Today marks 25 years since I was first given a visa by President Clinton to visit the USA. The visa was for 48 hours and restricted to New York. The London Telegraph described the President’s decision as having created the “worst rift” in US-British relations since the Suez crisis in 1956. I was reminded of all of this when the British released classified government papers last December under the 20-30 year rule.
The papers confirmed that the British counter-strategy was largely unchanged from the 1970s. Supported by the Irish government,the SDLP, Unionist Parties, the Catholic Hierarchy and unionist paramilitaries, British strategy was about marginalising republicans, minimising political progress and resisting the fundamental change necessary to address the causes of the conflict. It was also about resisting any efforts by international players to get involved in investigating the conflict and its consequences. The British insisted that the war was an internal matter for the British government. The international community was told - Stay Out.
This was the challenge facing the Sinn Féin leadership as we sought to build alliances with others and advance our own peace strategy. It was our view that the Irish-American community presented us with our best chance of internationalising the issue of peace in Ireland. It had the most developed of our support groups, and within the Irish-American community there was a deep interest in Ireland and a genuine desire to see peace achieved. Irish America also had considerable influence, not just in politics but in the business world as well.
In April 1992 a well-known Irish American John Dearie organised a forum on Irish issues in Manhattan for the democratic Presidential hopefuls, Jerry Brown and Bill Clinton. Asked by one of the panelists if he would appoint a peace envoy for the north Clinton said he would. Asked if he would authorise a visa for me and other Sinn Féiners to visit the USA. Clinton replied; “I would support a visa for Gerry Adams”. Clinton then went further and endorsed the MacBride principles. That was the beginning of the engagement between Irish America and the Clinton Administration.
The British government opposed this new US political agenda. The day after Clinton was sworn in as President the British government told journalists in London that its priority was to have the envoy idea scrapped.
The declassified files reveal the extent to which the British fought to maintain the status quo. The British Ambassador to Washington, Sir Robin Renwick, said that the North “was part of the UK’ and “solutions to its problems could not be imposed from outside”.
Renwick raised the issue directly with Clinton’s National Security Adviser, Tony Lake. He urged the administration ‘not to pursue the idea of a peace envoy’. In a briefing for Patrick Mayhew, the then British Secretary of State, an NIO official said that the advice of the Foreign Office and the Washington Embassy was that the British government should ‘continue to oppose a peace envoy or a US Ambassador in Dublin with an NI role’.
An invitation from Bill Flynn’s National Committee on American Foreign Policy in January 1994 to the North’s political leaders to address a conference in New York created a new dynamic. Bill Flynn was part of ‘Americans for a New Irish Agenda’ and the Connolly House group of US politicians, business people and trade unionists who were advocating for a change of policy by President Clinton.
They had already had had some success with the appointment of Jean Kennedy Smith as US Ambassador to Dublin. Ambassador Smith was Ted Kennedy’s sister. She developed a close relationship with Fr. Alex Reid – the Sagart - and together they supported President Clinton giving me a visa to travel to the USA.
Jean Kennedy Smith, who Fr. Reid and I called An Speir Bhean – the spirit woman - asked the Taoiseach Albert Reynolds what he thought of the US giving me a visa. Reynolds said he had no objections. She also asked John Hume who also said he had no objections. She herself expressed her support to her brother Ted Kennedy and to the White House.
On January 14th 1994 I applied for a visa to attend the conference organised for February 1st. The British government began an intense private and public campaign to keep me out. The British Ambassador in Washington worked round the clock arguing that a visa for me would be a diplomatic catastrophe. They sought and received the support of the Congressional House Speaker Tom Foley, the Secretary of State Warren Christopher, the Attorney General Janet Reno and the Head of the FBI Louis Freeh. Tom Foley, later told me he made a mistake.
On the other side Ted Kennedy and three Democratic Senate colleagues, Chris Dodd, John Kerry and Daniel Moynihan wrote to President Clinton backing the visa. Others in Irish America rallied to the issue. In addition full-page advertisements appeared in the New York Times calling for US support for efforts to find peace. The advertisement was signed by the Chairs or CEOs of 85 leading American corporations and over 100 other prominent Irish Americans.
On January 30th President Clinton told his staff he was going to authorise the visa. It was to be a restricted visa for two days only and I had to remain within New York. The next morning, Monday I picked my visa up at the US Embassy in Dublin before just managing to get the midday Aer Lingus flight to New York.
The British media and political establishment went wild in their condemnations. UUP MP Ken Maginnis said, “In the future deaths in Northern Ireland will be Clinton deaths”. The Daily Star commented that it would love to see me in a coffin with a gap where my face used to be. The Sunday Times referred to ‘gullible Americans’. Renwick told CNN, “When I listen to Gerry Adams I think, as we all do, it’s reminiscent of Dr. Goebbels’ – Hitler’s propaganda chief”.
The 48 hour visit to New York was a blur of interviews, meetings with Irish America, speaking at the Bill Flynn organised conference, which the unionist refused to attend, and a huge public meeting in the Sheraton hotel with an exuberant crowd of Irish Americans. US journalists were genuinely astounded when they discovered that my voice could not be broadcast on the British media.
The decision by President Clinton against the advice of some in his own administration and the strong objections of the British government, to grant the visa, was a huge step forward for the efforts to build peace.
In itself the New York visa was a symbolic initiative but it broke the wall that British governments had built around the North to keep everyone else out.
It was the beginning of a process that saw the negotiations process increasingly rely on international figures. People like George Mitchell, Harri Holkerri and John De Chastelain were just some of these.
The Irish in the USA still have a crucial role to play in support of peace and unity in Ireland. The McGuinness Principles campaign in support of a rights agenda in the North is one example of that. Twenty Five years on last weeks Beyond Brexit – The Future of Ireland conference in Belfast will have been noted by policy makers in Washington. The struggle continues. Here and in North America.