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A Farewellto Arms? : His smile is charming, his message welcome: If South Africa can work for peace, so can Northern Ireland. But is Gerry Adams the right messenger?

October 10, 1994|PAUL DEAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Britons know Gerry Adams and his cease fire.

They say he's a fascist, an Irish executioner with a peace initiative that's just another cheap ploy. Because they have seen his shoulder beneath the caskets of dead terrorists and for 25 years have mourned hundreds bombed by Gerry's kids in Northern Ireland's pubs and chip shops, England's hotels and offices. Even Harrod's, one bloody Christmas.

This month, Americans celebrated their Gerry Adams.

Editorials and cheering audiences called him the great, courageous hope for peace in Ireland.

They back-slapped this tall, bearded, rough-cut nationalist whose past is only alleged and thus may be ignored. In glittering hotels and an Irish pub they raised champagne and beer glasses to Adams as a shrewd, dogged freedom fighter no different from Nelson Mandela and Yasser Arafat, therefore just as deserving of Washington's clout in restoring freedom and democracy to his homeland.

Friday, in an empty banquet room at the Century Plaza Hotel, over scrambled eggs ("Ah!") and hash browns ("What are these?") Gerry Adams, controversial president of Sinn Fein, political megaphone for the Irish Republican Army, spoke of Gerry Adams.

His portrayal as a thug, he says, is a caricature drawn by Britain's "right wing and the reactionary press . . . not (by) the very democratic, progressive, liberal element in British politics which recognizes the need to end British rule in Ireland."

But there have been published reports of Adams the teen-age soldier who in 1979 became head of the IRA's Army Council. That was the year Lord Mountbatten died when a terrorist bomb exploded his yacht in Sligo.

As was his father, so Adams has been shot by Protestant guerrillas and imprisoned for suspected terrorist involvement. Grenades have been thrown at his West Belfast home--all of which seems to go beyond reasonable dissent within the career of an ordinary politician.

Adams does not bristle at the suggestions.

"I have consistently, and on the record, denied and disputed that (terrorist allegations)," he says. "And I was, in the High Court in Belfast, acquitted of such a charge."

Adams says he's just a political activist, his protests rooted years ago against apartheid in South Africa and the Vietnam War. That, he says, makes a man do what a chosen servant of a struggle has to do "through a sense of duty . . . probably, if I think hard enough, I have to confess that I never envisaged myself performing this type of role."

No matter trans-Atlantic polarization and colorization--and British officials advised Washington to refuse Adams a visa to visit the U.S., citing its own terrorist concerns that still bar Adams from entering Britain--the richness of Adams' current role is undeniable.

On Aug. 31, he stunned all sides and splinter groups of the Northern Ireland conflict--known traditionally and coyly as "the troubles"--by announcing the IRA's "complete cessation of military operations."

Adams was a co-engineer of the cease fire. It followed months of hidden negotiations with Britain, with Protestant leaders in the six counties comprising Northern Ireland, and with Albert Reynolds, prime minister of the 26 counties forming the Republic of Ireland to the south.

The IRA olive branch was extended 10 months after Reynolds and British Prime Minister John Major agreed that talks on the future of Ireland, north and south, to maintain separate countries or reunite a nation, could be held with the Sinn Fein.

But talks only would commence after 90 days of unbroken IRA cease fire.

"The current situation has been described, I think very graphically, as space in which hope can grow," Adams says. He is exhausted by jet lag, breakfast-to-midnight appearances, a permanent preoccupation with personal security, and now only coffee and passion for the cause is keeping him vertical. "I think my role is to widen that space, and deepen that space, and allow that very delicate seed to flourish."

And for five weeks--despite the provocation of recent bomb and bullet attacks and killings by Loyalist guerrillas--the cease fire has held and the peace seed is sprouting.

Yet there remain general concerns about IRA sincerity. Does "complete cessation" mean "permanent cease fire?" If Loyalist paramilitary groups launch major offensives, how long can Republican weapons remain silent?

And after 25 years of fighting, after 3,160 killed and 36,000 wounded on both sides, with IRA guerrillas undefeated and 15,000 British troops holding their ground, why should anybody quit now?

"I think that everyone wants peace and I don't think I have any monopoly on that," Adams says. "Peace is in fact, a political thing. Peace comes when you have certain conditions which nurture, which sustain . . . and (when there is) absence of the cause of the conflict, the process of justice and equality."

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