LONDON -- In his struggle with Great Britain, Gerry Adams has been jailed without charge, excluded from the mainland, even forbidden to be heard on the airwaves.
But yesterday, the president of Sinn Fein, the Irish Republican Army's political wing, came to No. 10 Downing St. at the invitation of Prime Minister Tony Blair.
The 55-minute exchange was symbolic, substantive and fraught with potential difficulties for both men trying to overcome decades of painful history and bloodshed.
The last time an IRA political ally and a British prime minister met at No. 10 Downing St. was in 1921, when Michael Collins and David Lloyd George sealed the agreement that led to the partition of Ireland.
Collins, the military leader turned politician, was murdered by Irishmen within a year of signing the deal. And Lloyd George, who thought he had solved the Irish problem by keeping British control of six northern counties, was proved wrong.
Adams and Blair are months from reaching any settlement during all-party political talks now taking place in Northern Ireland, where more than 3,200 have been killed in recent decades of violence between the majority Protestants and minority Roman Catholics.
Still, as he emerged from the meeting with a delegation of Sinn Fein leaders, Adams said: "This was a good moment in history.
"We had a good meeting because I think we engaged," Adams added. "We faced up to the difficulties."
Blair, who did not appear with Adams publicly, said, "I know it's difficult for people when they see Sinn Fein coming into No. 10 Downing Street."
During a series of television interviews, Blair said he felt a sense of history about the meeting, but added, "You sense most of all the responsibility not to end up being chained to the history. You should recognize the history but not live with it."
And he made it clear to Sinn Fein leaders "that if they were to go back to violence, that's it. They would be out of the talks."
Asked if he believed the Sinn Fein leadership was sincere about the peace process, Blair said:
"I'm sure they must want peace in Northern Ireland because I can't believe that any sane person, looking at how the situation has arisen over the years, can want anything other than to bring up their children in some semblance of normality and stability and security.
"I can't look inside people's minds, but it was important to have the face-to-face meeting," Blair added.
Adams and Blair met previously in Belfast, Northern Ireland. The British government sought to downplay yesterday's meeting as one in a series the prime minister has held with Northern Ireland's political leaders.
But this meeting was anything but routine.
Among those joining Adams for the journey past cheering and jeering demonstrators and into Downing Street were Sinn Fein's chief negotiator Martin McGuinness and Martin Ferris, once jailed for IRA gunrunning.
As they headed for the shiny black front door of the British prime minister's residence, Adams paused to receive a Christmas card from Rita Restorick, whose son Stephen, a British soldier, was killed Feb. 12 by an IRA sniper.
In the card that featured a white dove, Restorick wrote: "Christmas this year will be a very sad time for us, as it is for the families of all those killed in the violence which has blighted Northern Ireland since 1969."
Later, she said, "I hope that Mr. Adams will help to put an end to these horrible killings because I want no other mother to go through the pain I suffered."
Adams and his delegation met with Blair and Northern Ireland Secretary Marjorie "Mo" Mowlam in the Cabinet Room, which overlooks a garden where IRA mortar shells fell in 1991.
The Sinn Fein delegation was offered tea.
Blair did most of the talking for the government, while Adams and McGuinness spoke for Sinn Fein.
"We were able to receive at first hand the views of the British government, and we had the opportunity to put on the record our views," Adams said. "It wasn't one where we put up our stock positions and Mr. Blair put up his stock positions."
McGuinness said among the issues discussed were demilitarization, the release of IRA prisoners, and the case of Roisin McAliskey, held in a London prison after being arrested on suspicion of involvement in an IRA mortar attack on British barracks in Germany in June 1996.
Sinn Fein also pressed for an inquiry into Bloody Sunday, when British troops fired on civil rights demonstrators in 1972 in Londonderry, Northern Ireland.
"The fact that we were able to address all these matters and do it in a very orderly and respectful manner I think bodes very well," McGuinness said.
Sinn Fein's moment at Downing Street ended under a gloomy sky, as the leaders posed for pictures beside a Christmas tree at Blair's house. Adams said, "Happy Christmas to you all," and as he walked away, he punched the air with a fist.
Pub Date: 12/12/97