Barmy logic of US Homeland Security officials
Barmy logic of US Homeland Security officials

By Danny Morrison (for Daily Ireland)

Seven hundred people gathered on St Patrick’s night in Buffalo to hear Gerry Adams give an address on the subject of the peace process. However, he didn’t appear, having been detained by Homeland Security officials at Reagan National Airport in Washington, until he missed his flight.

Since 1994 Gerry Adams and other Sinn Féin representatives have been granted visas on scores of occasions to visit the USA. Of course, this wasn’t always the case.

Throughout our recent conflict US authorities consistently denied republicans - and certainly former prisoners - visas to visit relatives in the States or speak at public engagements. Republicans, depending on whether they had a prison record, got around this by various means: using British passports which didn’t require a visa stamp; using false passports; applying for an Irish passport with their name in Gaelic (if they had a prison record under their name in English), then successfully applying for a visa; or going in through Canada and slipping across the border - to Buffalo!

From Buffalo you could catch a plane or train to wherever.

Just after the hunger strike, in 1981, Owen Carron MP had been denied a visa to address Irish Northern Aid’s annual meeting in New York. Sinn Féin then decided to defy the censorship-by-visa-denial policy of the US authorities. Unionists, loyalists, British MPs could go and give their side of the story but not republicans.

In January 1982, on the basis that one of us would successfully slip across the US border, Owen Carron and I separately flew to Toronto. I was immediately arrested at the airport. My cover story was that I was in Toronto to shadow and challenge Ian Paisley who was then visiting the city. After satisfying an immigration hearing the following afternoon I was released.

A few days later Owen and I were given false Canadian papers. Again, separately, we left to cross the border without realising that we were being tailed by the FBI inside Canada. My driver was an Australian woman called Helen, who was married to an Irish man. When Helen and I crossed Peace Bridge at Niagara Falls we were stopped and asked for ID. I produced my false papers and both of us were promptly arrested. A few hours later Owen and his driver Paddy were brought in, having been arrested at the nearby Whirlpool Bridge. They were both in handcuffs.

Anyone else would have been guilty of a simple immigration offence. However, unknown to us, FBI men had stood in for the immigration officials so that when we lied about our IDs we were lying to the FBI and this made our actions a federal offence.

So, we were arrested, charged with attempting to enter the US without a visa and lying to a federal officer in the course of his duty. All four of us were remanded in custody at Erie County Penitentiary. In US jails, remand prisoners have to wear uniforms. We refused to wear the uniform. About 60 per cent of the people in the jail were black - even though they only make up about 11 per cent of the general population. The governor told us that if the black prisoners saw us white prisoners with our own clothes there would be a riot. So we were put beside the women’s wing where the majority of them - according to the guards - were prostitutes. Each day we went to court we would say hello to the women who all seemed to fancy Owen Carron. I told him that that was only because he was an MP.

A guard also told us that the best service to go to on Sunday was that of the Baptists who put on a great ‘concert’. We declared we were Baptists but the admin was having none of that and sent us all to mass - including Helen who was a Protestant.

Owen and I had witty and charming lawyers and shortly afterwards we got bail. (Jim Harrington and Mark Mahoney have remained in contact with us over the past 24 years, have visited Ireland and stayed with us and came to my trial in 1991 as observers).

The FBI seized our passports and kicked us back over the border into Canada from where we eventually made our way home.

Our trial was eventually held in Buffalo in October 1983.

We were now given a visa to enter the USA to appear in court for trying to enter the USA without a visa. When we arrived, the trial before ours hadn’t finished so we took full advantage of the delay by going on a speaking tour. Owen went to the West Coast, I to the East. In 1982 we had originally intended speaking at only one meeting in New York so the authorities had now created a set of circumstances that defeated their own purpose.

At the trial our co-accused were acquitted by the jury and Owen and I were found guilty (which we were) and sentenced to a year on probation.

A year earlier he and I had also been elected to the assembly. Judge John Curtin - who was very tolerant and progressive - took all this and a probation report into consideration, suspended the sentence and wished us well.

The issue of us having no money arose and the judge ordered the authorities to pay for our flights. The prosecution, US marshals and FBI agents were furious.

After the ceasefire I received many invitations to speak in the USA and on a number of occasions in the late 1990s when I applied for a visa I was asked to appear at the US Consulate in Belfast to be interviewed.

It is at such meetings that one gets an insight into the scary state of US intelligence.

At one meeting I was informed that the American authorities had information that I was opposed to the peace process. This was months after I had told the BBC in 1998 that in my opinion the armed struggle was over and I welcomed its end. I replied to the consul official that given that misreading of someone whose lips they could presumably read was it any wonder the US had bombed a pharmaceutical factory in Arabic-speaking Khartoum in mistake for a chemical weapons facility.

On another occasion the consul representative said that I would easily get into the States if I was in Sinn Féin.

“Let me get this right,” I said. “I was banned from entering the States because I was in Sinn Féin. And I’m now banned because I’m not in Sinn Féin.”

“That seems about right,” she said, before I was refused a visa.

Last week when Gerry Adams was stopped from speaking in Buffalo it was suggested that he was detained because he was on the US’s ‘terrorist watch list’.

That seems about right. Only hours before, someone on that list would have been at a party in the White House pictured sitting feet away from the world’s Number One assassination target, the Commander-in-Chief, George Bush himself.

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© 2006 Irish Republican News