NORTHERN IRELAND'S Protestant leaders have been thrown on the defensive by the success Gerry Adams, president of Sinn Fein, the outlawed Irish Republican Army's political wing, has been having on his high-profile tour of the United States.
In a major policy switch, Ken Maginnis, security spokesman for the official Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), flew to the US for a head-on TV debate with Mr. Adams. For years, Protestant political leaders have said they would never speak to Sinn Fein or the IRA.
Washington's decision, announced Oct. 3, to lift its ban on contacts with Sinn Fein had been anticipated by James Molyneaux and the Rev. Ian Paisley, Ulster's two most influential Protestant politicians. But they expected neither the telephone conversation Vice President Al Gore Jr. had with Adams that day, nor the administration's willingness to allow him to meet with US State Department and other officials.
Mr. Paisley, leader of the radical Democratic Unionist Party, accused the Clinton administration of partiality and ``throwing in their lot with the pan-nationalist front'' in Northern Ireland.
Mr. Molyneaux, the soft-spoken and adroit leader of the larger, more moderate UUP, briefed Mr. Maginnis for his debate with Adams on CNN's Larry King Live, set for Oct. 4.
A Sinn Fein source in Belfast said Oct. 4 the party was disappointed President Clinton had declined to meet with Adams, but added that they were ``satisfied'' with the contact their leader had with Mr. Gore and would be having with other administration members.
Maginnis's planned TV appearance indicates rising concern among Northern Ireland Protestants that their case has not been sufficiently aired since the announcement of the IRA cease-fire on Aug. 31, particularly in the US.
Maginnis claimed that his decision to appear on Larry King Live and share a studio with Adams did not herald a fundamental change in UUP policy. ``It is a matter of tactics. It would be folly, now that the opportunity has arisen, not to make use of the coast-to-coast TV program,'' he said Oct. 3.
Privately, Ulster unionists of both parties say Adams has been winning the US propaganda war. The Rev. Martin Smith, another senior UUP politician, complained that lifting the US ban on contacts with Sinn Fein had been premature. ``It would have been wiser to wait until Sinn Fein became a normal political party,'' he said.
In statements since the IRA truce, Maginnis, Smith, and other senior UUP members have expressed fears that Britain, with US support, might be preparing to do a deal with the IRA behind the backs of Ulster's Protestant majority.
Molyneaux's choice of Maginnis as a spokesman in the US signified his determination to challenge claims by Adams to be interested only in peace. Maginnis is fully conversant with the IRA's terror tactics in the past and has publicly expressed doubts about the permanence of the Aug. 31 cease-fire.
The province's Unionists, however, have been thrown on the defensive by the cease-fire and reactions in the US and the Irish Republic, where it has been heartily welcomed by Prime Minister Albert Reynolds.
Protestants in Northern Ireland number some 900,000 compared with the province's 600,000 Catholics. Prime Minister John Major has promised that no political solution would be acceptable to Britain that did not command majority support in the province.
But Molyneaux and Paisley continue to express concerns that Britain will sell them out. The refusal of the two main Protestant paramilitary organizations to join in the cease-fire has made it more difficult for the political leaders to argue their case both in Britain and internationally. Since 1970 the IRA is believed to have killed some 2,000 people; Protestant terrorists are estimated to have killed half that many.
This year, however, the number of murders by Protestant gunmen has outstripped the IRA tally, and this has enabled Adams to accuse the Unionist politicians of failing to provide their community with strong leadership.
Ahead of the Adams visit to the US, the British government pressed the White House to refuse him a meeting with Mr. Clinton. After Gore's conversation with Adams, a British government source said: ``It's a matter for the US authorities whether they wish to speak to Mr. Adams or anyone else in Sinn Fein, and at what level.''
To give both sides in the Northern Ireland conflict good reasons to agree a settlement, the British government is seeking millions in additional aid for the province from the European Union.
Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd flew to Luxembourg Oct. 4 with a request for funds to pay for tearing down the so-called peace lines dividing Protestant and Catholic communities in Belfast and other centers. The peace lines take the form of walls and physical barriers. Mr. Hurd wants EU money to pay for what a British official called ``measures analogous to tearing down the Berlin Wall.''