THE Late Late Show is an Irish institution. Its host, Gay Byrne, is a white-haired traditionalist who, despite his conservatism, has forged ahead to break many of television's taboos. He was the first to demonstrate to Catholic Ireland how one applied a condom (to his fingers, of course); the first to interrogate the mistress of the wayward Bishop Casey and the first to interview a self-confessed paedophile on air. Tonight, however, Mr Byrne fails to hide his own personal distaste for his other premiere. As he introduces Gerry Adams, Sinn Fein president and a man he describes as 'the most controversial person in Ireland', he breaks with the programme's 32-year-old routine. He does not welcome his guest; does not shake his hand nor does he invite applause from the audience. The abhorrence with which many regard Mr Adams is also reflected in the panel lineup: a collection of mostly hostile politicians who are champing at the bit to say their piece. It is just eight weeks after the IRA announced its ceasefire; the first day that Sinn Fein has been admitted to Irish democracy via the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation and Mr Adams' first opportunity to explain to a chat show audience why the killing has stopped and why peace must begin. The moment of television truth comes in the early stages of the programme when well-known columnist and playwright Hugh Leonard gives a long, dramatic (though obviously rehearsed) speech detailing innocent victims of the IRA's 'armed struggle'. With downcast eyes and in a soft-spoken voice, he laments the fathers murdered while their children looked on; the young women who will never grow old; the corpses crying out from their graves for retribution and the human vegetable who no longer have the voice nor the wit to join them in their appeal. 'And you', he says, head swivelling to face his opponent, eyes blazing, 'are morally responsible for that. Morally, you are a murderer and not only are you a murderer but now you add the extra dimension by saying I want peace, you're a hypocrite as well.' 'And you obviously don't want peace?' counters Mr Adams. 'I want peace but there is a price to be paid, you know. If you lie down with dogs you're gonna get up with fleas,' he returns, the hatred almost palpable. 'Well let me say that I know many of the people you have described and unlike you I don't come here to be sanctimonious and to engage in theatrics,' says Mr Adams, in measured tone. 'I want to see peace, I want to see an end of all that has passed in the past 25 years.' Mr Leonard challenges him with some of the well-circulated allegations about Mr Adams' membership of the IRA, his position as officer-in-command of the Belfast brigade during the 1970s. All are greeted with the standard and expected denial. 'Why have you never sued for libel then?' an increasingly furious Leonard asks. 'Well, I might after tonight,' Mr Adams retorts. The audience breaks into applause and Mr Adams visibly relaxes. The 45-year-old who has been interned for alleged membership of the IRA; shot by loyalists; been bombed and feted simultaneously has done the impossible. Gerry Adams, the consummate politician, has done what he's been doing all his life, defending what most people consider to be undefendable and coming out on top. Mr Adams apologises for his late arrival (half-an-hour) unaware that the actual waiting time has been five months of constant phone calls and faxes. But he is a busy man and a lot has happened since the IRA cease-fire was announced in September. There have been successful trips to the US and Britain; the lifting of the British broadcasting ban on Sinn Fein; the opening of border roads linking Northern Ireland and the Republic; meetings with politicians in the south at the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation; negotiations with British civil servants at the old Stormont parliament in Belfast; the return of republican prisoners to Irish jails and, most recently and most significantly, the withdrawal of soldiers from Belfast's streets during daylight hours. But for all the advances, Mr Adams still talks the language of war. NORTHERN Ireland is the 'occupied six counties'; the 26 counties of the Republic are the 'Free State' and the British army is the 'army of occupation'. When Adams talks of 'demilitarisation' he is not referring to the surrender of IRA weapons but the disarming of British soldiers and the police. The 'unarmed struggle' has yielded more achievements than 25 years of violence ever produced but Mr Adams is angry at not being admitted to all-party talks with the British Government. 'If you tell people in the rest of the world that the talking hasn't properly started, they probably think we have peace,' he says. 'People in Dublin might think the same,' he adds, less in reference to the 160 km separating Belfast and Dublin than the chasm dividing political philosophies of each city. The 1921 treaty which partitioned Ireland may have produced a civil war in the south back then but today the common perception is that most southerners prefer to ignore the conflict in the North. 'Before democracy came to South Africa, one would have treated as suspicious information coming from Pretoria so one has to treat with suspicions information coming from London,' he says. But suspicion about the possible breakdown of this fledgling peace process is most often and publicly associated with the threat of a split in the IRA. The first setback occurred less than two months after the ceasefire when an IRA member was linked to a robbery in which a postal worker was killed. Though the operation was not sanctioned, it was rumoured to be part of a breakaway group dissatisfied with the ceasefire. 'The tradition of resistance in Ireland is a very, very strong one,' says Mr Adams. 'So the British Government could successfully outflank, out-manoeuvre, outwit, subvert an IRA today but be assured that unless we build a proper peace settlement you will have the history of the past repeating itself in the future. I make that as a philosophical and historical observation, made purely that you will not present it as a threat. It isn't. It's just the reality like night following day. 'We have the opportunity now to build a peace settlement. I never want to see the point again where Irish republicans engage in armed struggle or where loyalists think they have to be the pawns of the British government or where British soldiers are patrolling our streets.' Gerry Adams engages in conversation easily, in the relaxed manner of a man who has just finished work for the day. Though he has been defending the politics of revolution all his life, Mr Adams is now talking peace and with the same conviction. 'No one in the broad republican family wants to go back to what we have all experienced in the past 25 years,' he says. 'Sinn Fein has lost many of its members. Our buildings have been bombed, including this one. We've lost family members, we've seen neighbours and others killed. Even casualities our opponents and enemies have suffered, no one wants to go back to that. There has been this opportunity for peace created and we want to consolidate it and to be able to more forward.' The practicalities of resolving the conflict are only just beginning. The framework document between the Irish and British governments is due to be released shortly, although a leak to The Times newspaper suggests all-Ireland co-operation that will not please the Loyalists; all-party talks start soon afterwards and then duel referendums in the North and South will have to be conducted. It will be a difficult process, with the obstacles retaining much the same shape and substance as they did 75 years ago. While many unionist parties have already rejected any executive powers Dublin may acquire over the North, nationalists are equally staunch in their refusal to accept an internal solution mirroring the old Stormont government. The compromise is likely to leave both sides dissatisfied. Where, then, does Gerry Adams' future lie if there is a successful settlement? Despite the fact time is running out, he looks thoughtful and says: 'I haven't even considered that because, in a strange sort of a way, one becomes so absorbed in this struggle or this aspect of it. You don't actually, believe it or not, think about where, as an individual or person, you're going to be at any point. I just don't know.' And if the arms are recharged, if the peace process fails? He responds in the language of politics: 'First of all it's a hypothetical question and one should avoid hypothetical questions. I don't envisage failure as possible because it isn't within my remit to make peace. It needs the pro-active involvement of the British Government. The people of this island should decide their own future. British rule in Ireland is a failure, it hasn't worked.' But if Mr Adams knows anything it is that Irish revolutionaries rarely retain hero status. His predecessor of 1921, IRA leader Michael Collins, predicted (correctly) that he had signed his own death warrant in agreeing with Britain to the partition of Ireland. Seventy-five years on and Mr Adams could be facing his own political death if the mistakes of the past are repeated in the future.