Britain tries to play down rift with US: Donald Macintyre in London and Rupert Cornwell in Washington examine the tension caused by the Adams visit

ON THE FACE of it, the auspices could hardly be worse for the trip John Major makes to meet President Clinton in Washington at the end of this month.

Although they have made the best of it in public, some British ministers are still seething at what they regard as President Clinton's grave error in granting a visa to Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein president, in defiance of pressure from Whitehall and advice from the State Department, including his own ambassador in London, Raymond Seitz.

British officials insist that both governments are 'too grown up' to allow the Adams fracas to spill over into other areas of the bilateral relationship, including Bosnia and Russia. They also emphasise that President Clinton's unequivocal statement of support for the Anglo-Irish declaration on Wednesday night - and that he was not contemplating sending an envoy - was welcome and helpful.

They acknowledge that Mr Adams won the battle of the airwaves - a source of irritation to Dublin as well as London; but this was not, officials insist, for want of trying by the British government. Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, not only gave two press conferences but, according to one senior British source, 'worked his ass off to get himself on US TV screens but the networks decided Adams was the bigger story'.

Mr Hurd is said to have been scathing in conversation with Al Gore, the US vice-president, pointing out that Mr Adams had been democratically displaced as MP for West Belfast in the general election by Joe Hendron, a man who shunned violence as a means of achieving nationalist goals. That was reinforced by a summons to Mr Seitz from Downing Street for talks at which Rod Lyne, the Prime Minister's foreign affairs private secretary, pressed the necessity for the president to make it clear he would not respond to Mr Adams's exhortations to become directly involved.

One British perception, is that President Clinton was misled by Senator Edward Kennedy into thinking Mr Adams might make a dramatic peace announcement while he was there.

That view was not shared in Washington, where administration officials admitted Mr Clinton's go-ahead for the visa was largely prompted by domestic political considerations; not least to do a favour for Mr Kennedy and Senator Daniel Moynihan, leaders of the Irish-American lobby on Capitol Hill who head Congressional committees vital for the passage of his health and welfare reform proposals. At the State Department in Washington, a spokesman attempted to put the best face on matters: Washington stood 'foursquare' behind the British and Irish governments and the peace framework set out in the Downing Street declaration. Mr Adams must now 'follow up his words with deeds'.

At the White House the rift with London over Mr Adams is being minimised. Bosnia and Britain's blunt demand that the US do more to help secure peace between the combatants is seen as a much greater source of foreign policy friction. Officials insist that the granting of the visa had nothing to do with any lingering 'hard feelings' over the support given by the Tory party to ex-President Bush's re-election campaign.

The fact remains though that the assurances given by Mr Adams in his interview with the US consul-general in Belfast were deemed insufficient by the State Department and the US Embassy in London. Mr Clinton thought otherwise.

Leading article, page 19

(Photograph omitted)