Adams’s arrival in the US gave him an enormous boost
The British government was furious at Clinton for embracing Adams
Bill Clinton: British diplomat Jonathan Powell conceded years later that the president’s decision to grant Adams a visa-waiver in 1994 was the right thing to do. Photograph: Getty Images
Gerry Adams arrived at Kennedy Airport in New York at 4.30pm on Monday, January 31st, 1994, on Aer Lingus flight 105 from Dublin. Previously denied access to the United States, the Sinn Féin leader was ushered through immigration and whisked into Manhattan in a limousine.
He was put up in the Waldorf Astoria, long the temporary home of the rich and famous, under the code name of Shlomo Brezhnev, by his hosts, the National Committee on American Foreign Policy, a prestigious New York think tank.
His arrival in the United States was a media sensation. The New York Times hailed Adams as “an articulate and enigmatic partisan leader in a centuries-old struggle”. The New York Daily News hailed his “charisma, intellect, language, humour and passion”. On CNN, Larry King treated him as an Irish Nelson Mandela.
It was an enormous political boost for Adams, ostracised at home by the UK and Irish political establishments as an apologist for the IRA, which was still engaged in a campaign of violence.
The British government had urged US president Bill Clinton not to grant any concessions to Adams, who only three months earlier had carried the coffin of the Shankill Road bomber, until the IRA campaign ended. Sinn Féin had yet to renounce violence or endorse a joint declaration of the British and Irish governments on the way forward.
The British had the support of powerful allies in Washington, including US secretary of state Warren Christopher, attorney general Janet Reno, and the heads of the FBI and the CIA.
The political counsellor at the British embassy, Peter Westmacott, whose cousin, an SAS officer Herbert Westmacott, was killed by the IRA in Belfast, had lobbied the White House up to the last minute not to allowed Adams into the US. He said it was wrong in principle, insulting to people in Britain and unhelpful.
Clinton, however, was urged to allow Adams entry by powerful congressional allies, senators Edward Kennedy, Chris Dodd and George Mitchell, by the US ambassador to Ireland Jean Kennedy Smith, and the then-taoiseach Albert Reynolds.
They had been given the nod by SDLP leader John Hume, tremendously admired in the US capital, who let it be known that it was very necessary for Adams to explain the “whole background and approach to a ceasefire” to Irish Americans.
Asked to renounce violence as a condition, Adams told the White House “it is my personal and political priority to see an end to the IRA”.
The president authorised a 48-hour visa waiver to allow Adams to attend, with other Northern Ireland leaders, a one-day conference in the Waldorf Astoria, organised by the foreign policy committee.
Conveniently, its chairman was Bill Flynn, a corporate giant in New York, who had campaigned on the visa issue along with a group of amateur US envoys which included publisher Niall O’Dowd, philanthropist Chuck Feeney, and former congressman Bruce Morrison.
At the conference Hume made an impassioned plea for the end of the IRA campaign, in words which resonate today. “The only sign of a border left in a unified Europe are British military checkpoints. What are they there for? To deal with people who want to get rid of the Border.”
The British government was furious at Clinton for embracing Adams. The Daily Telegraph described the resulting crisis between London and Washington as the “worst rift since Suez”.
The furious UK opposition actually helped the peace process since it allowed Adams not only to show that politics could achieve more than the bomb, but that they could also win a big victory over the British at their own game.
Though Hume remained a revered Irish political leader among US politicians, his principled decision to support a visa-waiver to promote peace helped open the door to a rival Irish figure with a strong media appeal. Adams’s emerged from the US trip with his stature enhanced.
The IRA ceasefire came the following August. The Sinn Féin leader was allowed to return and this time visit Washington, but UK diplomats secured a promise that the White House would have no direct contact with him until he made further moves to disarming the IRA.
A sense of how delicate was the “handling” of Adams at this stage can be gained from the response when I invited some movers and shakers to take Adams’s measure at a dinner in my Washington suburban home. Despite the White House promise, Clinton gave his deputy national security adviser, Nancy Soderberg, permission to attend. This caused a rumpus when the British embassy found out.
Warren Christopher allowed his deputy assistant secretary of state, Dean Curran, to dine at the same table as Adams, but not to engage him in conversation.
Another guest, Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Mary McGrory, found Adams slippery and decided that she did not like him. Soderberg decided she did, which counted more.
With significant progress in the peace process, the restrictions on access for Adams were soon lifted, and he was invited into the White House itself. In the spirit of even-handedness the US president opened his doors to all Irish political leaders. At a St Patrick’s Day party in the White House, attended by several Irish politicians and loyalist paramilitaries, Hume and Adams sang together The Town I Love So Well.
Adams’s main goal all along was not just to get into the US, but to overturn a ban on raising funds. The British government again lobbied furiously against the political wing of the IRA being allowed to use Adams to raise money from millions of sympathetic Irish Americans, pointing out that since the ceasefire the IRA had killed a post office worker, Frank Kerr, in a robbery in Newry and £130,000 was still missing.
But Kennedy and Dodd took the view that “if we expect Sinn Féin to act like a legitimate political party, we must treat it like one”, On the 17th green during a round of golf in Arlington, Virginia, Dodd told Clinton: “I think you should give Adams fundraising.” Clinton replied that he might. Seeing the president was wavering, Dodd got others to pile on the pressure.
Adams did get permission to fundraise, after promising the White House he would seriously discuss disposing of IRA weapons with the British. British prime minister John Major was so outraged that he refused to take a phone call from Clinton. For a week the two most senior Nato allies refused to talk to each another.
“They thought we had lost our mind,” recalled a senior White House official. “They made entreaties. Don’t do it. Then we’d do it.”
The first fundraising event, in March 1995, was a $200-a-head lunch in the Essex House Hotel in Manhattan, where Donald Trump was among the guests. The future president shook Adams’s hand and waved to the diners. In May, Adams returned for a coast-to-coast fundraising tour which started with a dinner for 400 in the New York Plaza Hotel at $1,000-a-plate.
A body called Friends of Sinn Féin was set up to register all funds with the US department of justice, along with an undertaking they would be used only for democratic purposes.
As Sinn Féin visits to the US became routine, Chuck Feeney provided funding of $20,000 a month for 36 months for a Sinn Féin office in Washington, a move applauded by the White House on the grounds that “the more interaction and engagement, the more moderate they would become”.
There was some hilarity at the formal opening of the office when Adams called it Sinn Féin’s “diplomatic mission”, prompting English reporter Peter Hitchens to call out “will you have a military attaché?”
To date Sinn Féin has raised more than $12 million in the United States.
Progress in the peace process in those days was measured in other ways. No British minister had deigned to shake Adams’s hand, but the opportunity arose in May 1995, when Adams and Northern secretary Sir Patrick Mayhew attended a Northern Ireland investment conference in Washington. They shook hands in the corridor, and another step forward in normalisation was taken. The alternative was for Mayhew to hide behind the hotel aspidistras every time he saw Adams approaching.
Clinton’s decision to grant Adams a visa-waiver in 1994 was vindicated. British diplomat Jonathan Powell conceded years later that it was the right thing to do.
Clinton subsequently appointed Senator George Mitchell as envoy to Northern Ireland, and Mitchell’s chairmanship of inter-party talks resulted in the Good Friday agreement in April 1998.
To this day successive presidents have maintained a special envoy for Northern Ireland, though their role has diminished considerably.
Adams claimed to me that the American involvement was “the key to us being able to argue [to the IRA] that there was an alternative way forward”. It brought the ceasefire forward by a year, he said, and scores of lives were saved.
Conor O’Clery was Irish Times Washington correspondent from 1991 to 1996