John Major was advised not to accompany Bill Clinton on the US president’s historic visit to Northern Ireland in 1995 over fears he would have to “hide behind potted plants” at an official reception to avoid shaking hands with Gerry Adams, documents show.
Relations between the UK and US had been strained as a result of Clinton granting the Sinn Féin leader a visa the previous year. Clinton had then shaken Adams’ hand at a St Patrick’s Day lunch on Capitol Hill in March 1995.
When the president announced he would visit Belfast as part of a UK official tour in November 1995, and to “encourage the peace process”, No 10 faced a political dilemma, recently released National Archives files show.
Major was working on a twin-track peace initiative with Dublin, and expressly did not want to meet Adams until it was agreed. An official reception for political leaders in Northern Ireland during the visit meant Adams would certainly be invited.
“We cannot see a way of the prime minister avoiding Gerry Adams without reverting to the undignified hiding-behind-potted-plants scenario, which creates almost as valuable a news story as the first handshake,” the Northern Ireland Office wrote to No 10.
“There is a real risk of political damage if the prime minister is too closely associated with this part of the president’s visit – the unionist community still mistrusts the president, and the nationalist community (particularly Sinn Féin) will be ready to make capital of perceived slights.”
Major heeded advice and did not go to Northern Ireland. His private secretary noted: “The prime minister does not think that Clinton’s visit is the right occasion or context for him to meet Adams for the first time. Sinn Féin will need to earn such a meeting.”
There were also behind-the-scenes remarks about the president positioning himself as peacemaker. A Foreign Office briefing note stated: “There will be a tendency for Clinton to seek the limelight as an Irish peacemaker.”
A No 10 note to Major from his private secretary, Edward Oakden, said of Clinton: “What he wants is a demonstration that the peace process, which he (according to the Clinton gospel) helped launch, is still in being.”