Northern Ireland peace remains elusive Sinn Fein's Adams keeps 'eye on the prize'


BELFAST, Northern Ireland -- None of the dreams of lasting peace in Northern Ireland have yet come true.

There is the example of Gerry Adams, after the handshakes with President Clinton, after the first coating of worldwide celebrity was tarnished, after the Irish Republican Army's terror bombs wrecked a fragile peace nearly a year ago.

Adams, as president of Sinn Fein, the political arm of the IRA, still conducts business and interviews inside a party headquarters building that remains shrouded by two metal cages erected to repel rocket attack.

For the politicians and people here, there is a sense that the province is in a holding pattern, awaiting the outcome of British parliamentary elections that must be held by May. Only then can the next step be taken.

But which way will Northern Ireland go, toward peace or more violence?

"There are a mixture of emotions now," says Adams, discussing the mood in his hometown during an interview last week. "It's very difficult to generalize. There is fear. There is some confusion. There is hope that [the peace process] can be put together again.

"And there are some people who think that Sinn Fein, and probably more particularly the IRA, have made a mess of it."

Ever since the IRA ended a 17-month cease-fire and detonated a bomb in London's Canary Wharf business district Feb. 9, 1996, Adams has been on the outside of the peace process, trying to get in. Sinn Fein is excluded from peace talks that are now at a virtual standstill. The Clinton administration, one of Adams' backers in the past, appears to be giving him a cold shoulder, too.

House of Commons

Adams was first allowed to visit the United States in 1994 but will not be applying for another visa anytime soon, though his autobiography has just been published in the United States. "I can fight for a visa or for an election, but I can't do both," he says. So he will stay in Belfast and run for Britain's House of Commons. But even if he regains the seat that he held from 1983 to 1992, he won't enter Parliament because he "refuses to swear an oath to an English Queen."

Recent history in Northern Ireland says that no one should underestimate Adams' ability to sway events. By turns feared and revered, hated and worshiped, the 48-year-old Adams has been making headlines in Belfast for more than half his life.

The majority Protestants and British security establishment have called him a terrorist, bent on driving the British Army out of Northern Ireland and severing the province's links with Britain. The British jailed him twice without trial in the 1970s. But Adams has steadfastly denied that he was an IRA member.

His power base is among working-class Catholics in Belfast, a city he proclaims to love, "warts and all."

He says his aim is to create a united Ireland "by peaceful means."

Bearded and glib, a master in the art of the interview, Adams remains a compelling personality, despite being mistrusted by many. In an interview, he tries to remain upbeat, counseling that everyone should "keep their eye on the prize, peace in Northern Ireland."

Yet many blame Adams and the IRA for nearly destroying the peace process.

He says he understands why he is a lightning rod for criticism.

"With the global media village, they focus on a personality," he says. "Clearly, I was not the person who produced the IRA cease-fire. But it's a bit harder to explain it was me, John Hume DTC [leader of the Social Democratic and Labor Party] and Albert Reynolds [former Irish prime minister]. They just focus on the one.

"I'm a wee bit philosophical. On the one hand I'm given the credit for producing something. And I'm also given the blame if it collapses. I think most people see beyond that."

Son of Belfast

He is a son of Belfast, raised in a family of prominent political activists. His father was shot and imprisoned by the Royal Ulster Constabulary. His mother is descended from a long line of Irish nationalists.

He says he became politically aware as a teen-ager, hitting the streets during the Irish civil rights movement and, eventually, living a life on the run from the British army. He proposed to his wife while hiding from soldiers.

"I have, of course, been overwhelmed by the pace of things, the dread that it could all go wrong, that I myself may in some way fall short of the expectations placed upon me," he says.

Adams likely reached his peak of world attention in November 1995, when he received a handshake from Clinton during a walk through the streets of Belfast.

Three months later, the IRA bombers struck London.

Adams calls the end of the cease-fire a "surreal experience, the inevitable coming in a way that was quite unprecedented."

"The IRA was back," Adams says. "As someone said, 'The British kept kicking the dog to see if it was asleep.' There were all those mixed emotions. When I realized people had been killed, I was very saddened."

The IRA view is that the British created roadblocks to peace -- that Britain was unreasonable when it insisted that the IRA begin surrendering its weapons before Sinn Fein could be included in peace talks.

He expresses some admiration for British Prime Minister John Major's ability to hold on to power but adds that he doesn't expect the prime minister to give up Northern Ireland.

"He's a unionist," Adams says. "He himself says he won't be the prime minister who presides over the breakup of the United Kingdom."

Adams says he'll likely outlast Major, but he admits that in the past he has harbored thoughts of "giving it up."

"I don't think anyone who has come through this length of a struggle at such an intense pace, wouldn't have thought different, well, it was time to live," he says.

"But so far, I remain committed.

"We are in very, very testing times," he says. "My conviction is we will see a peace settlement. But who's to know? Who's to know that some event will happen which will test me and for any number of reasons that I could say, 'Well, I've done my best, and I'm walking away from it.' "

Pub Date: 2/02/97

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