The significance of Bill Clinton’s decision to grant former Sinn Fein leader’s Gerry Adams a visa is laid bare in state papers which reveal that the British government was shaken by the move.
New documents released at the National Archives in London detail former British PM John Major’s reaction to the granting of the two-day visa for Adams to attend a meeting in Manhattan of the influential National Committee on American Foreign Policy.
A number of British state from the years 1993 and 1994 files have been selectively declassified. Many show the British government, which long censored Irish republicans, were enraged by Adams’s media appearances. British officials denounced them as ‘the finest platform ever granted to the IRA’, despite clear indications that they encouraged a ceasefire just four months later.
Major was so furious with the decision to grant Adams a travel visa, he felt unable to communicate with the US president until he was “in a calmer mood”.
Media interest in the visit was enhanced by Britain’s histrionics, but it is widely believed to have been an important factor for the Adams/McGuinness leadership to win support for their political strategy within the Provisional republican movement.
Adams was granted the visa by the Clinton administration in January 1994. Initially leaning towards a refusal, the US government changed approach in the days before after coming under immense pressure from Irish Americans.
Senator Ted Kennedy and three other senators had written to president Bill Clinton arguing that a visa should be granted.
The senators said they were told that there was a split within the IRA and that obtaining a visa to visit the USA might help Adams win support for “his moderate position”.
In response, the British ambassador to Washington told officials he had left “Kennedy’s people in no doubt of our views”.
“Adams knew that if he and the organisations he represented renounced violence and meant it, they would be welcome to join in the political process.” However, “it was wrong in principle and wrong tactically to reward Adams before he had taken that step”.
Britain’s lobbying efforts backfired, however.
A group of 12 senators wrote to Clinton to push the case to admit Adams and the “White House were shaking under the Irish American bombardment” according to Roderic Lyne, Major’s private secretary.
Their failure prompted anger from the prime minister down. In the archives, the furore overshadows even the IRA ceasefire of August 1994.
In a draft letter, Major told Clinton said that the visa was a victory for Sinn Fein.
“The admission of Adams without such commitments [to renounce armed struggle] and without an end to IRA violence is being seen as a major victory for Adams in his campaign,” said the letter.
Douglas Hurd, the British foreign secretary, even suggested to US secretary of state Warren Christopher that the visa could result in further IRA attacks.
Amid a dam-burst of US interest and support for the Irish cause, British officials freaked.
Lyne wrote to the British embassy in Washington, telling them to demand televison interviewers question Mr Adams more harshly and suggested they needed to be told how.
“His American hosts and interviewers need tutoring to stop Adams’s evasions,” he declared.