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Best of the west

New York visits starts with a bang

By Máirtín Ó Muilleoir

There are a few places you don’t want to find yourself when you’ve queued for an hour and finally come within two places of a worryingly stern immigration officer at the visa clearance hall in Newark Airport.

And one of them is behind a guy who kindly lends you a pen to dot a few ‘i’s on your entry form before revealing that he’s been handling explosives.

“RDX to be exact,” he says, “and the machine identified it correctly last time I went through this place.”

All of which makes me look at his snug little backpack a little differently. “He couldn’t, could he? And did I really need to handle the pen he’d just been using?”

As I pondered just how you explain the presence on your hands of explosives to the Homeland Security heavyheads, my new-found friend reveals that explosives is his game.

Apparently he works for Oldcastle, formerly Cement Roadstone Holdings, an Irish firm with extensive quarrying operations in the US. And he was on his way from Bangor to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, to blow things up for quarrying companies there.

Do the Irish have a competitive edge on explosives services? It may not be the message Invest NI wishes to promote, but it has certainly created a job for at least one guy.

I am in New York for the third annual New York-New Belfast conference at the prestigious Fordham University. Among our speakers on opening night (Wednesday) will be Fr Joseph McShane, the dynamic President of the Jesuit college. There’s something different about many of the activist clergy I meet in the States  – making them more Des Wilson than Cahal Daly. For the proof of that, go to the ‘mission section’ on the university  homepage where you’ll see this: “Fordham is committed to research and education that assist in the alleviation of poverty, the promotion of justice, the protection of human rights and respect for the environment.”

If anyone can find that on  the homepage of Queen’s University, please send me the link.

The theme of this year’s conference is ‘Community, Culture, Commerce’ and the role of the Belfast Media Group and our sister publication in the States, The Irish Echo, is, as our friend from Bangor would suggest, to light the blue touch-paper and stand well back.

And with a bunch like this under one roof, there’s certain to be fireworks:

• Oscar winners Terry and Oorlagh George

• Big Apple poet laureate Pete Hamill (whose parents hail from Belfast)

• Belfast film-maker and artist Marcus Robinson who’s been embedded at Ground Zero since 2005

• New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn – the most powerful woman in New York

• Comptroller John Liu, the man who holds the city’s $120bn purse strings.

• Playwrights Marie Jones and Martin Lynch

• Nightingale Gráinne Holland and tenor David O’Leary – fresh from singing for President Obama

And that’s just to give you a flavour of the culture component. There’s as compelling a line-up in the community and commerce sections – not to mention the welcome presence of one Sammy Wilson on his first official visit to the United States.

In fact, we plan to raise the roof at Fordham on opening night – which may mean I have some explaining to do to Homeland Security on my through Newark Airport on Saturday, even if I don’t bump into the Bangor banger.

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