JUST as British Prime Minister John Major had no need to apologize for the fact of his government's secret contacts with Sinn Fein, so President Clinton has no need to apologize for allowing Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams to attend a private conference on Northern Ireland in New York this week.
Substantively, protests from London and from unionists in Belfast would be more justified if Mr. Clinton had invited Mr. Adams for a lunch at a Georgetown ristorante and a chat in the Oval Office. Although it represented a change in position, granting Adams a 48-hour visa and restricting his travel to within a 25-mile radius of New York City is qualitatively far less recognition than Britain gave him in 1972, when it released him from jail to hold secret talks.
Symbolically, Adams's presence at the conference indicates the president's (and the conference organizers') agreement with the basic notion that for peace to be achieved, the key players on all sides must be represented. It says nothing about the conditions, if any, those players must meet to engage in formal talks; that must be left to the parties involved.
Clinton's approval and London's reaction have been shaped in varying degrees by domestic politics. Clinton acknowledged that Sens. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachuestts and Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D) of New York, as well as others, had lobbied on Adams's behalf. And one wonders if Britain's reaction would be as stiff if Mr. Major were not an embattled prime minister.
The Northern Ireland peace process is at a delicate stage. Britain and the Republic of Ireland are waiting for Adams's response to last December's joint declaration of negotiating principles. This would give Sinn Fein a place at the negotiating table in multiparty talks if it and its military wing, the Irish Republican Army, renounce violence. Adams says he has asked London for clarifications; London says Adams is stalling. Each says the other must make the first move.
London is unlikely to see such movement in Adams's comments in New York. Indications are that for the most part Adams was preaching to the converted. But the overall direction of the process is such that isolating Adams serves no useful purpose.