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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Bathroom Showroom Customer Service / Sales Assistant

£14560 - £17680 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Even though their premises have...

Recruitment Genius: Finance Manager

£44000 - £48000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Marketing company based in cent...

Recruitment Genius: IT Installation / Commissioning Engineer - North West

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An IT Installation / Commission...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Executive - OTE £25,000

£16000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: You will maximise the effective...

Day In a Page

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence