WASHINGTON -- When President Clinton welcomes Irish nationalist leader Gerry Adams at a White House reception tomorrow, he will complete a quiet revolution in American policy toward Northern Ireland and Great Britain's military presence there.
Operating outside the usual diplomatic channels, Mr. Clinton has jettisoned a quarter century of U.S. hostility toward the Irish TTC Republican Army, to which Mr. Adams is tied through his political party, Sinn Fein. In doing so, Mr. Clinton also has made the United States an important force for the first time in urging Britain to change its policies in the province.
"He's made it a priority since the day he walked into the office," says Nancy Soderberg, the president's chief adviser on the issue.
Mr. Adams and the IRA have long been symbols of violence and intransigence in the drive by Northern Ireland's Roman Catholics to break away from British rule. But a cease-fire between the IRA and the province's Protestant majority has led to a peace plan that has been taken seriously by Catholics, Protestants and the British government.
If Mr. Adams and the IRA stay on the path to a peaceful settlement, Mr. Clinton will be able to count himself as having been a factor. But if Mr. Adams isn't serious, or if a violent backlash by Protestant militias dooms the peace, the president may be seen to have made a tragic blunder in giving Sinn Fein a White House audience.
Either way, relations with Britain will have been damaged. London officials are furious at Mr. Clinton's dismissal of their views at a time when Northern Ireland talks are at a sensitive stage and when Prime Minister John Major is clinging to power.
The damage fits a pattern of increased strains between the United States and two close allies, Britain and France, as the Soviet threat to Europe recedes and other interests, including competition for markets, intrude on the relationship.
The president's involvement is an unusual blend of activism, personal ties and politics, drawing on an informal network linking the White House, Capitol Hill, New York, Dublin and Belfast, a network that has outweighed the influence of Cabinet secretaries.
At its center is Ms. Soderberg, 37, a foreign policy adviser in the Democratic presidential campaigns of Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis and Mr. Clinton. As a former aide to Massachusetts Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, she had immersed herself for years in the politics of Northern Ireland.
Ms. Soderberg, who grew up in Timonium, was brought onto the National Security Council staff in 1993 and became a trusted policy adviser to both the president and National Security
Adviser Anthony Lake, colleagues say.
From her White House office, she talks regularly with her successor on Mr. Kennedy's staff, Trina Vargo; Niall O'Dowd, publisher of the New York-based newspaper Irish Voice; and John Hume, a Northern Ireland Catholic leader who has led a campaign for nonviolent change.
Mr. O'Dowd, who organized Irish-American support for Mr. Clinton in 1992, acts as a regular conduit to Mr. Adams and Sinn Fein.
Another important link is Jean Kennedy Smith, Mr. Kennedy's sister, who as U.S. ambassador to Dublin has wowed the Irish and fostered a dramatic change in the American approach to Northern Ireland. With her direct line to the White House, the senator's office and Irish politicians, she has assumed much of the role in dealing with Northern Ireland that used to be the responsibility of the U.S. Embassy in London.
For years, Mr. Kennedy had joined with other prominent Irish-American politicians in condemning IRA terrorism, and forged close ties with Mr. Hume, whom Ms. Soderberg calls "an anchor of common sense."
Starting in mid-1993, Mr. Hume sensed an IRA shift away from violence and began to prod Mr. Kennedy and the White House to encourage it. At year's end, he urged U.S. officials to grant a visa to Mr. Adams in return for his cooperation in the peace process.
Accepting Mr. Hume's advice, Mr. Clinton approved a visa for Mr. Adams early last year over strong objections from Britain, the State and Justice departments, and a blunt last-minute cable from Raymond Seitz, then-U.S. ambassador to London.
On that trip, Mr. Adams did not renounce violence and terrorism. But when the IRA declared a cease-fire last August, the White House believed that its action had been vindicated.
When Mr. Adams scheduled another visit for this year's St. Patrick's Day festivities, his U.S. supporters set the stage for full acceptance of Sinn Fein. Mr. Kennedy, traveling to Massachusetts with the president on Air Force One this winter, urged Mr. Clinton to lift the prohibition on Mr. Adams' raising funds for Sinn Fein.
This time, Britain mounted an all-out lobbying campaign -- aimed at Congress, the Washington press corps and the White House -- warning that the IRA still had the means to resume a campaign of violence.
Britain's top official for Northern Ireland, Sir Patrick Mayhew, came to Washington and declared that it would be a "mistake" to lift the long-standing ban against Sinn Fein raising money in the United States. A meeting between Mr. Clinton and Mr. Adams, he added, would dismay 50 million Britons. Mr. Major wrote to the president with a similar message.
Again, the State and Justice departments recommended against lifting the fund-raising ban and inviting Mr. Adams to the White House. The NSC staff agreed, with Ms. Soderberg preparing a memo telling Mr. Clinton that the IRA had not taken adequate steps toward disarming.
But importuned again by Mr. Kennedy, President Clinton told his staff to try to extract enough of a concession from Mr. Adams to enable him to lift the fund-raising ban.
On Thursday, Sinn Fein agreed to discuss with the British the decommissioning of weapons. Mr. Clinton lifted the fund-raising ban, granted Mr. Adams an extended visa and invited him to the White House.