Clinton agrees to meet Adams

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Gerry Adams, president of Sinn Fein, will meet President Bill Clinton this month in a fresh boost to his international credibility.

Mr Adams's coup yesterday - in securing a US visa which will allow him to raise funds in the US next week - was received with undisguised annoyance in Whitehall, which had lobbied hard for restrictions on Mr Adams in the US not to be lifted.

The move came after Mr Adams, in a statement welcomed by Dublin but treated with extreme caution by the British government, acknowledged that future talks would cover the "decommissioning" of arms, among other topics.

While the statement - the terms of which followed intervention by the White House - was seen in Washington as justifying the lifting of the key restriction on Mr Adams's visit, government sources in London made no effort to conceal their view that it did not. Instead, the Northern Ireland Office is to seek direct contact with Sinn Fein "over the coming days" to see whether it is ready to satisfy the Government's conditions for direct talks.

Mr Clinton has also invited Mr Adams to a reception at the White House on 17 March in honour of St Patrick's Day, providing the prospect of a photo opportunity handshake between the President and Mr Adams.

The requirement for Sinn Fein to commit itself to substantive discussions on the handing over of paramilitary arms is a British government precondition of ministers entering direct talks with the republicans.

The Sinn Fein statement agreed "progress can be made on the whole range of relevant issues . . . including repressive legislation, prisoners and decommissioning of weapons" . But this passage appeared to put the issue within the context of all-party talks at which "everyone must be at the table and every issue must be on the table".

But, Mr Adams also welcomed the suggestion that Britain's ministerial ban on contact with Sinn Fein might soon be ended. "Sinn Fein representatives will enter into discussions with British ministers on all the matters outlined in this statement and on the basis of our mandate and our analysis.

"There cannot be a single-issue agenda and no issue, including decommissioning, should be excluded from these discussions," Mr Adams said.

Whitehall sources suggested last night that the Sinn Fein statement was ambiguous on whether the republicans envisaged progress on the decommissioning of arms only in the final stages of a political settlement, or whether they now recognised that substantive discussions on the issue had to take place in upgraded bilateral talks with ministers.

On Monday, Sir Patrick Mayhew, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, made a visit to Washington where he explicitly stated that so long as the IRA refused to disarm, the British government would not look kindly on Mr Adams receiving political celebrity treatment from the Clinton administration.

"It would be a mistake if the administration allowed Gerry Adams to raise funds," Sir Patrick said at a press conference following a meeting with Warren Christopher, the US Secretary of State. Sir Patrick also said that he would not view favourably the notion of Gerry Adams shaking hands with "the president of the greatest democracy on earth".

The White House press secretary, Mike McCurry, said yesterday that Mr Adams would be permitted to raise funds so long as the money was spent on political activities and not to purchase weapons.

The Government accepts that ministers will meet Sinn Fein without concrete progress towards disarmament first taking place - but insists that can only happen if Sinn Fein commits itself to serious discussion of the issue. At the same time, there are wide expectations in Belfast that the talks will take place before the Northern Ireland investment conference planned for May in the United States.