America - Andrew Stephen reveals Gerry Adams's mistake

Gerry Adams, once lauded as a man with a "delightful laugh", has burned his boats in Washington. Per

Almost ten years ago to the day, the Clinton administration discovered a new cause: it decided it would bring peace to Northern Ireland, and that Gerry Adams was the man to deliver it. I went to the White House and sat in the office of Nancy Soderberg, then the administration's top apparatchik on Northern Ireland, and she even invoked the name of Nelson Mandela when telling me how important Adams was to the new American push toward peace.

That was a monumental slap in the face for the British government, and marked the lowest point in relations between the two countries that I can remember: while the Clinton administration was talking (privately, at this stage) about Mandela, Sir Robin Renwick - then our man in Washington - had gone on television here and compared Adams with Goebbels. The State Department was assuring Britain that US policy on Northern Ireland was not changing, but President Clinton then promptly overruled his own diplomats and invited Adams to the White House for St Patrick's Day.

How a decade can change things. This month, Adams spent a desultory few days in the US visiting Ohio, New York, Washington, DC and Pennsylvania. For the first time in ten years, he was not invited to the St Patrick's Day celebrations at the White House - or even to the congressional lunch hosted on 17 March by the speaker of the House of Representatives, Dennis Hastert. He was shunned by Senator Ted Kennedy and Congressman Peter King, a long-time supporter of Sinn Fein. The most senior official he got to see was Mitchell Reiss, the State Department's point man in the Northern Ireland peace process.

And Soderberg, now vice-president for multilateral affairs at the International Crisis Group in New York, is discouraged. Those heady days of 1995 are a distant memory. She talks of frustration and head-shaking in Washington, of the Irish knack for making progress so difficult. Kennedy's office speaks witheringly of "the IRA's ongoing criminal contempt for the rule of law". For King, "it's hard to see what the justification is for the continued existence of the IRA".

I don't know Adams well - I watched his career blossom when I reported from Northern Ireland and never really took to him - but many of my Irish-American acquaintances are telling me that he let the successes of the past decade go to his head. Conor O'Clery, the excellent chronicler of unfolding US policy towards Northern Ireland for the Irish Times, recalls how in 1995 the Clinton White House served Washington's honoured guest Dublin prawns and Bushmills whiskey in the East Room. Since then, Adams had not missed a St Patrick's Day in the White House, until this year. And though John Hume and David Trimble went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 1998, it was he who really captured the imagination of America.

The first missteps came in 2001, when three Irish republicans were arrested in Bogota and accused of teaching urban bombing techniques to Farc, the Colombian guerrilla group. Both the Irish and British governments told the Bush administration that the men were members of the Provisional IRA; two had been imprisoned in Northern Ireland, and one had been a Sinn Fein election agent. (Last year the men were acquitted of the charges but found guilty of travelling with false documents.)

The Bush administration, however, still bought the line that Sinn Fein was unconnected with the IRA and that Adams was a straightforward, independent Irish politician. But 11 September 2001 changed American sensibilities towards anybody whose name could be linked even faintly to terrorism, and, in the welter of goodwill that followed, the British insisted to Washington that Adams was on the IRA's seven-member ruling army council.

Perhaps Adams could still have survived, but he committed a cardinal error only weeks after 9/11 by making an "official visit" to Cuba. Americans were (and still are) prohibited from travelling to commie Cuba, and the right-wing Irish-American businessmen who helped fund Sinn Fein were appalled. Peter King - a likeable figure whom Sir Christopher Meyer did much to cultivate while he was British ambassador here - pleaded with him not to go, as did Richard Haass, the Clinton administration's envoy to Northern Ireland.

Adams insisted, and some embarrassing intelligence was soon passed on to Washington as a result: Niall Connolly, one of the three men imprisoned in Colombia, was married to a Cuban and lived on the island. A link, however spurious, had been made for the post-9/11 Bush administration: through Connolly, Adams was connected with international terrorism, and his visit to Cuba proved this. A downhill slide had begun for Adams and Sinn Fein, though the former continued to receive his White House invitations. The public opposition of Sinn Fein to the 2003 war in Iraq, meanwhile, enraged supporters both in and outside the administration.

But it was December's £26.5m armed robbery at the Northern Bank in Donegall Square in Belfast - right on my old stomping ground - that really landed the decisive blow against Adams. British government policy since the 1970s has been to depict the IRA's men as common criminals, and it was the same tactic that worked so well in this instance. When Tony Blair and the Irish prime minister, Bertie Ahern, insisted publicly that the robbery was the work of the Provisional IRA - and privately that Adams had foreknowledge of it while talking to US officials - the die was cast. Romantic freedom-fighting was one thing, squalid criminality quite another.

The gruesome death of Robert McCartney in Magennis's bar in Short Strand in January - and the IRA's subsequent offer to shoot the murderers - then closed the door firmly on Adams and Sinn Fein. Throw in the grieving McCartney women to pose for pictures in the East Room on 17 March, and it was game, set and match. Last month Dermot Ahern, the Irish foreign minister, flew to Washington where he briefed Reiss and Kennedy, among others, on the fallout from the bank robbery and the McCartney murder.

I wonder, though, whether we have really heard the last of Gerry Adams in Washington. I have never forgotten just how enthusiastic Soderberg was in the White House a decade ago when she trilled to me about his virtues ("very engaging . . . wonderful sense of humour . . . delightful laugh" ). Clinton himself was so caught up in the romance of it all that he proclaimed (on Air Force One), "I look Irish; I am Irish."

The McCartney Five finally flew triumphantly into Baltimore on Tuesday, just as Adams penitentially ate boiled ham and cabbage with supporters in New Jersey. If he plays his cards right, he still has a lucrative life ahead of him here as the mystical Irish peacemaker who fell foul of the IRA; but first he will need, somehow, to extricate himself from the IRA - and then live to tell the tale.

Andrew Stephen was appointed US Editor of the New Statesman in 2001, having been its Washington correspondent and weekly columnist since 1998. He is a regular contributor to BBC news programs and to The Sunday Times Magazine. He has also written for a variety of US newspapers including The New York Times Op-Ed pages. He came to the US in 1989 to be Washington Bureau Chief of The Observer and in 1992 was made Foreign Correspondent of the Year by the American Overseas Press Club for his coverage.

This article first appeared in the 21 March 2005 issue of the New Statesman, What Britain really thinks