Decades after the IRA ceasefire, a former republican prisoner’s wife has been denied entry to the US because of her husband’s role in the IRA’s armed struggle.
Mother-of-six Bernadette Thompson, who was driving to New York City with her elderly mother and a niece, said she was quizzed for five hours by ‘Homeland Security’ at a border crossing between Canada and Buffalo, in New York state.
The 57-year-old was asked a series of questions about her husband, Billy, who was jailed more than three decades ago for IRA membership.
During the incident earlier this month she was finger-printed and photographed while her niece, a Canadian citizen, was also questioned about her uncle.
Mrs Thompson, who did not even know her husband at the time of his IRA conviction, was left upset and angry by her treatment. She believes she was stopped because of her husband’s past. She also said she was fearful that the apparent shift in US policy could have implications for the rest of her family in the future.
Before leaving home, they had both completed the relevant ‘ESTA’ application for an electronic travel authorisation, needed for travel into the US. The paperwork was approved. However, on trying to enter the US on Saturday, August 9, she was told the application had been denied weeks earlier and she had been requested, by email to visit the US Consul in Belfast to apply for a visa. She never received any email about her ESTA.
She said border officials and Homeland Security proceeded to quiz her about her husband and one of his relatives who lives in the US. They asked her if she was “leaving any gifts over in America” and also searched her niece’s car, in which the trio were travelling.
Following questioning, she was told she was being denied entry while her mother and niece would be free to go.
She said she had no problem five years earlier when she travelled to Florida with two of her children. When she contacted the US Consul on her return home at the weekend, she said she was told that Homeland Security can “decide who they want” to let in.
Mrs Thompson said her experience at the border had left her upset. “Three times we were asked the same questions. They took my fingerprints,” she said.
“They took a photo of me. I never had to get that done when we went to America. I want to know exactly why I didn’t get in.”
Mrs Thompson said she feared her sons would be subjected to the same treatment should they ever travel to the US.
“I was embarrassed for my family. My mummy was very, very upset about it. I am angry. I didn’t do nothing so why should I be at fault for what he did?
“My passport at the minute has got some numbers on it. If I go into another country, am I viewed as a terrorist?”
The clampdown on relatives of former IRA prisoners entering the US comes two decades after a ban on high-profile republicans was lifted when President Bill Clinton granted Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams a visa to enter the country.
Former 26 County Taoiseach Albert Reynolds, who passed away on Thursday, was widely praised this week for helping to negotiate the shift in US policy. The development in January 1994 helped bring Sinn Fein in to the mainstream political process. The move was directly linked to the ceasefire of the Provisional IRA eight months later, which sees its 20th anniversary next week.
The Coiste organisation, which representatives former political prisoners, said it was aware of a number of similar cases in which visas are being refused where previously they would have been issued.
A spokesman said the group was “extremely concerned about the recent trend towards banning the spouses and children of republican prisoners into the United States”.
“These are people with no convictions themselves but whose freedom of travel appears to be constrained by US authorities. It feels like punishing the family for the activities - often decades ago - of the father or mother,” a spokesman said.
“It seems, arbitrary, unfair and at variance with the great support some US leaders, including Presidents Clinton and Obama, have shown to support the peace process.”