British officials ‘apoplectic’ at prospect of Gerry Adams visit to US

Documents also show reluctance on part of US to grant visa to Sinn Féin leader in 1994

The British government said there would be “hell to pay” if the United States granted a visa to Gerry Adams in 1994, newly declassified papers show.

The State documents spanning 1991-1998 disclose that British officials were apoplectic at the prospect of the Sinn Féin leader being allowed travel to the US.

President Bill Clinton intervened to ensure the visa was granted to Adams ahead of a conference in New York but the documents also show significant reluctance on the part of US officials.

They were worried that the decision would leave “blood on the floor” politically for the Clinton administration, particularly in light of the fact that the IRA was “still blowing up buildings”.


The conference at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in February 1994 was organised by a US non-profit organisation and invited representatives from all the main parties in Northern Ireland.

Unionist parties declined to attend but Adams spoke at the conference along with John Hume of the SDLP and John Alderdice of the Alliance Party.

A confidential memorandum sent to then tánaiste Dick Spring suggested the seminar may have been set up as a “subtext” to facilitate Adams’ visit to the US.

During his visit Mr Adams also addressed republican rallies and meetings in New York.

Nancy Soderberg of the US national security council told the Irish ambassador in Washington, Dermot Gallagher, that British officials were “apoplectic” about the visa.

The US administration raised concern that Adams would use the trip to fundraise and acknowledged the trip’s potential to cause political damage to the Clinton administration; facilitating Adams’ visit when the US had experienced recent terrorist attacks.

The SDLP leadership was split on the visa question, with party leader John Hume in favour and deputy leader Séamus Mallon opposed.

Adams was granted a waiver on January 30th, 1994 but the visa was “strictly limited” in duration.

The following week British prime minister John Major wrote to taoiseach Albert Reynolds saying the US visit had undermined the Downing Street Declaration and US officials “must be regretting their decision to let him in”.

However, that position changed. Three months later the top civil servant in Downing Street, Robin Butler, told the Irish ambassador to London Joseph Small that “the granting of the American visa was, with benefit of hindsight, on balance, beneficial”.

PresidentClinton again personally intervened to allow Adams to attend fundraising events during his second visit to the United States in March 1995.

The following year, 1996, a month after the IRA had broken its ceasefire in February with the Canary Wharf bombing, the US administration decided to renew Adams’s visa. However, in what was described as an “understanding”, Adams undertook not to fundraise while in the US. (Archive ref: 2021-11-213)

Harry McGee

Harry McGee

Harry McGee is a Political Correspondent with The Irish Times