This subtle evolution didn’t register within the State Department, but it did with the people Clinton had chosen to work on the problem. John Hume, who was one of the most respected political figures in Northern Ireland pursuing a nonviolent end to the Troubles, quietly told both Kennedys, as well as Soderberg, that “now, I think, it’s time.”
In light of these assurances, the three Clinton allies urged the president to take action on Adams. Although the president agreed relatively quickly to do so, the decision to grant the visa was still a difficult one for him. It came after a year of political pain stemming from fights over tax increases and trade policy, and in the midst of erupting personal scandals. What’s more, Clinton’s Cabinet-level advisers were still vigorously opposed to his plan. Soderberg, in her oral-history interviews, described the moment that Clinton presented his decision to them:
The Cabinet got into it, screamingly, saying, “Don’t you dare!” … [FBI Director] Louis Freeh was apoplectic. [Attorney General] Janet Reno was apoplectic. [Secretary of State] Warren Christopher—opposed to it. Louis Freeh was anti-terrorism, and Janet Reno the same thing. “You can’t do this; it will send a [bad] message to our anti-terrorist allies.” Warren Christopher was saying that it would ruin our relationship with Britain.
Clinton, however, stuck with his back-channel guidance. He issued the visa in January 1994 in order to “boost Adams’s leverage within Sinn Fein and the IRA, while increasing American influence with him,” as Clinton later described in his memoir, My Life.
It accomplished both aims. Adams’s brief visit, limited to a speech to the National Committee on American Foreign Policy in New York City, went off without a hitch. Adams later observed in his oral history that Clinton’s decision showed the IRA hardliners unwilling to turn away from violence “that we did have some clout, that our argument within Republicanism was that you can only use armed struggle if there’s no alternative. But if there was an alternative, why on Earth would you be involved in anything other than peaceful and democratic means to achieve your goals?”
The Irish American journalist Niall O’Dowd, who had served as a secret U.S. conduit to Adams throughout the peace negotiations, later wrote about the importance of Clinton taking a chance on Adams when the American law-enforcement and intelligence communities were vigorously opposed to it. His “unorthodox, outside-the-box maneuver played a massive role in bringing an end to the violence in Northern Ireland,” O’Dowd wrote, proving “that the soft power of an American president when used so brilliantly could solve a problem so difficult some people … pronounced it unsolvable.”
The president later dispatched former Senator George Mitchell of Maine to engage in negotiations on an accord permanently ending the violence in exchange for increased power sharing in Belfast. Mitchell, who had also been a federal judge, steered the lengthy and painstaking process that ultimately concluded with the Good Friday Agreement on April 10, 1998. British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who helped shepherd it to completion, reflected on Clinton’s role in an oral-history interview recorded in 2010:
During the critical negotiations, … he basically stayed out all day and night, really, to help us, to be at the end of the phone for counsel and to be on the phone for prodding and pushing the parties to get an agreement. … He could see this was, essentially, in some ways, an old-fashioned dispute. He was, in his soul, a kind of modernizer in his outlook and was thinking, “Let’s sort this out and move forward.” … It was remarkable how he got the issue. Got it, understood it. When I was talking to him during those three or four days, you really didn’t have to explain it to him very fast. He just got it instinctively and immediately.
The coming weeks will reveal how committed Trump is to the negotiations with North Korea; according to The New York Times, administration officials are now “working to lay the groundwork” for a summit meeting next month. O’Dowd, in his oral history of the peace process, suggested one additional trait of Clinton’s that helped make the negotiations work—and it’s one of special significance to President Trump. “I think the fact that Clinton was a [political] outsider helped a lot, that he wasn’t a creature of the establishment,” O’Dowd explained in his oral history of the peace process. “[He] was a guy who didn’t necessarily recognize accepted wisdom. I think that was deeply important on the issue of Northern Ireland.” Clinton’s outsider status meant that he had a productive skepticism about the advice he was getting through formal channels and thus he was able to see “an old-fashioned dispute” with fresh eyes. While the current White House hasn’t publicly revealed the keen sense of history, the skilled staff work, or the persistent application of effort that helped produce a breakthrough peace in Northern Ireland, Trump’s status as a geopolitical outsider is a given.