Clinton's Eyes On The Irish

With most of Northern Ireland's key leaders as his guests for St. Patrick's Day, President Clinton appealed for them to "heed the example of St. Patrick" and transform their nearly year-old peace accord from paper to reality.

Clinton, with Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern at his side, said politicians arguing over terms for forming a joint Protestant-Catholic government must now demonstrate "the same spirit of cooperation and trust, which led to the first agreement. They must see that distant horizon when children will grow up in an Ireland trouble-free, and not even remember how it used to be."

Ahern, who presented his host with the traditional bowl of shamrocks, in turn praised Clinton for his unprecedented determination to deploy American good will in British-ruled Northern Ireland, which he called "a crucial ingredient" in achieving the Good Friday accord of 1998.

The two politicians central to making that accord finally work - Ulster Unionist Party leader David Trimble and Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams - met separately with the president Wednesday before his St. Patrick's Day dinner. That annual event has grown so big this year that it was moved from inside the White House to the South Lawn.

But agreement among the British and Irish governments and eight local parties, now faces a potentially dangerous dilemma.

Following months of delay, the British government has set a new, symbolically potent deadline of April 2, this year's Good Friday, after which all sides expect the political climate to deteriorate.

Trimble, chief representative of the province's British Protestant majority, has been elected to lead the government. He says Protestants won't let him govern alongside Sinn Fein unless the party's allies in the outlawed Irish Republican Army lay down their weapons first.

Earlier, Trimble met Clinton's national security adviser, Sandy Berger, and his deputy, Jim Steinberg. Afterward Steinberg emphasized that the day's various meetings were "clearly not a negotiating session."

"This is not the role the United States plays in the peace process," he said, adding that the president would "give any insight he can in how he would like to support them in the way forward."

Speaking to reporters today at the National Press Club, Trimble emphasized that Clinton had granted Adams many "favors" in the past, such as exceptional visas and the right to raise funds in America, "so he has favors to call in now from Mr. Adams."

But Adams said he was certain Clinton wouldn't pressure him about the IRA, which is 20 months into a cease-fire. "The president knows as well as Mr. Trimble that IRA (arms) decommissioning is not a precondition for Sinn Fein to hold ministerial office," Adams said.

Sinn Fein, because of its 17 percent share of the Northern Irish vote, is entitled to two of the 10 unfilled government positions. The larger Social Democratic nd Labor Party, Sinn Fein's moderate rival for Catholic votes, would receive three, as would Trimble's Ulster Unionists. The other two are reserved for the Democratic Unionists, a hard-line Protestant party that rejects the entire peace process.

At an American Ireland Fund dinner here Tuesday night, Trimble and Adams sat at nearby tables but didn't talk.

Many prominent Irish-American politicians in the audience said they could foresee the IRA handing in weapons after a government involving Sinn Fein gets up and running - but not beforehand.

Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., who met Trimble Tuesday and was meeting Adams Wednesday, said Trimble shouldn't use the considerable hard-line Protestant opposition to his leadership as an excuse not to work more closely with Sinn Fein.

"We who follow the Northern Irish peace process closely in America are calling on the important leaders, particularly David Trimble and Gerry Adams, to put aside their narrow political considerations once again for the cause of peace," Kennedy said.