Leading Article: Have a nice day, Mr Adams

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THE BRITISH government was foolish to object to the Americans granting a visa to Gerry Adams. In the first place it was unrealistic. Anyone in Washington could have told Downing Street that if Bill Clinton were forced to choose between pleasing the British or winning congressional support for his health care reforms, he would not hesitate for a second. The tattered remains of the special relationship had no chance against congressional pressure for the visa. Britain would, therefore, have been wiser to accept the inevitable instead of inviting a public rebuff.

Better still, it could have positively encouraged Mr Adams's trip to New York. Among the incentives he is being offered for winning IRA endorsement of the Anglo- Irish declaration is the prospect of entering mainstream politics. There is every sign that this attracts him. New York will give him a taste of what is on offer if he can earn respectability.

It is also possible that he will benefit from contact with responsible Irish-Americans, most of whom have endorsed the declaration. The Ancient Order of Hibernians in the US sent a strong message of support to both governments in December, and Senator Edward Kennedy's sister, who is the American ambassador to Dublin, will certainly have reported home in detail on the Irish government's attitude. American opinion should therefore be well in touch with reality, and not likely to mistake Mr Adams for the voice of all Ireland.

The only strong reason for denying him a visa would have been fear that he would spend his time whipping up support and funds for the IRA. Not only is he forbidden to do this under the terms of his visa, but he also has no good reason for attempting it. He still wishes to be seen by the British government as doing his best for peace, and in the US he can only gain from appearing statesmanlike.

It is always a problem when dealing with terrorist organisations and their supporters to know when to allow them out of isolation. The main test is a pragmatic one: will doing so enhance the chances of peace? In the case of Mr Adams, the British government has already decided to accept him as an interlocutor on the understanding that his value depends on how much he delivers.

While awaiting the answer, there is every reason for encouraging him with graduated concessions such as the New York trip. He will be under no illusions that if he fails to deliver he will be quickly back in the political ghetto. In the meantime, he will have a chance to clarify his position and show how he conducts himself on a wider stage.