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Kennedy's tough IRA stance symbolic of his roots, clout

Senator is credited as a key to peace

WASHINGTON -- In his hideaway office, a living-room-like lounge in the Capitol, Senator Edward M. Kennedy's ethnic identity is literally written on the wall.

Among the many family portraits are those of his grandfather, John ''Honey Fitz" Fitzgerald, the first Irish Catholic elected to the US House of Representatives from New England, and his brother John, the first Irish Catholic president of the United States.

Like the black-and-white road sign above the fireplace that indicates Lough Gur, an ancient lakeside settlement in County Limerick, is just 1 1/2 miles away, Ireland is close to Kennedy, and this is a year in which he has wielded the clout on Ireland he has built up over the past four decades.

Last March, Kennedy refused to meet with Gerry Adams, the leader of Sinn Fein, whose party is allied with the Irish Republican Army. Kennedy's snub followed a $50 million bank robbery in Belfast that was attributed to the IRA, and the Jan. 30 barroom killing of a Belfast man that the IRA acknowledged was carried out by its members.

The senator's stance underscored that the mainstream financial and political support the Irish republican movement had built up in the United States over the past decade was in danger of evaporating as the IRA continued to operate as the paramilitary wing of a democratic party. In July, after Adams publicly called on the IRA to end its 35-year armed campaign against British rule in Northern Ireland, the IRA said its war was over. Last month, international monitors said the IRA had destroyed its hidden arsenal.

Dermot Ahern, Ireland's foreign minister, said Kennedy's snub of Adams ''focused minds like no one else could." Ahern said Kennedy had stuck his neck out for Adams and Sinn Fein in 1994, lobbying President Clinton to allow Adams into the United States for the first time, eight months before the IRA called a cease-fire.

Kennedy's impatience with the IRA, Ahern said, spoke for most people. Ending its war and giving up its weapons, Ahern said, ''wouldn't have happened without Ted Kennedy."

Sinn Fein's congressional supporters, including US Representative Richard E. Neal, Democrat of Springfield, did not snub Adams, saying to exclude him was unfairly singling out Sinn Fein when other parties in Northern Ireland, most notably Rev. Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionists, were equally to blame for the continued suspension of the power-sharing government there.

But Kennedy, speaking about the snub for the first time last week in an interview, said it wasn't a difficult decision. ''I thought about it for 24 hours."

He was excoriated in the Irish republican press in personal, vitriolic terms. But Kennedy said he was convinced he had to make a stand, however unpopular it was with many longtime supporters.

Instead of meeting with Adams last March, Kennedy met with the sisters and fiancee of Robert McCartney, a 33-year-old forklift driver and father of two boys who was slain by IRA men after his friend got into a barroom argument with them. Kennedy invited the women back to Washington, and they are scheduled to meet with him again Tuesday.

''They are very courageous women. I admire them greatly," Kennedy said.

The feeling is mutual. Claire McCartney, one of Robert's sisters, said that of all the powerful people they met in Washington, Kennedy stood out. While in many places they found sympathy, with Kennedy they found empathy.

''He knows what it's like," she said.

Kennedy's family history is informed by overcoming discrimination against Irish Catholics, which was once systematic in Northern Ireland, and politically motivated violence, which has been greatly diminished by the peace process.

He said he has mended fences with Adams, calling to congratulate him last month after the IRA decommissioned its weapons.

Earlier this month, Kennedy called on the Bush administration to lift its ban against Adams and other Sinn Fein officials from fund-raising in the United States, saying Adams and his party should be rewarded for their role in delivering the formal end of the IRA's violent campaign. The White House refused, saying Adams must endorse the reformed police force in Northern Ireland before the restriction can be lifted. In response, Adams canceled a trip that had been scheduled to include Sinn Fein's biggest annual fund-raiser in Manhattan.

Kennedy doesn't think the White House has recognized the historical significance of the IRA's formal ending of its war and its weapons decommissioning.

He also intends to press Sinn Fein and its constituents to get involved in policing, and for more concessions from Protestant unionists. He said the IRA's gestures should be matched by unionists returning to the power-sharing government that collapsed over complaints about continued IRA activity.

''There has to be some reciprocity on the unionist side," he said.

Still, even the nation's perhaps most influential Irish-American politician acknowledges his influence might be limited in Ireland.

''I'm not so sure," he said, laughing, ''that Reverend Paisley will listen to me."

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