Sinn Fein official under U.S. travel ban for violating visa restrictions

Sunday, May 22, 2005

DUBLIN, Ireland -- U.S. immigration officials have barred a senior American-based representative of Sinn Fein from traveling back to the United States after a trip to Ireland because she violated her visa restrictions, the Irish Republican Army-linked party said Saturday.

Rita O'Hare, who has been Sinn Fein's senior lobbyist and organizer in the United States since 1998, was denied a visa to accompany Sinn Fein deputy leader Martin McGuinness on his visit next week to New York and Washington.

Peter King, a Republican congressman from New York who is sympathetic to Sinn Fein, said U.S. officials were trying to "send a signal" to the group with the travel ban.

On Saturday, McGuinness and O'Hare met U.S. ambassador to Ireland James Kenny to seek a reversal of the ban.

U.S. immigration officials say O'Hare is being punished because she violated the terms of a previous visa by traveling without authorization to Florida.

King said Saturday that the ban was the result of "Homeland Security and the FBI trying to send a signal."

King said he had spoken to President Bush's envoy to Northern Ireland, Mitchell Reiss, and came away with the understanding that O'Hare would be able to return to the U.S. if she reapplied for a visa.

"I believe this is a one-time event," King said. He said he believed the government had "made a mistake" with the decision.

Belfast-born O'Hare requires a special U.S. visa because she jumped bail in Northern Ireland more than 30 years ago while awaiting trial for attempted murder of British soldiers and remains subject to arrest if she returns to the British territory. As part of her U.S. visa restrictions, she must notify the State Department of her specific travel plans.

Although based in Washington, O'Hare regularly travels to Ireland to see her family and party colleagues.

McGuinness, a reputed IRA commander who also requires special visas because of his criminal record, accused U.S. authorities of inconsistency.

He noted that O'Hare's Florida trip was in January, but she received visas in March and April. He said U.S. authorities have been letting O'Hare travel "for almost seven years promoting the peace process, regularly meeting with U.S. politicians and Irish America."

The Irish Times newspaper reported Saturday that the State Department did not consider the refusal of O'Hare's trip a change in policy toward Sinn Fein officials. They were once banned from visiting the United States but have been permitted since 1994, the year of the IRA's first lengthy cease-fire.

Bush has adopted a less friendly policy toward Sinn Fein than his predecessor, Bill Clinton, who was heavily involved in promoting the IRA cease-fires of 1994 and 1997 and Northern Ireland's 1998 peace accord.

On March 17, St. Patrick's Day, Bush pointedly declined to invite Sinn Fein to traditional White House festivities and instead met five Belfast sisters who have been highlighting the IRA's Jan. 30 killing of their brother.

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