) So Clinton gave in, and further concessions may be expected unless counter measures are taken.

The responsibilities of Dublin and Washington are clear. London's responsibility is less obvious, but heavy. Mr Major's great mistake was to yield to Albert Reynolds' entreaties to incorporate the 'self-determination' formula in the Downing Street agreement of 15 December. No doubt Mr Major and his advisers thought the formula became harmless when incorporated in a context which contains 'guarantees' for the Unionists.

But it isn't harmless. The guarantees are old stuff, but the self-determination formula is altogether new. And everyone knows it is an IRA formula, urged on Dublin through the Hume-Adams process, then pressed on London by Dublin. What the acceptance of those words signifies for the IRA is that the British position in Northern Ireland is weakening, and will weaken further, under further ingenious and ruthless combinations of political and paramilitary pressure.

For Dublin, that acceptance meant that it can pursue a Hume- Adams line - which is popular, especially in Fianna Fail - without seriously damaging relations with London, which would worry most people in Ireland. In making possible Mr Adams's US journey, with the serious damage that this has done to Anglo-American relations, Mr Reynolds overlooked the damage that was being done to Anglo- Irish relations. He should reconsider that.

It is time to call a halt. Mr Major should now talk seriously to Mr Reynolds. He should make clear that unless Sinn Fein unconditionally accepts the Downing Street declaration by a given date, and unless the IRA unconditionally ends its campaign by the same date, both governments should agree that the declaration ceases to be operative. In short, both governments should stop their disastrous quest for peace through appeasement of the IRA. There are serious security matters to be discussed between them, once appeasement is seen to have totally failed.

(Photograph omitted)