WHEN President Clinton and Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams raise toasts at the White House today, many in Britain will be forcing down a cup of gall.
Over intense British protests, including a personal missive from Prime Minister John Major, Mr. Clinton has invited the politician from Northern Ireland to a St. Patrick's Day ''social event'' at which Irish Prime Minister John Bruton is the ostensible guest of honor. According to press reports, the invitation was extended over objections from the State Department and the attorney general. Prominent Irish Americans, including Sens. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts and Christopher Dodd (D) of Connecticut and Ambassador to Ireland Jean Kennedy Smith, proved more influential.
Sinn Fein also has been granted the right to openly lobby and raise funds in the United States. It easily raised about $100,000 at two fund-raisers this week. Mr. Adams pledged that the money would be used in the US and not sent to the Irish Republican Army (IRA), the paramilitary group affiliated with Sinn Fein.
The latest Clinton administration moves presumably are a reward to Adams for the continued IRA cease-fire and his attempts to keep the peace process moving. The cost will come in repairing relations with Britain and Mr. Major. Americans, who have not been subjected to IRA bombings and murders, often underestimate the British antipathy toward Sinn Fein as the public face of the IRA.
Major plans to visit Clinton in Washington next month. To ease that meeting, the US administration should begin the healing process by more actively seeking dialogue with unionists. It is only fair now that unionist groups be allowed the same status regarding lobbying and fund-raising in the US. These and other steps could help assure Britain that a powerful ''Irish lobby'' has not tilted the US toward the republican position.
Meanwhile, Adams continues to call for the release of political prisoners in British jails and the removal of British troops. But what is he willing to do? The pressure is on him to concede something on arms. Might he offer a St. Patrick's Day surprise and announce new steps toward disarm- ament? Might anonymous calls to Irish police in the next few days result in some IRA arms caches being found?
Once again, Adams has been feted in the US. It's now his turn.