Two factors were at play when Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams missed his flight to Buffalo on St. Patrick's Day: While he received extra scrutiny because his name is on a terror watch list, an airline spokeswoman said he also arrived at a busy airport far later than he should have.
United Airlines' Robin Urbanski said a printout shows Adams reached the ticket counter at 4:29 p.m. for a flight scheduled to take off at 5:10 -- the very minute the Transportation Security Administration cleared Adams to board.
Even if Adams could have sprinted within seconds to his gate at the sprawling Dulles International Airport, United Express Flight 7321 to Buffalo was already rolling to the runway.
Adams allowed "a very, very, very short time to go from point A to point B," Urbanski said, especially during a Friday rush hour.
Hours earlier, Adams had eaten lunch at the White House during a St. Patrick's Day event involving President Bush. But at Dulles, he required a second security screening for reasons Urbanski would not discuss.
Most likely, it's because the names of Adams and another member of his party appear on a federal terror watch list, as Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, disclosed Friday when he explained to a crowd of 700 jammed into the Buffalo Irish Center why Adams missed his plane and had to cancel his first visit to Buffalo.
Rita O'Hare, Sinn Fein's U.S. representative who was traveling with Adams, said they got to the airport around 3:45 p.m., but she did not recall how long it took them to reach the ticket counter.
O'Hare said each time they try to fly in the United States, airline attendants punch their names into computer screens, then freeze when the alerts flash. At that point, one of Ireland's most popular figures waits, and waits some more, until he can be cleared to board, she said.
That scenario played out a few days earlier when Adams tried to fly from Newark, N.J., to Washington, D.C. But the jetway gate closed behind him. Not in front of him.
Adams said Saturday that tedious screening checks at U.S. airports have become an "occupational hazard" for him and others with Ireland's Sinn Fein Party, and he has raised the matter with officials at the White House and State Department.
Still, he said he doubts the annoyance will end, so his schedule when visiting the United States may continue to go awry. But he vowed to keep his promise to Higgins to visit Buffalo someday.
"I certainly don't blame the airport staff or anyone else. And I have no problem with routine security checks," Adams said, speaking by phone from a train taking him to an event in Springfield, Mass. "What I have a problem with is the practice of putting Sinn Fein through all of this. And also . . . before we move, we give the State Department our itinerary." He called the treatment unacceptable and unfair.
"We don't have anything to say about this incident because it doesn't have anything to do with the State Department," said spokeswoman Janelle Hironimus, after speaking with the department's Bureau of Consular Affairs. "Homeland Security, according to Consular Affairs, has the discretion to ask questions of anyone who comes through our borders . . . so it's really the purview of Homeland Security."
Adams, 57, has been widely credited with making Sinn Fein a professional political party as opposed to a political front for the Irish Republican Army, which last year discarded its arms stockpile and declared an end to its decades-long military campaign.
"The British government and the government of Ireland both recognize Sinn Fein as a legitimate political party with Gerry Adams as its president," Higgins said Saturday, stressing there is no reason for Adams to be on a watch list. "Gerry Adams has, over the past 20 years, pulled the Irish Republican Army away from its campaign of physical force to achieve political ends."
After rebuffing Adams last year, the White House invited him to Friday's traditional St. Patrick's Day celebration but allowed him only into a gathering of hundreds of people with Irish links.
President Bush also met with a smaller group that included families of two men they said were killed by the IRA in Dublin and Belfast last year, according to The London Daily Telegraph. The newspaper described the symbolism as a setback to Adams and Sinn Fein.
Around St. Patrick's Day, Adams visits Northeast cities with sizable numbers of Irish Americans. Americans have donated generously to Friends of Sinn Fein USA, a fund-raising arm. Adams is barred from raising money during his visits to this country.
He said he was generally pleased when Bush pledged during the luncheon that his administration would focus on resuming peace efforts in Northern Ireland. "I welcome that," Adams said.
In the meantime, he is conducting this year's tour without his luggage. When interviewed during a conference arranged by Higgins and his staff, Adams was unsure where his bags had ended up.
How does he go from having lunch with the president of the United States to being delayed at the airport? "Well," Adams said, "I never die of boredom."