Newly-declassified documents have shed new light on Britain's failed attempts to stop the Clinton administration issuing a visa to allow Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams travel to the United States in January 1994.
Adams had been invited to speak at an event hosted by the National Committee on American Foreign Policy, which was described by senior Stormont official David Fell as a prestigious body associated with Henry Kissinger.
Fell said he had learned from the US consul-general in Belfast, Val Martinez, that there were "divided views" within the US administration on the question of whether it was "sensible to try and give Adams help in selling the Declaration [by the British and Irish governments on December 15, 1993] to the 'hard men in the Provisional IRA'".
Martinez felt the balance of opinion would be against issuing a visa to the Sinn Féin president. However, he was “a little nervous lest it goes the other way”.
Events moved up a key when the British ambassador to Washington, Sir Robin Renwick, informed the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) on January 15th, 1994 that senator Ted Kennedy's staff had informed him he and three other senators had written to president Bill Clinton arguing that a visa should be granted.
They claimed that “the Hume-Adams dialogue and the British government’s contacts with the IRA [revealed in November 1993] had changed things”.
The senators were now hearing 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 ambassador told the NIO 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”.
In a further telex to London, the ambassador said that the battle for Adams’s visa was “by no means won” and that the US state department, FBI and justice department were all recommending against it. However, he went on: “Domestic political advisers and the White House were liable to be influenced by the Kennedy/Moynihan intervention and the fact that the Irish PM [Albert Reynolds] was raising no objection.”
It would surely be embarrassing for the Americans if they let Adams in, only to find IRA violence was increasing
Downing Street now decided that “the White House needed stiffening against political pressures to grant a visa to Adams on unacceptably soft conditions”.
Prime minister John Major's private secretary Roderic Lyne informed Renwick in Washington that he had made several attempts to contact Tony Lake, Clinton's national security adviser. "I told Lake's secretary on the secure telephone that private indications suggested strongly that the Provisionals had decided not to accept the joint declaration as it stood and were deliberately stringing us and the Irish government along in the hope of obtaining concessions – hence their call for 'clarification'. I added that Sinn Féin was likely to increase the level of violence.
“It would surely be embarrassing for the Americans if they let Adams in, only to find IRA violence was increasing.”
On January 22nd, Lake phoned Lyne at Downing Street. Lake confirmed that a conditional visa would be granted “if Adams stated publicly that he personally renounced violence and urged all parties to the conflict to do so”, that Sinn Féin and the IRA were prepared “to participate in serious negotiations to end the conflict” and accepted the joint declaration as a basis.
Lyne later informed a colleague he told Lake that Adams “would have no difficulty in putting his hand on his heart and declaring that he was a man of peace”. However, Lake replied that the administration was “under heavy domestic pressure” while he felt the British government was not winning the PR battle.
In a final push to block the visa, Sir Patrick Mayhew saw the US ambassador to Britain, Ray Seitz, in London on January 25th, 1994.
The Northern secretary impressed on the ambassador: “The fact was Adams had to renounce violence. Granting this favour before that would be completely wrong – in NI terms and also dangerous in terms of the US/UK relationship.”
Mayhew’s intervention failed and, on January 27th, 1994, the NIO learnt the US had decided to issue a 48-hour visa to allow Adams travel to New York.
The US ambassador later voiced regret over the decision.
In a letter to Mayhew, dated February 2nd 1994, Sir John Chilcot, head of the NIO, disclosed that the "urbane and professional" Seitz "made no attempt to conceal both his chagrin and that of the State Department that his advice had been set aside and, more substantially, at the risk the president's decision incurred".
Chilcot added: “The risk of an outrage, with ‘bloody footsteps leading all the way to the White House’ [Chilcot’s language, not the ambassador’s] and to the Joint Declaration’s acceptance, is clearly seen.”