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Niall O'Dowd Headshot

The Real IRA Lesson for U.S. in Middle East Peace

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From 1992-1994 I was the secret conduit between Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams and the White House. At the time the IRA was still on the rampage and many in the White House believed President Clinton was on a fool's mission trying to forge a peace process in Northern Ireland.

I was one of a lonely band of four prominent Irish Americans back then, secretly trying to convince the White House that an opening existed to end Europe's longest running armed conflict.

Then I suggested that the president give Gerry Adams a visa to come to America to a conference we had already organized . From my discussions with Adams I believed it would be the single act that would be the turning point in his efforts to bring the IRA down a political path.

I felt a visa would be a window to the world for Adams and his followers, a way of showing that an incredibly powerful figure like Bill Clinton was not prepared to demonize them and that there was a way out of the 'terrorist' ghetto they had been painted into if they went a political path.

The FBI, the State Department, the CIA, and British government all opposed vehemently. The House Speaker Tom Foley was apoplectic at the idea and told the president so. Secretary of State Warren Christopher warned of dire consequences for the Atlantic alliance.

Clinton ignored them and went with his finely tuned political instinct and Senator Edward Kennedy's advice and granted it.

Six months later the impossible happened and the IRA called a complete ceasefire. It was the turning point in the conflict, one Adams told me it would never have happened without the opening from America.

The lesson I learned was simple. A 'terrorist' group is rarely of one mind, or one inclination. Like most organizations there are some completely committed to violence only, and others who given a chance might very well grasp an olive branch.

A senior IRA man once put it very cogently to me. "We use to burn that bridge (dialogue) when we'd come to it," he said describing the old days, "now we try to cross it."

The trick in Ireland was to support the nascent political movement we had become aware of within the IRA and Sinn Fein and give them the access to America to show that their path was the one that led to progress.

Our group of Irish Americans were forced to step outside the usual role where we were divided between those who parroted the Irish government line or the IRA line. Instead we chose a different path as persuaders rather than cheerleaders. The impact was obvious.

I often wonder whether the Jewish American community every truly grasps its own power in respect of the Middle East. Most march in lockstep with the Israeli government and cheer their policies from the sidelines. Yet is appears many young Jewish Americans are no longer connecting to the same old shibboleths.

Perhaps they need to step outside the box and no longer be the predictable players like Irish Americans once were. What if some were to become persuaders also? Who could they persuade?
Perhaps the notion of Hamas, an elected government, at peace talks sounds so far fetched as to be beyond the pale. It shouldn't be. Be assured that within that 'terrorist community' in Gaza, too, there are political leaders too, hoping for an olive branch that will enable them to bring their people on a political path.

Such an outreach from the United States would be a dramatic step, but not any more risky than what Bill Clinton did with the IRA back in 1994. It would also remove the certainty propelled by hardliners in Hamas that America is the Great Satan in the conflict.

Jewish leaders in America could quietly signal their approval of such a step. A conflict weighed down with old certainties could suddenly be aware of new possibilities. It worked in Ireland it could work in the Middle East.