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Gerry Adams with New York Governor Mario Cuomo in 1994. Alamy Stock Photo
New York

British officials were 'apoplectic' after Gerry Adams was granted a US visa in 1994

London was said to be ‘apoplectic’ about the decision to grant the visa to the Sinn Féin leader.

BRITISH OFFICIALS WERE “apoplectic” about the granting of a US visa waiver to Gerry Adams in 1994 but subsequently accepted it was “beneficial”.

Newly released state papers from the period demonstrate London’s opposition to the proposed US visa to the Sinn Féin president, with an Irish government document indicating that British officials said there would be “hell to pay” if the visa was granted. 

Secret government documents are released annually under the 30-year rule and sent to the National Archives, providing journalists and historians with a fresh glimpse into historical events.

This year, even more recent files up to 1998 are also being released to bring the National Archives up to date with material released by the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland.

Two months before Adams’ visit to the US, the British and Irish governments outlined their common approach to the Northern Ireland peace process as part of the Downing Street Declaration. 

It was argued that a visit by Adams to the US would allow him convince IRA supporters in the US to support the both governments’ plans and a ceasefire. 

The documents show concerns among US officials about allowing Adams enter the US, with a member of the National Security Council saying there was a “strong resistance to him”. 

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.  

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. 

However, a private briefing memo sent by a civil servant to then tánaiste Dick Spring suggested the entire seminar may have been a “subtext” for Adams to apply for a visa.

The granting of the visa also provided Adams with an opportunity to speak to supporters of the republican movement in the US ahead of the first Provisional IRA ceasefire later that year. 

In the letter to the Tánaiste, Spring was advised that the Irish government may be criticised by the Fine Gael-led opposition if it favoured granting the visa to Adams and criticised by Irish-Americans if they opposed. 

The official position of the Irish government was that it was it was entirely a decision for US authorities to make, whereas the British government was said to be opposing the visa “with vehemence and determination”. 

Nancy Soderberg of the US National Security Council was said to have told the Irish Ambassador in Washington that British officials were “apoplectic” about the consideration being given to Adams’ visa.  

Concern over the granting of the visa was also evident among US officials however. Specifically, whether Adams would use the trip for fundraising purposes and due to the potential that he may “embarrass” the Clinton administration while in the US.  

A record of one conversation between Irish embassy staff in Washington and Soderberg shows that the National Security Council was seeking that Adams would “make a public statement renouncing” violence. 

Soderberg told Irish officials that there was ”blood on the floor” within the administration over the White House potentially speaking to Adams and that he must not underestimate the strong resistance to him, given that the IRA was still “blowing up buildings”.

Irish officials were told that there was a “genuine domestic sensitivity here about terrorism” in the context of the 1993 bomb at the World Trade Center and that Adams should appreciate the decision to speak to him was a substantial one. 

Individuals involved in the 1993 bomb at the World Trade Centre were connected to Al-Qaeda and there have never been any suggestions that the IRA were linked to it. 

The memo instead referenced the bomb as part of wider concerns about the visa. 

Various papers show differing opinions on whether the visa should be granted, with the SDLP leadership split on whether it would be a positive move. 

Party leader John Hume was in favour of US officials granting the visa waiver to Adams with SDLP deputy leader Seamus Mallon opposed.  

Hume argued that the visa would help Adams to sell support of the Downing Street Declaration “to the more hardline elements” in the IRA. 

In a meeting with US Vice President Al Gore in Washington, Gore told Hume the US administration had “taken a gamble” in issuing the visa and that Hume’s input was “vital”

Granting of the visa

Adams was granted a waiver on 30 January 1994 but the visa was “strictly limited” in duration and Adams was not permitted to be outside a 25 mile radius of the conference. 

In a fax sent by the Irish Ambassador to the US informing the Irish government of the decision, it was recorded that the White House emphasised to the Irish Ambassador that it was a “difficult decision” to grant the visa to Adams not because of “British pressure” but because of “domestic terrorism politics”. 

The comunique added that London was informed of the visa decision by way of a phone call to the Prime Minister’s Office.

“They seemed resigned to the decision and, while clearly not welcoming it, hoped it would help the process,” the Ambassador said in the fax. 

Further documents show that British opposition to the visa decision remained following the decision.

This includes a letter from Prime Minister John Major to Taoiseach Albert Reynolds a week later in which Major said the US administration “must be regretting their decision to let him in” because Adams did not provide unequivocal support for the Downing Street Declaration in his speeches during the visit. 

This anger at Adams’ visit waned over time and by June 1994 British Cabinet Secretary Robin Butler told Irish Ambassador to London Joseph Small that “the granting of the American visa was, with benefit of hindsight, on balance, beneficial.”

“Butler admitted that what hurt the British most in this case was the failure of the American administration to accept the advice of the British Government in the matter,” a report of the meeting states.

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