23 March 2006 Edition
Adams in the US: Negative predictions way off the mark
A successful week in the US
BY RICHARD McAULEY
The problem began with the four S's printed twice on the plane ticket. Well, that's not strictly accurate. The problem begins each time we present ourselves at a ticket desk for a flight to or from the USA, or within that country. The United States administration and its Transport Security Agency have Shinners on a list. And it's been like that for years. And for years we have raised this unfair and unacceptable designation with senior US officials and each time the buck gets passed. Last year Gerry and I missed a flight home out of Newark because of it and ended up having to return via Manchester.
The four S's mean that the airport official at the ticket desk cannot release our tickets until she or he has gone through the tedious task of phoning the TSA. Then they have to go though our passport and flight details - sometimes several times. The fact that we provide the State Department with all of this information before we even leave Ireland appears to be lost on the system. It demands this procedure and the official has to go through it.
This part of the process itself usually takes about 30 minutes. Our bags then have to get special screening, and then as we pass through security leading to the gates, the four S's ensure that we are pulled aside again for a thorough body and bag search. And if we're really lucky, and if there is security at the boarding gate, then its over to the side as we go through the whole rigmarole all over again.
So Dulles Airport at Washington last Friday saw much of this process play itself out. Only it took longer. The ticket official called for his supervisor who then replayed the conversation with the TSA on the phone. Then the computer locked the supervisor out. And all the time the clock was ticking. In the end we didn't make the flight. The 700 people in Buffalo who were waiting to hear Gerry speak about the peace process listened instead to their Congressman Brian Higgins criticise the system which had cost him his guest speaker. Gerry spoke to the Congressman by phone and promised to fulfill the speaking commitment in Buffalo in the future.
None of this is the fault of the airport staff. They're just doing their jobs. Our names go in - the computer lights up - and they have to follow procedure. The fact that the State Department has our full schedule before we leave Ireland, including our flight numbers, makes no difference. Of course, in this new world post September 11 and the war in Iraq, vigilance by the US authorities is understandable. But against Irish republicans? Against a Sinn Féin leadership which is the principle architect of the Good Friday Agreement and the peace process?
And inevitably all of this is grist to the mill of those anti-peace process elements in Ireland within unionism and sections of the media. Even before we had stepped onto the Continental flight to the US, elements of the Irish media were fixated with how far the US authorities would go in excluding Gerry Adams from the St. Patrick's Day events - some of this prompted by Irish government sources. The predictions were that few members of the Congress would meet us, that it would all be confrontational and that President Bush would ignore Gerry or push him to the margins of any event. Some even suggested he wouldn't meet the US President and would be put into a different room in the White House. The refusal to give him a fundraising visa was taken as evidence of this. The BBC even went so far as to carry a report claiming that Senator Ted Kennedy supported the administration's stand on a fundraising ban. They had to retract and apologise to Sinn Féin when this was revealed to be wrong. Equally off the mark were the negative predictions of how the trip would go.
The Sinn Féin meetings on Capitol Hill were the best attended of any held by Irish politicians during the week. No one we met could understand the logic of the fundraising decision. The meetings were, without exception, very positive.
At the Speakers' lunch on the Thursday the US President met Gerry, they shook hands and had several conversations. George W Bush is very aware of Sinn Féin's opposition to US foreign policy on a number of issues, including the War in Iraq. Gerry Adams has talked to the President on this a number of times. Despite these differences, or because of them, at the White House event on the Friday morning the Sinn Féin President was the only Irish politician, apart from Irish government Ministers, who was recognised in his speech by the President. And handshakes were exchanged again.
And yet someone, somewhere within the US system remains stuck in the old groove. Gerry was publicly very critical of Mitchell Reiss, the President's Special Envoy, and when they met, Gerry raised the fundraising issue with Reiss but no explanation was offered.
Since President Clinton's time the US has played a crucial and positive role in the development of the peace process. Even handedness was central to that. Treating all the parties as equals was important. US government policy is still clearly in support of the peace process. But the policy approach is off-key at this time. This is bad for the process. Why? Because a positive US influence, and the economic investment that it can bring to the situation, are all important to the process of building confidence and building the peace process.
However, the visits to the US are about more than Capitol Hill and the White House. The most important engagement Sinn Féin has in the US is with Irish America. Irish America is the dynamic in the US engagement with the peace process. Last week Gerry Adams addressed a packed hall at St. John's University. Among the students were long time activists on the peace process, including US business leader Bill Flynn. Gerry used the opportunity for the first time ever outside of Ireland to criticize the Irish government's approach to the current situation. He said: "The attitude of the Irish government within the process has been disappointing. Its stance in the recent Stormont talks, its breach of commitments on northern representation, and its pre-occupation with next years general election and the growth of Sinn Féin, have all had a negative impact on the process. It needs to see beyond narrow party political concerns."
• Gerry Adams with Hilary Clinton
At other events Gerry Adams spoke to a standing room only gig at Rory Dolan's in the Bronx, to the Irish American community in Holyoke, Massachusetts and a crammed event at the Hilton in Washington. On the three-mile walk during the St. Patrick's Day parade in Holyoke the tens of thousands lining the route gave him a warm Irish American welcome.
The message to everyone we met was the same. There is a need to make progress in the process. To achieve this requires the British and Irish governments to reconvene the Assembly before the summer and well in advance of the marching season. The two governments need to set out a timetable for the restoration of the political institutions and delivery on policing, justice, equality and human rights. A number of senior US representatives we spoke to, agreed to lobby the British government in support of our proposal.
Gerry Adams also took the opportunity to raise two other matters with all those he spoke to. Firstly, the issue of the undocumented Irish workers living in the United States and the case of Raymond McCord who is seeking support for an international based inquiry into the murder by the UVF of his son, Raymond, in 1998. Mr. Adams presented the members of Congress and the Senate with a briefing paper on the McCord case.
• Last week's St Patrick's Day Parade in Kansas City, USA remembered the 1981 Hunger Strikers
Adams raises Immigration Reform with US leaders
During his visit to the US last week Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams met Grant Lally, President of the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform and Ciaran Staunton one of the ILIR's founders. Also present at the meeting were Donegal County Councillor Pearse Doherty and the party's representative in the US Rita O' Hare.
Adams praised the efforts of the ILIR and pledged Sinn Féin's "full support for the ILIR and its campaign to win legal status for the estimated 40,000 plus undocumented Irish living and working in the USA.
"Key decisions on the future of undocumented immigrants in the USA will be taken shortly. These will have profound implications for the tens of thousands of Irish in the US who have no legal status", Adams said.
"There are competing and opposite draft Bills being debated in the US Congress and at our recent Ard Fheis Sinn Féin endorsed the McCain/Kennedy Bill as the best way of addressing this issue."
The Sinn Féin President later raised the issue in his meetings with US political leaders in Washington.