Britain not so special for the US: Row over Gerry Adams's visa puts relationship with UK in perspective

TWO OCCASIONS here - one just before, one just after the tempestuous visit of Gerry Adams - put the current British-US discomfort in perspective.

Last night the Republicans held a gala dinner to mark Ronald Reagan's 83rd birthday. The main speaker was, inevitably, Baroness Thatcher.

On Monday, almost as the Sinn Fein leader was arriving in New York, Chancellor Helmut Kohl of Germany took President Bill Clinton for a jovial - by most accounts Rabelaisian - lunch at his favourite Italian restaurant in Georgetown.

Such, in cameo, are the misty-eyed past and hardnosed present reality of the tiresomely named 'special relationship' between London and Washington after an especially bruising week.

For all its cultural and institutional aspects (not least exceedingly close co-operation on matters of intelligence), its political 'specialness' has always depended on the personal chemistry between the president and prime minister of the day. Mr Reagan and Lady Thatcher were one thing; as Mr Clinton's choice of luncheon partner shows, his meagre rapport with John Major is quite another.

With Mr Adams safely back in Belfast, the smoke of battle is lifting and normality returning. A State Department spokesman, as he must, dismisses as 'inaccurate' suggestions that the 'special relationship' is dead. In three weeks, Mr Major will be in Washington, doubtless to appear alongside Mr Clinton and pronounce that all is well between them. That, however, will not obscure the lessons of the past few days.

He may have gone to Oxford, but once again the President has shown he has no special leaning towards Britain. Among today's crop of European leaders, Mr Kohl provides the company he likes best. Germany, for both its approach to the domestic issues that fascinate Mr Clinton and because of its geostrategic position, is the European country that counts for him.

Mr Major, moreover, still carries the baggage of his party's alignment with the Bush campaign in 1992 - though White House officials deny any lingering desire to settle scores. Above all, however, the row over the Adams visa shows how domestic calculations can shape this President's foreign policy.

Mr Clinton may have honestly judged that letting the Sinn Fein leader into the United States might, on balance, give a nudge towards an Ulster settlement. But the President's decision to overrule his own State Department was quite simply dictated by the need to keep sweet the electorally important Irish- American community, and above all two powerful senators who could hold the fate of his health and welfare reform proposals in their hands.

Just conceivably, Lady Thatcher might have prevailed over Mr Reagan against comparable odds. Mr Major could not.

Measured by the furore in Britain, the Adams affair has had little political resonance here. Opinion has broadly split along ideological lines: the liberal and Democratic media has tended to back the President. Conservative commentators have mostly disagreed. But for this administration, Mr Adams is a less than cosmic issue. In US eyes, Bosnia is a greater irritant to relations with Britain than the IRA.

If Mr Clinton was 'punishing' Mr Major, he was doing so for London's brusque dismissal of last spring's US 'lift and strike' initiative, and for Britain's perceived 'ambush' of Mr Clinton with its support for France at the Nato summit last month.

This week the Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd, called for greater American 'involvement' in the peace process, a thinly coded reiteration of French demands that the US press the Muslims to accept a territorial settlement. The US Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, bluntly refused.

One day, the Adams rumpus will take its place in the history of the 'special relationship'. Mr Major and Mr Clinton are not the first imperfect pairing. Richard Nixon and Edward Heath did not hit it off; nor did Harold Wilson and Lyndon Johnson; nor Lady Thatcher and Jimmy Carter. President Eisenhower pulled the rug under Suez in 1956, but Britain leapt to the US side against Saddam Hussein. By comparison, the fuss over a single visa is small beer indeed.