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On his return to Harvard, Gerry Adams gets a peacemaker's welcome

CAMBRIDGE — The hair and the beard are more peppered with gray, the voice sounded a bit hoarse, the tone less strident. And in the 15 years since the last time Gerry Adams came to the hallowed halls of Harvard University, the legendary leader of the Irish nationalist struggle had become a statesman.

Back in 1994, Adams had to struggle to get a U.S. visa as a leader of Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army. There were no grand Harvard receptions for him back then. Even if he was viewed as a freedom fighter in some Boston neighborhoods, he was still seen as a terrorist in most corners of the world. There weren't many fans in London. Back then, his voice was not allowed to be broadcast on British airwaves as he was considered to be part of an outlawed paramilitary group.

But last night, he was toasted and fetted at the Kennedy School of Government as a peacemaker and a leader who has been pivotal in bringing Irish Catholics to see the benefits to all of the historic 1998 Good Friday agreement, a treaty that has transformed the once-war-torn Northern Ireland.

"It's been difficult and slow, but we're all in a better place than when I last visited here," Adams told the gathering at the Kennedy school.

He sharply condemned the killings earlier this month of two British soldiers and a policeman by a dissident Irish republican group.

Sinn Fein, he said, has been "robust in asserting that they are wrong, that they have to stop, that they are going against the grain of popular opinion."

"If anyone is concerned that this is the start of the Troubles again, of going back to war, that will not happen. Be sure of that," he said.

He was asked by a member of the audience about a claim by his fellow Sinn Fein leader, Martin McGuinness, that those responsible for the killings were "traitors," a powerful condemnation in Irish republican history.

He paused and then answered: "I agree with Martin."

I covered Belfast briefly in the late 1980s and mid 1990s at some of the many horrific turning points of "The Troubles," as the conflict was known.

I returned there as a London bureau chief for The Boston Globe in 2001 through 2005, as the peace process, fragile at first, eventually took hold. I had the chance to work alongside my Globe colleague Kevin Cullen, who is America's most knowledgeable and trusted voice on Northern Ireland.

And last night, I sat next to Kevin as we watched Gerry once again working a crowd and this time making a pitch for Irish Americans to support his larger dream that lies beyond the peace process, the dream of a united Ireland.

"Anyone who thinks it is not possible to unite Ireland, think back when I was last here and what seemed possible then," Adams said.

"In our own time, we can shape a united Ireland," he said.

Adams expressed what he called "a certainty of hope" that the partition and British rule in Northern Ireland will end and that Ireland will be united because it makes sense on every level — culturally, politically, economically.

At a reception at the Harvard Faculty Club, I had a chance to talk with Adams and to focus on his view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I have covered both Belfast and Jerusalem and it is one of the more searing questions of the day. Why is it that the peace process has worked in Northern Ireland and consistently collapsed into more violence in Israel-Palestine?

Adams has had this question presented to him many times before.

"I can give you an answer, but as you know they are very different places and about very different issues. They will need to have their own solution," he said.

He said it was an "international shame" that the conflict in Israel-Palestine continues, and that America and the international community would need to play a pronounced and even-handed role.

He said both sides needed to come to the realization that "you can't bomb people out of the state of Israel and you can't bomb people out of Palestine."

He said that there were "patterns" and "pathways" that those who forged peace in Northern Ireland could share with Israelis and Palestinians, but that he was "loathe to offer special advice."

But he said that the appointment of special envoy George Mitchell, the former U.S. Senator who was crucial in brokering the Good Friday Agreement, was a a great sign of hope for the people of Israel and Palestine that they might be able to find a way toward peace.

"Mitchell has great skills, great patience, and great humor and you need all of those to succeed in finding peace," he said.