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Gerry Adams Meets Bill Clinton for the First Time

For the United States Congress‘s annual St. Patrick’s Day luncheon on March 16, 1995, Newt Gingrich, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, invites Ireland’s new Taoiseach, John Bruton, to be the main event. However, the first handshake between President Bill Clinton and Gerry Adams, the head of Sinn Féin, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), steals the spotlight.

Some of the fifty people at the luncheon, most of them Irish American members of Congress, think Clinton might forgo a handshake because he is under tremendous pressure from Britain’s Prime Minister John Major not to give Adams a warm embrace. But Clinton does not hesitate although the handshake comes after photographers have left the room.

“Gerry was concerned about the protocol of how he should go up to the President, but when he walked up, the President gave him a very big handshake,” says Representative Peter T. King, a Republican from Seaford, Long Island, who sits to the right of Adams at the lunch. After an awkward moment of silence, the room explodes with applause.

The President and the Sinn Féin leader speak for five minutes. Later Adams says, “The engagement was positive, was cordial.”

According to Rep. King, Clinton says he is committed to making the Irish peace effort succeed and, while talking to Adams, puts his fist in front of him and says, “This is going to work.” Adams says Clinton does not urge him to make sure the IRA disarms, something Major asked the President to do. Clinton invites Adams to a White House reception scheduled for the following day and, according to his aides, plans to speak to Major over the weekend in an effort to patch up their differences.

The tone at the luncheon is often light. Clinton jokes that finally he is at a place where people will not criticize him for taking a drink of Guinness. Also, Bruton hails Gingrich as an honorary Irishman, noting that his mother apparently descended from the Doherty clan of County Donegal.

Wearing a white carnation tinged with green, Gingrich gives the Taoiseach a bowl of Georgia peanuts and a book on the history of the United States Capitol. Telling Gingrich that he is not the first person to consider overhauling welfare, Bruton gives him an 1840’s book about welfare reform in Ireland.

Some attendees joke that there are almost as many Kennedys at the luncheon as there are Republicans. There are Senator Edward M. Kennedy and Representative Joseph P. Kennedy, both of Massachusetts, Representative Patrick Kennedy of Rhode Island, and Jean Kennedy Smith, the American Ambassador to Ireland.

The menu would make any Irishman proud: boiled corned beef and cabbage, boiled potatoes, soda bread and lime sherbet.

(From: “Gerry Adams Shakes Hands With Clinton” published in The New York Times, March 17, 1995)