Major ‘refused’ to speak to Clinton after Adams got US visa

British ‘incandescent with rage’ over move during peace process negotiations in 1994

Tim O’Brien

British prime minister John Major refused to speak to US president Bill Clinton for weeks after the US granted a visa to Gerry Adams in 1994, the Parnell Summer School in Co Wicklow was told this morning.

Former Irish diplomat Sean Donlon, who served in a range of posts including Irish ambassador to the US and secretary general of the Department of Foreign affairs, said the issuing of a visa to Adams was a very close call and even Ted Kennedy had initially opposed it.

He said Kennedy abhorred the military activity associated with Sinn Féin and never lost an opportunity to tell people that he himself had lost two brothers to violence.

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Donlon said John Hume had persuaded then US ambassador to Ireland Jean Kennedy Smith that granting a visa to Adams to further peace talks was the correct thing to do.

Hume had persuaded Albert Reynolds, and Kennedy Smith persuaded her brother Ted. They then all persuaded president Clinton to grant the visa, which became a watershed moment in the peace process - but which initially upset British diplomats who were highly influential with the US State department.

Donlon said the Irish diplomats had realised as far back as the Carter presidency that the US state department would generally by influenced by what the British thought.

As a result the Irish lobbying was switched to Washington and key Irish-American politicians such as Tip O'Neill and Ted Kennedy, the National Security Agency and the White house.

During negotiations towards the Anglo Irish Agreement in 1985, the Irish had kept senators Kennedy and O'Neill fully briefed and Donlon said he believed O'Neill had been crucial in getting Margaret Thatcher to drop her famous "out out out" stance.

But when president Clinton decided to issue the visa to Adams in 1994, “the British were incandescent with rage” he said.

“John Major refused to take phone calls from President Clinton for a number of weeks – he just wouldn’t take the call”.

But Donlon said the process had paid off over the following three years "through the patient and skilful work of George Mitchell", the US special envoy on Northern Ireland.

Mitchell led a commission that established principles of non-violence to which all parties in Northern Ireland had to adhere.

He later chaired the all-party peace negotiations, which led to the Belfast Agreement signed on Good Friday in 1998.

Tim O'Brien

Tim O'Brien

Tim O'Brien is an Irish Times journalist