Britain and US hope Major visit will heal rifts

  • @indyvoices

in London and


in Washington

John Major flew into Washington last night to begin a three-day visit to the US amid fresh heart-searching in London about the future of the Anglo-American relationship, strained by recent disagreements on Northern Ireland and Bosnia.

The Prime Minister, who crossed the Atlantic on Concorde for the first time as Prime Minister, sees President Bill Clinton for what is being billed in advance as a "businesslike" three hours of talks tomorrow.

He also has a crowded programme on Capitol Hill. A highlight will be what ministers hope will prove a politically fruitful first meeting between the Prime Minister and Newt Gingrich, the Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives.

Some senior Tories expect Mr Major to seek pointers from the Gingrich- inspired "Contract with America" to inject political freshness into the Conservatives' pre-election agenda.

British officials are making a determined effort to play down the recent row over the grant-ing of a visa to the Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams which allowed him to raise funds on his recent trip to the US.

As well as pointing out that the US administration has promised measures to tighten the auditing of funds so that they cannot be used for re-equipping the IRA, officials say they do not want to pick over the bones of their recent quarrel. "We want to look forward, not back," said one British source.

Anthony Lake, President Clinton's national security adviser, acknowledged at the weekend that anti-Americanism and criticism of Mr Clinton were rife in Britain, but insisted that what he called "tactical differences" on Northern Ireland would not cause long-term damage to relations.

"We see the press articles, I acknowledge it exists and we don't like it," Mr Lake told a group of British correspondents on the eve of Mr Major's visit."We don't like it for two reasons: one, it's nasty; and second, it's wrong.

But, he continued: "It doesn't worry us. I've no doubt this will pass, the relationship is so strong that we'll get right through this and get on with what is important, and that's co-operating extremely closely on the big-ticket security items around the world."

Repeatedly, Mr Lake stressed Washington's support for Britain's efforts to secure a settlement in Ulster, and praised Mr Major for "taking risks for peace". Transatlantic differences were "over tactics, not goals".

He described the fuss in the British media as "transitory and unwarranted," adding with an utterly straight face that Mr Clinton and Mr Major enjoyed "a very, very good personal relationship; they truly do".

In fact, both sides are clearly determined not to let the row over Mr Adams and his fundraising visa wreck the talks. And on the "big ticket security items" - first and foremost Bosnia - London and Washington are in much greater general harmony than when Mr Major was last here a year ago.

On Bosnia, Mr Lake insisted that Mr Clinton would veto any measure from Congress lifting the arms embargo, which Britain has adamantly opposed all along. After some wavering, the administration has come round to the British-French view. Lifting the embargo, Mr Lake said, would cause "the worst crisis in Nato's history since Suez".

Even more important, the White House lobbying effort on Capitol Hill seems to be paying off. Although with the New Year ceasefire fraying, sympathy for the Bosnians will probably again grow, Mr Lake expressed doubts that there was even a majority in the Senate for lifting the embargo, as urged by the majority leader, Senator Bob Dole of Kansas.

Mr Lake also brushed off suggestions that Britain might come under pressure soon to give up some or all of its independent nuclear weapons as the US and Russia gear up for another round of nuclear arms cuts.

The administration was "only at the very beginning of thinking about" a Start-3 treaty, that could cut the old superpowers' rival arsenals to as low as 500 apiece. "The first step is to get Start-2 ratified by the Senate and the [Russian] Duma," he said.

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