Sunday 23 November 2014

Between a rock and a green place, Enda brushes off LGBT row

Published 18/03/2014 | 02:30

Taoiseach Enda Kenny marches up Fifth Avenue during the St. Patrick's Day parade in New York
Taoiseach Enda Kenny marches up Fifth Avenue during the St. Patrick's Day parade in New York

The New York mayor and the Taoiseach had obviously agreed to differ on their divergence over the parade.

"We have bonded immediately," said Bill de Blasio after a 20-minute meeting with Enda in City Hall.

"We spoke a lot about the general displacement of our young people and I could immediately tell I'm in the presence of a kindred soul," he enthused.

Enda was equally effusive about his new buddy. They had "great engagement, and I'm looking forward to Bill de Blasio being a great mayor of this city, and I want the Irish to be part of that".

There was no mention of the hoohah over the parade earlier in the day. Despite the bone-chilling cold, which had an iron grip on Fifth Avenue, the small group of gay rights campaigners on the corner of 56th Street were cheerfully noisy, waving placards and banners bearing slogans such as 'The L-word, it's not just Leprechaun', while chanting, "We're Irish, we're queer, we have a right to be here".

The phalanxes of immaculately uniformed members of the NYPD and NYFD, Marines, gardai and PSNI simply ignored them, as did the gaggles of GAA clubs, county pipe bands and Aran jumper-wearing American-Irish waving happily to the crowds lined along the route of the St Patrick's Day parade.

This annual show of strength and solidarity by the Irish and American-Irish community is woven into the very core of the Big Apple, but this year's parade has been overshadowed by controversy over the refusal by the organisers, the Ancient Order of Hibernians, to allow gay groups carry banners and participate in the march.

First, the mayor of Boston boycotted his city's parade on Sunday, and then New York's new mayor Bill de Blasio did likewise, in protest over the exclusion of gays.

And even more seriously for the event, two major sponsors, Guinness USA and Heineken USA, withdrew their support.

In a city legendary for its embrace of diversity, this is an inevitable clash of cultures – the point where the Old Country meets the New Irish.

And there in the middle of it all yesterday was the Taoiseach, caught between a rock and green place. Despite the political boycotts, he was unwavering in his determination to take part, and yesterday was still robustly defending his decision.

"180,000 people will march in New York today, many of them are gay people and they march proudly in the St Patrick's Day parade, as I do myself," he declared.

But of course, the point that the protesters make is that none of the gay people marching proudly in the parade are allowed to march under a gay banner.

Protester John Francis Mulligan from Poughkeepsie described the Taoiseach's decision to march as "an outrage". He added: "We want what the 342 groups have in this parade – 342 have banners, we want one, just one banner that says 'Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered Irish and Irish-American Community', because that's who we are."

The Taoiseach began his day at an early breakfast in the lovely mayoral residence, Gracie Mansion on Manhattan's East River.

Then a short while later at a pre-parade breakfast in midtown, Enda listened to Amhran na bhFiann sung by a US soldier, Irish-Korean Seamus O Fianghusa of the Fighting 69th, who taught himself how to speak Irish.

A few minutes later while leaving the venue, Enda was buttonholed by Jamaican Andrew Johnson who wanted to shake his hand.

"What you said in the White House, it touched my heart, on the immigration process in America," he said, adding with a smile: "I'm black Irish from Jamaica."

Ironically, the controversy overshadowed the fact that for the very first time what until recently were very diverse organisations, the Garda Siochana and the PSNI, were marching together in the parade.

It was a striking sight, and a solid message that Ireland has turned its face on the past.

At the reception in Gracie Mansion, members of the two police forces mingled and chatted together.

"It's a very historic and a proud day, we've come from conflict along the road to peace," said PSNI Superintendent Gerry Murray. "We wanted to be here with the Garda Siochana, after everything we've done fighting crime and organised crime together."

This was a view echoed by Sergeant Myles Byrne from Garda HQ.

"It's fantastic we're in a better place as a country, and we now work very closely together – I have family in both forces," he added.

And after all the palaver, the Taoiseach didn't pass the small group of protesters, as he stopped off at 54th Street for a quick meeting with Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the Archbishop of New York, before watching the parade from the viewing stand in midtown.

Enda also nipped out of the parade into the Old Castle Bar on W54th Street to catch the second half of the All-Ireland Club final in Croker, where his local club Castlebar Mitchels were playing St Vincent's.

His team lost. But walking past thousands of cheering, green-clad sons, daughters and second-cousins-twice-removed of Ireland, past black Irish, young undocumented Irish, past Paddies-for-a-day, the Taoiseach surely knew that old ways are being swept aside.

It's as inevitable as it is just, that like the boys in blue signalling the new Ireland there should be a flash of pink in among New York's 40 shades of green.

Irish Independent

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