Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams recalls his experiences over the years at the hands of US security officials.
Richard McAuley and I were the only male caucasians in the large “holding room” at Newark airport, in the US. The rest of the people there - men and women of all ages and even a scattering of children - were mostly dark-skinned. The majority of our companions looked as if they were of Middle Eastern origin.
It was at passport control that Richard, my press secretary, and I were taken out of the line. Once our passports are put into an airport computer, the machine tends to light up like the Christmas tree at Belfast City Hall.
So, over the past decade or so, we have come to know a lot of airport holding rooms. Lots of times, by arrangement with the US state department, our entry into America is eased and an official will take us out of the line. Open sesame - before we know it, we are in the land of Uncle Sam, ready to be whisked off to whatever event we are attending.
Lots of times, this process isn’t quite so straightforward, though. Once the computer lights up, that’s it. In the holding room, it may only be a matter of form, but it depends who is about the place.
Sometimes the FBI is around. That can be a bit of a pain. Most of the FBI people at airports are young fellas.
“Have you a schedule, sir?”
“Yup,” I say, with the patience of a man used to spending four or five hours at a time at the side of Irish roads in the company of the British Army’s Parachute Regiment, back in the days when British Army roadblocks were daily rites of passage.
I hand the FBI young gun a copy of my travel schedule - a document that has been in the possession of the US state department for the past month or so.
“Huh,” he says. “Why are you going to the White House, sir?”
“To see the president.”
“He asked me,” I say evenly.
My deadpan delivery is wasted on him. Maybe he is used to dealing with wise guys.
“I can’t discuss that with you. Security ... you know what I mean.”
“Huh,” he says, looking me straight in the eyes. I return his gaze. I have been interrogated on a number of occasions at Palace Barracks, where they beat you for the hell of it, so playing at “blinking first” with the FBI apprentice and letting him win is no problem.
No, sir. Such delays are par for the course. This time the hold-up causes us to miss a number of engagements. It’s the first time that has happened, but we have missed a flight before. And a flight home that was, too.
When you’re trying to get into America or travelling about the country by air, one of the battery of security measures in force is called “secondary security screening selection”, or SSSS. This is usually a random selection, we are told. The legend SSSS is stamped on the tickets of those randomly selected, and the lucky ticket holder gets extra attention.
Richard and I are randomly included for this treatment all the time. Before 9/11, we used to get delayed at only one stage on entering America - the holding-room experience outlined above. Since 9/11, it happens everywhere, even on domestic flights. And there is nothing the security people at the airports can do about it, even if they wanted to.
The first delay is at the check-in desk. Then at the security section. Then just before boarding. Sometimes our bags are checked twice, and we have been body searched three times. A couple of times, our bags have been taken off the plane for another search. That’s why we always leave lots of time for checking in.
When we were leaving Washington after St Patrick’s Day last year, we arrived at Dulles airport not long after 3.30pm for a 5.20pm flight to Buffalo. We went from a presidential reception at the White House to the airport. Dulles was busy. The SSSS made it even busier. I settled down with my book and took it easy. There is no point in not taking it easy.
Later, when we missed our flight, we joined a queue of people, most of whom were of Middle Eastern appearance, looking to retrieve their luggage. Some were elderly. A few were quite distraught. They could not speak English and were obviously distressed at the way they were being treated. The man behind the desk was friendly.
“You must be Irish,” he said. “You look like that guy, Adams.”
“I know,” I said. “He’s always getting me into trouble.”
“Happy St Patrick’s day,” he said, smiling. “We’ll forward your bag to you.”
“Happy Paddy’s day to you too,” I said.
We never made the event we were scheduled for. My bag did. Then it took the long, scenic route home without me. But that’s another story.
Brian Higgins, the congressman who was to have been our host that evening, was so incensed about all this that he kicked up a row with all the right people and we never got bothered again. Until last month, that is. It was the official at passport control at Newark who started it.
“What usually happens when you come to the USA?” she asked.
“I usually have a nice time,” I replied with a winning smile.
“That’s not what I mean,” she said crossly, handing me back my ticket.
“Escort!” she bellowed.
The holding room beckoned. Serves me right? Ach well, don’t rush to judgment. You’ll get your chance. SSSS rules and it’s coming to an airport close to you soon.