Friday, September 15, 2017

The Dreaded SSSS

Last Friday I arrived in New York for an overnight visit. I was there to speak at the Irish Echo’s Labor (it’s the US spelling) Awards. On Saturday I met up with my good friend Bill Flynn for lunch. Bill celebrated his 91st birthday on Labor Day last week. He was as sharp as ever in his observations about the political situation in the USA and in Ireland.
The Irish Echo Labor Awards event was a huge success. So too was our brief visit to the Labor March to meet old friends and to make new ones. My congratulations to all involved especially the honourees and their families. 
It was as a result of the hard work of Bill, Niall O’Dowd, Bruce Morrison, Chuck Feeney and others in Irish America that I first received a visa to allow me entry into the USA in January 1994. Since then I have regularly travelled to the USA – at least four times a year. I go there in response to invitations and am very grateful for the opportunity to present Sinn Féin’s analysis of developments in Ireland; to seek support for the peace process; to lobby for investment, to meet political leaders and administration officials; and to fundraise through Friends of Sinn Féin. Our travel itinerary is always given to the US Consul in Belfast well in advance and we have visas. 
In recent years the staff of Aer Lingus, Delta and other airlines have become very familiar with myself and RG. They have the task of navigating their way through the bureaucratic hurdles thrown up by an increasingly security conscious US system.
As a result RG insists that we now arrive at airports for USA trips at least four hours before departure time. We have both come to appreciate the looks of consternation on the airline officials faces when they first punch in our names into their computers. They then have to phone someone in the USA to get us our boarding passes. That can take up to two hours. In Dublin at least the airline people know the score. Stateside they haven't a clue what it's all about. 
Inevitably they are apologetic. ‘Sorry this is taking so long’. ‘I don’t understand why there is this delay’. ‘The supervisor is also on the phone trying to resolve this.’ ‘We’re very sorry.’
Eventually the word comes through. The machine punches out our boarding passes and labels for the bags, and the first hurdle has been overcome. The second hurdle awaits. It is printed on the boarding pass – the dreaded four SSSS’s – Secondary Security Screening Selection. To make sure no one misses the instruction the staff have to write SSSS in large lettering across the boarding pass also and circle it. Last Saturday one enthusiastic staff member at JFK airport got so carried away she used a puncher label to print SSSS in large red letters six times across each pass!
We are always told that this procedure is random. I’m sure that is true for most people. And I have no problem with that. But RG and I have received the 4 SSSS’s on every boarding pass for over ten years. As a result when we reach the security area – either at the preclearance in Dublin or any airport in the USA – we are taken out of the line. We and our bags are methodically searched.
Because last weekend was simply an overnight visit RG and I had brought small overnight carry-on bags. They received the same treatment. The officer involved in my search was abrupt and unpleasant. His mammy would have been embarrassed.
When we got to the Departure Gate there was a repeat performance but this time with much more relaxed and pleasant searchers. Then as RG wandered towards the plane I was relieved of my passport. I was standing in no man’s land between the gate and the plane for another ten minutes. Much to the amusement of many of the other passengers. Selfie Hell. I eventually got on board. My passport was only returned then by an embarrassed airline manager.
In the context of the 16th anniversary of the September 11 attacks I am very mindful of the need for airline security – for every effort to be made to protect passengers. But singling out Sinn Féin reps actually distracts security attention from those who do present a threat. I have raised this issue many times with US officials. Some are obviously embarrassed. It runs entirely against the commitment of President Bill Clinton 20 years ago to regularise relations between Sinn Féin and the US administration. 
Nowadays children or grand-children of Sinn Féin representatives are singled out for special treatment. They too go on whatever list is kept by Homeland Security. 
All of this can at times have a Monty Pythonesque feel to it. Leaving Havana two years ago Cuban diplomatic officials told us that the airline couldn’t issue our boarding passes because the plane would be flying over US airspace and we didn’t have clearance. We were told the flight had to log a new flightplan away from US airspace before we could get our boarding passes.
Last month we were delayed so long in Dublin that we missed our flight. We were told there was no way we would get away that day. Only for the professionalism of Aer Lingus staff our schedule would have been up ended. They got us a later flight on the same day. 
So why am I writing about this? It's because other protestations have failed. And this isn't just happening on President Trump's watch. The same things happened under President Obama and before him. In fact it happened as we were going to meet with Presidents at their invitation.  Home Land Security Rules. 
Sinn Féin doesn’t expect special treatment. We have no absolute right to visit anyones country but I have always travelled there only at the invite of American citizens. The dreaded SSSS is a nuisance. It’s also an example of how big systems – or even wee systems – can get bogged down in bureaucracy. Even when it’s patently no benefit to anyone. On the other hand the 4 SSSSs keep us grounded.

Below: At the Labor Day events in New York

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