St. Patrick’s Day parade versus Irish freedom

March 25, 2014

Led by the mayors of New York City and Boston, more political figures and organizations boycotted the St. Patrick's Day parade this year than ever before--because of the exclusionary practices of parade organizers. Sandy Boyer, a longtime activist for Irish freedom and co-host of the weekly Radio Free Eireann on WBAI in New York City, looks at the questions that supporters of the freedom struggle need to confront.

WHEN THE Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) marched up Fifth Avenue in New York City's St. Patrick's Day Parade, it should have been crystal clear, if it wasn't already, that this parade is incompatible with any serious effort to support Irish freedom. The PSNI is the infamous British police force in Northern Ireland with front-line responsibility for political repression.

The parade organizers have spent decades actively opposing Irish freedom:

They had Northern Ireland civil rights leader Eamonn McCann and a group of civil rights activists arrested for trying to bring a banner supporting civil rights in Northern Ireland into the parade.

They have repeatedly banned portraits of Bobby Sands and the other nine men who died on the 1981 hunger strike from the parade.

When the parade was supposed to be honoring Joe Doherty, a member of the IRA who was imprisoned in New York's Metropolitan Correctional Center, a parade organizer ripped a poster of him from his sister's arms. His supporters were forbidden to chant his name on the way up the avenue.

Members of the PSNI gathered to march in New York's St. Patrick's Day Parade
Members of the PSNI gathered to march in New York's St. Patrick's Day Parade

The Parade Committee's determination to discriminate against LGBT organizations has also divided supporters of Irish freedom from virtually every potential source of new support, at just the time when we may need it the most.

This year, New York's new liberal Mayor Bill de Blasio drew headlines because, unlike his immediate predecessors, he refused to march in the parade. The media scarcely noticed that de Blasio was only making an existing boycott by public officials complete. The New York state governor, comptroller and attorney general were already refusing to march. So were the New York City comptroller, public advocate and speaker of the City Council.

When pressure from the LGBT community forced Guinness to cancel its sponsorship, the Parade Committee was more isolated than ever before. It hurt them where it hurts the most--in the bank account. Now there is intense pressure on Ford, the parade's last corporate sponsor, to pull out as well.

Still, there are many people who are deeply committed to Irish freedom, but who still march in the parade, while they curse the Parade Committee under their breath.

Now they have a stark choice.

THE EASY way will be to stick with the sinking ship and hope against hope that the Parade Committee will somehow reform itself. Unfortunately, that would also make it more difficult to reach out beyond the very small corps who of people who are already willing to work for a free and independent Ireland.

The LBGT community, for example, could be a source of new allies. It showed its power when Guiness pulled out of the parade. The historic Stonewall Inn, where the gay liberation movement was born, was threatening to pour kegs of Guinness down the sewer on St. Patrick's Day to launch a national boycott. That was a public relations disaster the company couldn't afford.

The Guinness protest drew widespread attention from the mainstream media. When a few of us showed up at the parade to protest the PSNI, no one noticed.

There are LGBT leaders who would be willing to help build support for Irish political prisoners. But that will be far more difficult for them as long as the Irish community is seen to be supporting this homophobic parade.

Some of the same public officials who are boycotting the parade could be useful sources of support. For example, both New York state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, who refuses to march in the parade, and Daniel Dromm, an openly gay member of the New York City Council, supported Martin Corey when he was imprisoned without charge or trial. DiNapoli raised Corey's plight with Britain's Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Theresa Villiers when she came looking for investment from the state pension fund. Dromm wrote to Villiers to demand Corey's release.

The attitude toward the parade is symptomatic of a larger problem. Many in the Irish-American community welcome solidarity, but don't want to give it in return. This applies not just to the LBGT movement, but to African Americans, Latinos and even the immigrant rights movement.

Some of those working for undocumented Irish immigrants even indulge in the fantasy that the Irish will get some sort of special deal that leaves all the other immigrants behind.

The reality of American politics is that pressure for immigration reform is being driven by Latinos, not the Irish, because Latinos are a steadily growing voting bloc that politicians believe is up for grabs. The best strategy for the undocumented Irish would be to take a very public stand with "the Dreamers"--the young Latino immigrants who publicly risk deportation to demand comprehensive immigration reform for everyone.

If we want to build a larger coalition for Irish freedom, the problem, as always, is where to start. Or as the great Irish-American socialist James P. Cannon was fond of saying, "The crucial question is what to do next. If we get that right, we'll live to fight another day."

In the best of all possible worlds, Irish organizations would publicly denounce the parade and threaten not to march next year unless the Parade Committee agrees to let LGBT organizations march on the same basis as everyone else. That would have an immense effect and might even force positive change in the parade.

For those unwilling to risk such a bold and potentially unpopular step, there is always the St. Pat's for All Parade dedicated to "treating all the children of the nation equally." Every year, it draws not only LGBT organizations, but Latinos, Asians, African Americans, labor and religious groups and a Who's Who of New York City politicians, starting with the mayor.

There is nothing to stop AOH [Ancient Order of Hibernians] Divisions, the Irish American Labor Coalition, the Friends of Irish Freedom, the National Irish Freedom Committee and similar organizations from marching as well.

They would be taking a very public stand for equality. It would also be at least a small first step toward winning new support for Irish freedom.

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