Major ‘refused to speak to Clinton’ for weeks after US gave Adams visa in 1994
British prime minister refused US president’s telephone calls, former diplomat says
Seán Donlon, former secretary general at the Department of Foreign Affairs, said the initiative to grant Gerry Adams a US visa had begun with John Hume and was taken up by US ambassador to Ireland Jean Kennedy Smith. Photograph: Frank Miller
British prime minister John Major refused to speak to US president Bill Clinton for several weeks after the president granted a visa to Gerry Adams in 1994, the Parnell Summer School in Co Wicklow heard yesterday.
The revelation was made by former Irish diplomat Seán Donlon, who also said he believed high-profile commemorations of nationalist struggles overly favoured military activity. “Surely the time has come to give recognition to the political strand of nationalism,” he said.
Mr Donlon, who served in a range of posts, including Irish ambassador to the US and secretary general of the Department of Foreign Affairs over a 30-year period from 1967, said the British had been deeply angered by the decision to grant Mr Adams a visa.
“John Major refused to take phone calls from president Clinton for a number of weeks,” he said.
He said the initiative had begun with John Hume and was taken up by US ambassador to Ireland, Jean Kennedy Smith. Mr Hume had persuaded then taoiseach Albert Reynolds to support the move, and Ms Kennedy Smith went to work persuading her brother, senator Ted Kennedy.
However, he said it was a very close call as Ted Kennedy had been initially reluctant. Mr Kennedy abhorred the military activity associated with Sinn Féin and never missed an opportunity to tell people he had lost two brothers to violence. However, he was persuaded, and played a significant role in persuading Mr Clinton.
He said the decision had paid off, and over the following three years, “through the patient and skilful work of George Mitchell”, the peace process continued. Mr Mitchell was president Clinton’s US special envoy on Northern Ireland and later chaired the negotiations that led to the Belfast Agreement, signed on Good Friday in 1998.
Mr Donlon said there was nothing “shamrockery or stage Irish” about the Kennedy family’s interest in Ireland, which was “genuine and well-informed”. Recalling his visits to the Kennedy family compound at Hyannis Port, he said discussions among family members were always about Ireland and Irish politics.
On the theme of the summer school, Parnell and Kennedy: Lost Leaders, Mr Donlon said commemorations tended to focus on the military rather than the political.
There was a “serious imbalance” in that the “constitutional compromises” and political democracies “which have served us well” were given less acknowledgement. He cited the recent birthday, on August 6th, of Daniel O’Connell, a non-military nationalist,which had passed unnoticed.
Referring to the 2016 centenary of the Easter Rising, he said it was “obviously right that we give full recognition to the objectives and ideals of 1916”, but suggested it may be a suitable time to also commemorate “the political strand”.
The summer school concluded yesterday.