Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 24 April 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Breakdown in Haass talks masks earlier achievements

US visa gamble: Gerry Adams

In the wake of the crash-landing of the Haass talks, it would be easy to forget the many breakthrough moments that built the peace process brick-by-brick over decades. And among the early ones was Gerry Adams' first-ever visit to America, the 20th anniversary of which arrives on Saturday.

The 48-hour visa, granted by Bill Clinton in spite of opposition from London, the US Justice Department and the FBI, allowed Adams to speak at a conference on Northern Ireland. He wasn't allowed to fundraise.

Nancy Soderberg, a former aide to Massachusetts senator Ted Kennedy, and key member of Clinton's National Security Council, initially didn't see any merit in Adams's visa. In fact, Adams's initial two visa requests – in 1993 – were turned down.

"And we frankly didn't think about it much at all. Just turned him down," said Soderberg in an interview with the Belfast Telegraph.

Soderberg said that, in the fall of 1993, John Hume, Ted Kennedy, former Connecticut congressman Bruce Morrison and others, began talking to her about what they saw as shifting circumstances in Northern Ireland.

She and National Security Advisor Anthony Lake eventually concluded an Adams visa was a "win-win" scenario. If he followed his visit by delivering an IRA ceasefire, happy days. If not, there'd be justification for ramping up efforts to crack down on the clandestine flow of arms and money that American supporters were sending the IRA.

"And so Clinton did it. And it was like we made hell freeze over, or something," she said. "Everybody went nuts. John Major didn't take our calls for a week."

But an IRA ceasefire didn't materialise. "I had given up, frankly, by the summer," said Soderberg. "I thought it was going to happen in July and it didn't. Finally, at the end of August, we started getting these frenetic calls that it was going to happen. And I was, like, 'Yeah, right, sure.'"

Then she got a call from then Taoiseach Albert Reynolds, who read her the ceasefire announcement the IRA was planning to issue.

"And it wasn't the normal mush that you got out of the IRA, where everything was so cloaked in vague terms," she said. "This was unequivocally clear."

Jim Lyons, who was Clinton's special economic envoy to Northern Ireland and the Republic between 1997 and 2000, said the gamble on the Adams visa clearly paid off.

"The risk was definitely worth it, as evidenced by the result, albeit some years later, which was the Good Friday Agreement," said Lyons.

Opinion about Gerry Adams remains sharply divided in both Northern Ireland and the Republic. But on this side of the Atlantic, most people who follow the peace process closely, view the Sinn Fein president as someone who took risks for peace, before and after his 1994 New York sojourn.

Twenty years on from Adams's historic New York visit, in spite of the stalling of the Haass talks, Nancy Soderberg considers the peace process sound.

"I think they'll get there. It's a disappointing setback. But there's no other alternative than moving forward.

"It's just ridiculous, on one level, that it's taken this long. It's 20 years later and they're still arguing about the same thing.

"But the wounds go very deep in both communities there. And that's why the American role is still important, because the trust is still not there."