If Gerry Adams had shown up at the White House in earlier years, he might have been arrested as a suspected terrorist. But Friday evening, the leader of Sinn Fein, the political arm of the Irish Republican Army, was a guest at the President's annual St. Patrick's Day reception.
Adams shook hands and chatted briefly with President Clinton and Irish Prime Minister John Bruton--the official guest of honor--in the elegant White House diplomatic reception room.
Next door in the East Room, among 350 other guests who ate smoked eel and corned beef to the strains of an Irish harp, stood another politician from Northern Ireland: Gary McMichael, a Protestant leader whose father was killed by the IRA in 1987.
"It's very difficult for me to be in the very room Gerry Adams is in," McMichael said before the reception. "I am not interested in talking to Gerry Adams, and I will certainly not be shaking hands with him."
The scene reflected the prickliness of Ireland's still-new peace process and the awkwardness of the U.S. role in it. Clinton can get leaders of Northern Ireland's embittered Catholic and Protestant communities into the same house, but he cannot quite get them to speak to each other.
Nevertheless, it can be considered progress that four-way talks are under way at all--among the Catholics and Protestants of British-ruled Northern Ireland, the largely Catholic Irish Republic to its south and the British government in London.
And there were signs of more progress to come after several days of hurried diplomatic exchanges amid the shamrock-laden hoopla of the traditional St. Patrick's Day celebration.
The British government and Sinn Fein are close to agreeing on their first high-level face-to-face talks, according to U.S., British and Sinn Fein officials.
"We have moved to a point where we are actually discussing the agendas for meetings between our people and British (Cabinet) ministers," Adams said at a news conference.
A British official confirmed that an agreement on talks appears near, and a White House official said that an announcement might come soon after Adams returns home next week.
"The atmosphere seems to be pretty positive," the U.S. official said.
An agreement on talks at the Cabinet level would be a significant advance in the peace process. Until now, the British government--which once refused to deal with Sinn Fein at all--had said that it would not deal with the party at a high level, charging the IRA had not shown that the cease-fire it declared in September will last.
But in private conversations with Irish and U.S. officials this week, Adams and other Sinn Fein leaders indicated that if high-level talks began, they would be willing to discuss the next step the British want to see: Disarmament by the IRA and the other militias that have fought in Northern Ireland's 25-year war.
Ireland's Bruton said considerable credit for the progress should go to Clinton for reaching out to Sinn Fein, despite the party's past as an apologist for the IRA, which has carried out bombing attacks from Northern Ireland to the heart of London.
"The results are there for all of us to see," Bruton said. The U.S. decision to talk with Sinn Fein, he said, "gave that organization the sense of confidence in itself and a glimpse of the political dividend that was there for them by pursuing a peaceful rather than a violent path."
A U.S. aide said the White House initially worried that its sally into the tangled politics of Northern Ireland might fail, but no longer.
"There was a risk when we started this process last year, a risk that we would put out our hand and Adams wouldn't respond," he said. "But that risk is gone now. We have succeeded in helping the peace process go forward."
This week's visit by Adams, in which he both met Clinton and was allowed to raise money for his political organization for the first time, was his second trip to the United States. His first, last year, was the initial breakthrough in U.S. talks with Sinn Fein.
Behind Clinton's decision to inject the United States into the conflict in Northern Ireland is an unusual mixture of ethnic politics and diplomatic gambling.
One intended audience is Irish American voters. "There isn't really an Irish American bloc vote anymore, but the Clinton people seem to believe there is," said Gerry Chervinsky, a Boston pollster who has studied the ethnic vote.
In any case, there are three particular Irish American voters Clinton wants to keep happy: Sens. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) and Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.), new chairman of the Democratic National Committee. Kennedy and Dodd both urged Clinton to invite Adams for St. Patrick's Day and to allow him to engage in fund raising, despite the opposition of the State and Justice departments, officials said.
The diplomatic gamble hinges on whether Clinton's embrace of Sinn Fein helps produce a permanent peace in Northern Ireland or merely a temporary truce. The decision to treat Adams as a statesman rather than a terrorist came at a price: Clinton has had to repeatedly and publicly disagree with British Prime Minister John Major, whose Conservative government believes that the United States is giving Sinn Fein too much credit.
Last week, Major objected angrily to Clinton's decision to invite Adams to the White House, diplomats said. Clinton tried to telephone the British prime minister to mollify him but was told that Major was unavailable to take the call.
White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry said that Clinton plans to telephone Major again this weekend to patch things up. Asked whether the tension is a sign that the longtime "special relationship" between the two countries is over, McCurry gave a one-word answer.
"Poppycock," he said.