Still a big deal on both sides of the Atlantic

Donald Macintyre assesses the `special relationship' in the wake of John Major's visit to the US
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The Prime Minister should make all his transatlantic trips, as he did this week, by Concorde. As a supersonic marvel from another generation, for which no replacement has been found, it represents a kind of triumph of the past over the future - just like the endlessly dissected Anglo- American relationship.

The idea that President Bill Clinton "snubbed" Mr Major by watching a basketball final on television in Little Rock on Monday night is hooey, since the Prime Minister knew perfectly well when he fixed the dates for his trip that the President would be out of town on the first day. But there was a more powerful illustration that morning of how much more important such visits are for the British than the Americans. The Washington Post did not mention Mr Major's arrival, but carried a long piece about Chancellor Helmut Kohl on his 65th birthday.

However, Senator Jesse Helms told Mr Major Britain was the US's "most reliable ally"; Newt Gingrich insisted on the "kinship" of the two nations; Mr Clinton had warm words of praise for Mr Major on Tuesday night. It seemed to be the Americans rather than the British who were talking up the "special relationship".

Mr Major, by contrast, is almost studiedly sober in his language, referring unsentimentally to the importance of the links on defence, and pointing to the impending US sale of Tomahawk missiles to the Royal Navy. Indeed, one reason he floated the possibility of a new accord on free trade between the Europeans and the US is precisely because he recognises that the end of the Cold War has, in the words of one British official, "unstuck some of the glue" in the relationship.

But on two critical issues, the Americans have come to see things Britain's way. The White House has for some time been at one with British insistence on maintaining the Bosnia arms embargo. Warren Christopher, the Secretary of State, promised Mr Major that the administration would fight Senator Robert Dole's Congressional moves to lift it.

Then there is Ireland and the backwash of President Clinton's decision to grant Gerry Adams a fund-raising visa last month. First, Mr Clinton now accepts that last month's statement by Mr Adams showing willingness to talk about arms decommissioning, but linking it with talks on "demilitarisation" by the security forces, does not go far enough.

The President accepts that the Government should and will wait, perhaps for some time, until its conditions for ministerial talks are fulfilled.

Second, the administration has installed a New York firm of auditors, Eisner's, to ensure that Sinn Fein fundraising does not go on arms. And third, it now realises that it has to build bridges with other Northern Irish political parties. Even some elements in the SDLP, let alone the Unionists, have been annoyed by Sinn Fein's apparent monopoly in Washington.

The negotiations this week were delicately managed: in a long breakfast meeting with Vice President Al Gore - who has Ulster Protestant ancestors - Mr Major and his Irish expert Roderic Lyne paved the way for Mr Clinton's accommodation later in the day.