Irish wolf in sheep's clothing?

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The Independent Online
WITH its usual sense of irony, the IRA's political counterpart, Sinn Fein, had chosen the South Place Ethical Society's base at London's Conway Hall to talk of its policies on Northern Ireland before a largely British press.

Gerry Adams's emissary was the party's chairperson, Mitchel McLaughlin. He took his seat before ranked television cameras, unsmiling. Sinn Fein's leading strategist is a handsome man, his short dark hair dashed with grey, unusually fit, upright, with a small, trim moustache. The hall had been booked in the name of the Wolfe Tone Society, but Mr McLaughlin came in sheep's clothing - conservative, discreet, even suave: a tweed jacket, highly polished brown brogues. He most resembled an off-duty British army colonel. Yet his words were not of war, but peace.

'Sinn Fein has never diverted from its open political activity - we have been engaged in an unarmed peaceful political campaign,' he said, his voice low and reasonable. 'There is no Sinn Fein violence,' he said.

On the contrary, the party of Sinn Fein had always been the catalyst behind developments towards peace. To hear him talk, Provisional Sinn Fein might have been a branch of CND.

Behind his head, as the TV cameras rolled, was an attractive blue banner, with Sinn Fein's name spelt over a united green island. It bore a reassuring text: 'Towards A Lasting Peace In Ireland'.

It marks a change of slogan. Can it only be a dozen years since Sinn Fein's publicity director, Danny Morrison, demanded of its annual conference '. . . will anyone here object if, with a ballot paper in this hand and an Armalite in this hand, we take power in Ireland?'

The hand that holds the Armalite is now nowhere in sight. The association of Sinn Fein with the violence of the IRA is, Mr McLaughlin repeatedly said, quite wrong. Like the Princess of Wales, Sinn Fein appears to hold a poor opinion of the press. The media - who else? - are, Mr McLaughlin told a French TV interviewer, at least partly to blame for this unfortunate misunderstanding in the public mind.

There was a slight pause. His interviewer seemed puzzled. Wasn't the public's linking of violence and Sinn Fein understandable, she asked? Had they not just seen Gerry Adams carrying the coffin of the IRA bomber who killed 10 Shankill Protestants?

'That's unfortunate,' said Mitchel McLaughlin. Unfortunate? A curious choice of word. But a note of passion had entered the strategist's voice which was not there before. 'I believe Gerry Adams had little or no choice. The body in that coffin could have been his son or his nephew,' he said. It was not, in fact, either Mr Adams's son or nephew. 'The SDLP has been to IRA funerals,' said Mr McLaughlin. But not, surely, shouldering their coffins? Mr Adams's act, said his colleague, was part of the reality of the Irish situation. He could understand that the British found it hard to grasp. 'But' said Mr McLaughlin, 'Gerry Adams's constituency is not the British people.'

They may not be his constituency, but Gerry Adams now hopes to make the British people his audience. Sinn Fein has been heartened by a recent Guardian poll which showed that fewer than 20 per cent of British people think Northern Ireland should stay part of the UK, and that 59 per cent think John Major should talk to Gerry Adams. Almost 50 per cent also believe that Adams should renounce violence before Major starts such talks. Mr McLaughlin mentioned the first two statistics, but curiously, not the latter. What of the rumour that the British government is already in contact with Sinn Fein, someone asked? A smile lit up Mr McLaughlin's pale khaki eyes. 'I can only say that I have heard that rumour, too,' he said.

What were the peace proposals on which Mr Adams was so keen? Mr McLaughlin could not say. But once the right of the Irish people to self determination had been accepted, he said, there could be a constitutional conference in which the elected representatives of north and south Ireland would meet. There would be 'National Reconciliation Programmes'.

His fingers gently closed together at the tips, as though in prayer.

And if the Hume-Adams proposals were rejected? 'It is possible,' said Mr McLaughlin, 'to envisage at least another 25 years of the sorrow and pain and trauma that the Irish people have gone through.' The violence might even escalate. That would be John Major's fault. Not, therefore, the responsibility of the 'insurgents' and 'volunteers'.

This, I think, was the message with which Mitchel McLaughlin had travelled to London, though the final statement of his speech reached its climax of reassurance. 'No one can be allowed to play propaganda games with a situation as serious as the one we are all faced with. Sinn Fein has no intention of permitting this to happen.'

With that happy thought, the cameramen carried out their lights and mikes from the Wolfe Tone Society's hall. On the street, sunshine fell on the Evening Standard placard: 'Clinton bans 'IRA' Adams.'

The US President was, it appeared, unconvinced by Sinn Fein's lamb-like stance. 'Credible evidence exists' blared the front page 'that Adams remains involved at the highest level in devising IRA strategy . . .'

In the Conway Hall they folded away the peace banner of Provisional Sinn Fein, and Mitchel McLaughlin left the Ethical Society.

(Photograph omitted)