By David McCullagh, Conor McMorrow and Justin McCarthy

Irish diplomats in Washington weren't expecting much from the new US president Bill Clinton when it came to foreign policy. His approach to foreign affairs, Irish ambassador Dermot Gallagher predicted, would be "a cautious blend of idealism and pragmatism".

That assessment was written at the tail end of 1992. Just over a year later, Clinton would surprise Irish officials – and shock their British counterparts – with a decision that was anything but cautious.

At the start of 1994, Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams was invited to speak at a seminar in New York. No big deal - except that he was banned from entering the United States, and would need a visa waiver to get in.

Newly released State Papers show the depth of opposition. British officials in Washington told their Irish counterparts that there would be "hell to pay" if the Americans gave Adams a visa; the British were, according to US official Nancy Soderberg, "apoplectic" at the very idea.

If he was prepared to make the right noises, they might allow him into the US

The Irish Embassy in Washington felt that, given the surprising "hardness" of British opposition, there was a serious question mark over whether a visa would be issued.

Soderberg, a senior official on the National Security Council, told Ambassador Gallagher that the administration wanted to "reach out" to Adams – but they wanted to be sure he supported the recently unveiled Downing Street Declaration. If he was prepared to make the right noises, they might allow him into the US.

But two days later, Ms Soderberg was sounding more negative. She told Irish diplomat Michael Collins that, in her view, Adams hadn't done enough to deserve a visa, that he had given "no tangible demonstration" of a commitment to the peace process.

"She said that she had taken a hard look at the evidence to justify the president's conclusion that Adams 'had engaged in terrorist activity'. She said that this evidence was convincing…".

Passing the buck

But she also asked for Dublin's opinion. Which posed a bit of a problem for the minister for foreign affairs, Dick Spring, as senior official Seán Ó hUiginn pointed out to him.

If they supported the visa, they would be criticised by the opposition for getting too close to Sinn Féin, while the British would also be annoyed; but if they opposed it, they would be criticised by Irish-American lobby groups. On the other hand, if they did back Adams, and the visa was refused anyway, the government would be "diminished somewhat by the rebuff".

Ó hUiginn recommended passing the buck: it was up to the US to decide whether to let Adams in; and it was up to Adams to convince them.

But if the government in Dublin wasn't going to expend too much political capital on getting Gerry Adams to the Big Apple, others were. SDLP leader John Hume lobbied hard for the visa to be granted (though his deputy, Seamus Mallon, opposed it). So too did American ambassador to Ireland, Jean Kennedy Smith.

Dick Spring and Jean Kennedy Smith (Pic: RollingNews.ie)

Their support was crucial – but, according to Nancy Soderberg, the final decision would rest on how convincing Adams was in his interview with consular officials in the US Embassy in Dublin.

He would, she said, have to go "pretty far" in convincing the officials of his commitment to renouncing violence. She said there was strong opposition to giving him a visa, with "blood on the floor" within the administration over the issue.

It was, as the Irish ambassador to London observed, 'deeply humiliating' for the British

She said Adams shouldn't underestimate the opposition, given that the IRA was still setting off bombs, and that there was "genuine domestic sensitivity" in the US about terrorism in the wake of a recent bomb attack on the World Trade Center in New York.

Mr Adams must have been convincing in his visa interview; and President Bill Clinton threw caution to the wind in making the final call. Despite ferocious British opposition, he decided that a strictly limited visa should be granted – limited in time, limited to a radius of 25 miles of New York, and limited by a prohibition on any fundraising, direct or indirect.

It was, as the Irish ambassador to London observed, "deeply humiliating" for the British, a sentiment echoed by cabinet secretary Sir Robin Butler, who 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".

Butler, however, speaking some months later, was prepared to accept that the visit "was, on balance, beneficial" because it increased pressure on the Republican movement to end IRA violence.

Adams complained about conditions

But at the time, the US was disappointed by the Sinn Féin leader's performance. Vice president Al Gore told John Hume of "a sense of let down that Adams had not responded in a way which might have been more helpful to the administration during his visit". The implication was that this would be remembered the next time the Sinn Féin leader fancied a trip across the Atlantic.

And so it transpired in October 1994, when – after the IRA ceasefire – Adams applied for another visa waiver. It was granted, but with conditions – and he wasn't happy about them, especially the requirement that he leave the country by 7 October.

Gerry Adams in New York in 1994

At a meeting in the State Department, he complained that he was being "shipped out", asking: "How can we build peace if this is the way I am being treated?"

Adams also complained about the decision not to allow him to raise funds for Sinn Féin, but the Americans said the Justice Department could not move on that issue "so long as Sinn Féin was engaged in 'extra-legal' activities".

The Sinn Féin leader's arrival at the State Department came just four minutes after the departure from the building of South African president Nelson Mandela. According to the Irish Embassy in Washington, "the State Department had gone to quite some lengths to ensure that the arrival and departure did not coincide".

He might have been allowed into the country, but he wasn't yet entirely welcome.

Based on documents now available to view in the National Archives of Ireland.