US diplomats did not trust Northern Ireland advisors appointed by Bill Clinton

Posted By: January 07, 2019

 Sam McBride. News Letter. Belfast. Friday, December 28,  2018

Declassified documents reveal that some of US President Bill Clinton’s own diplomats did not trust the advice of the two key people who the president chose to advise him on Northern Ireland.

The candid comments – which were made during meetings with British officials or ministers – reinforced existing UK concerns about Mr Clinton’s willingness to accommodate Gerry Adams.

Previously classified UK documents show that the US ambassador to London said that he had no confidence in President Clinton’s two key advisors on Northern Ireland, national security advisor Tony Lake and his deputy Nancy Soderberg.
Files declassified today also reveal how:

• The government used senior contacts in Washington in an attempt to deny Gerry Adams a visa to New York;

• In the late 1980s senior UVF figures were discussing a federal Ireland with the IRA;

• Some MPs demanded to withdraw from Northern Ireland to let “the Irish get on with butchering each other” in response to the murders of the two corporals in west Belfast.

Among files released at the Public Record Office in Belfast is a bulky 1994 record of frequent and high-level Washington-London interactions about Northern Ireland as the emerging peace process moved up the agenda of the president who had taken up office the previous year after significant support from Irish America.

The candid comments – which were made during meetings with British officials or ministers – reinforced existing British concerns about Mr Clinton’s willingness to accommodate Gerry Adams.

Files released at the Public Record Office in Belfast is a bulky 1994 record frequent and high-level Washington-London interactions about Northern Ireland as the emerging peace process moved up the agenda of the president who had taken up office the previous year after significant support from Irish America.

That year Mr. Clinton ignored not just British diplomatic and political fury, but also the advice of many of his key aides, to allow the Sinn Féin president to visit New York, something London viewed as an appeasement of terrorism but which Mr. Clinton hoped would force Mr. Adams to show whether he was serious about peace.

Among the papers in the file is a ‘confidential and personal’ 19 July 1994 memo from Peter Bell, a senior official in the NIO, recounting a conversation with a diplomat from the American Embassy in London.

The memo, which as well as going to NIO colleagues was sent to the British Embassy in Washington, relayed a conversation with Larry Robinson, a diplomat who would go on to head up the political section of the US Embassy in Islamabad in the years after September 11.

Mr. Bell said that the discussion may have been helped by “the British Irish Association’s admirable Spanish Champagne” and that Mr. Robinson was “in a conspicuously friendly and helpful mood”.

Mr. Bell said that his American interlocutor had “spontaneously, and without any prodding from me” raised the issue of Gerry Adams. The British official asked for Mr. Robinson’s identity to be protected, saying that he “went well beyond the call of duty” in candidly discussing Mr. Adams’ attempt to get a US visa.

Mr. Bell said that the diplomat had emphasized that “we should put our case as clearly and firmly as possible and on all possible occasions given that, and he almost said it in terms, Mr. Lake et al were not to be trusted (or at least needed continuous stiffening). He claimed to be doing so already on our behalf in cables etc to the State Department.”

Mr. Bell also said that when he discussed Sinn Féin’s intentions with the diplomat it was possible that “like the rest of us [he had] got it from the newspapers”, but he “got the impression that he had more direct access”.

Mr. Bell said that he got the impression that Mr. Robinson wanted to see that “the British reaction, including exposing the half-truths and evasions in any Sinn Féin statement, was conveyed quickly, accurately and persuasively to the US authorities who would, he implied, be only too glad to be given opportunities to give Sinn Féin the benefit of any doubt”.

During the conversation, Mr. Robinson recounted a recent dinner which the US Ambassador to London had given for John Hume and at which he had been present. He said that Mr. Hume had conveyed the sense that “his overwhelming priority was to bring Mr. Adams with him. (Or, put more negatively, not to go anywhere without him.)”

Mr. Robinson spoke effusively of John Hume, describing the SDLP leader as “a great man, a visionary, a saint”, but Mr. Bell commented that he “did not seem to realize that it was Mr. Adams who was setting the agenda, not the other way round”.

Mr. Bell said that “the cause of political development is not helped by Mr. Hume’s grande passion for Mr. Adams”.

In his memo to NIO colleagues, Mr. Bell commented that Mr. Robinson’s remarks about fellow US diplomatic and political figures were “hardly new to us” but that they had been striking because of “the force and urgency with which he impressed them on me”.

The files also reveal that just a month after President Clinton appointed William Crowe as his ambassador to London, the retired US admiral told the Northern Ireland Secretary of State, Sir Patrick Mayhew, that he “had no confidence at all” in the advice of the president’s national security adviser, Tony Lake, and his senior deputy, Nancy Soderberg.

Sir Patrick’s private secretary, Simon Rogers, said in a 12 July 1994 memo to colleagues that during a dinner with the new ambassador he had been blunt about senior figures in the Clinton administration.

He said: “The Secretary of State did not raise the subject of Sinn Fein’s contact with the White House and Mr. Crowe did not raise it either.

“Mr. Crowe did comment, however, during the course of a long congenial conversation, that he had no confidence at all in the advice Lake and Soderberg gave President Clinton.”

Admiral Crowe also told Sir Patrick that he regarded Article 2 of the Republic of Ireland’s constitution – which placed a claim on Northern Ireland – as ‘offensive’ to unionists “and reasonably seen by them as such”.

He said that “Mr. Crowe had also met Dr. Paisley that morning and had found him genial but depressing”.

He added: “The Secretary of State believed that Admiral Crowe is undoubtedly an ally, not only with the ear of the President but also the firmest of intentions of reigning in Mrs. Kennedy-Smith [the US Ambassador to Dublin].”