Aides feared an “undignified hiding-behind-potted-plants scenario” during president Bill Clinton‘s trip to the UK, amid concerns a chance meeting between John Major and Gerry Adams would create unwanted press coverage.
The US president, on a visit to both London and Belfast in November 1995, was keen to return the favour after the prime minister and the Sinn Fein leader both travelled to Washington in previous weeks.
Mr Clinton’s intervention in granting a visa to Mr Adams for his US visit – though the pair did not meet at the White House – was credited with aiding the IRA ceasefire which later led to the Good Friday agreement.
Mr Major, who was in Downing Street when the republican terror group attacked it with mortars in 1991, was against the visa being granted.
But documents released by the National Archives at Kew showed Stormont aide Robert Crawford was cautious about Mr Clinton’s visit.
In a memo to Edward Oakden, Mr Major’s private secretary, Mr Crawford said: “Sinn Fein (probably Gerry Adams and others) will almost certainly be invited to the reception.
“We cannot see a way of the prime minister avoiding Gerry Adams without reverting to the undignified hiding-behind-the-potted plants scenario, which creates almost as valuable a news story as the first handshake.”
He also cautioned of the “real risk of political damage” if Mr Major was “too closely associated with this part” of president Clinton’s visit.
“The unionist community still mistrusts the president, and the nationalist community (particularly Sinn Fein) will be ready to make capital of perceived slights,” he added.
Mr Major told staff he was keen to accompany Mr Clinton on his visit, but appreciated the need to “avoid a handshake with Adams – and at the same time not look as if we were trying to avoid this,” Mr Oakden wrote.
But on the eve of the visit, the prime minister had decided against travelling to Belfast on the final leg of Mr Clinton’s UK tour.
Previously classified documents outlined Mr Major’s plans to host a black tie dinner for the president and his wife, Hillary, in London, at which politicians from across parliament were invited.
There was one omission, though.
“Expect carry (sic) remarks if you don’t ask (Labour leader Tony) Blair,” the mystery Downing Street scribe stated, “but can perhaps do without (Lib Dem leader Paddy) Ashdown after his recent behaviour.”
No further explanation was offered.