Saturday 16 December 2017

The long march for inclusion in NYC St Patrick's parade

A row that has rumbled on for decades seems to have finally reached a conclusion. Siobhán Brett reports from New York as gay groups ­prepare to take part - for only the second time - in the Big Apple's St Patrick's Day parade

Miss New York Kira Kazantsev takes a selfie during the 2015 St Patrick's Day parade in New York. Photo: Jewel Samad/Getty
Miss New York Kira Kazantsev takes a selfie during the 2015 St Patrick's Day parade in New York. Photo: Jewel Samad/Getty

On a warm day in September 2015, I stopped to buy water at a subway news-stand and was struck by the front-page headline of the Irish Echo, a Manhattan-based weekly newspaper, which read: "Parade peace appeal".

At the heart of the report was a letter written by Hilary Beirne, the executive secretary of the New York St Patrick's Day Parade. Beirne's plea was long-winded and unspecific, referring to years-old "by-laws of the Parade Corporation", a legal dispute and bitter infighting between organising committee members.

The protracted row pertained to positions on a vote, taken later that month, in which a majority of parade organisers would elect to allow gay and lesbian groups to take part for the first time. The mayor of New York City, Bill de Blasio, ended his boycott of the parade on foot of the decision.

De Blasio, sporting a self-satisfied grin and a purple-and-green sateen sash, walked in last year's parade alongside the Lavender & Green Alliance, a New York City-based organisation of Irish lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. Lavender & Green was founded in 1994 by Brendan Fay, a 58-year-old filmmaker and lifelong activist from Drogheda, who said that last year's breakthrough followed a 25-year battle.

"And here we are, preparing to go up Fifth for a second time," he told me earlier this week. "There was a profound, profound shift in 2016. It's now about sustaining that."

Labour Party senator Aodhán Ó Ríordáin joined Fay and De Blasio in carrying the banner for the Irish LGBTQ community in the US last year. Next Friday, Ó Ríordáin will be back in the city with another objective, one tied to different kind of profound shift: the election of Donald Trump as US president.

Ó Ríordáin and a group of Irish campaigners, writers and artists are to gather on the evening of the parade at Riverside Church at 120th Street in Manhattan to protest against Trump's anti-immigrant politics, and to "remind this new administration, many of whom are Irish-American descendants of immigrants themselves, that the international community rejects the politics of division and fear".

"By working together," the invitation to the rally continues, "we can lead by example and make a difference in America and across the world." Ticket proceeds will go to the American Civil Liberties Union.

By the fact of it being a massive celebration of millions of immigrants, The New York City St Patrick's Day Parade generally eschews all 'politics' and 'causes', other than the bright green, catch-all motif of Irishness. Its first-ever concession in tone and messaging was made to LGBTQ marchers, and just last year.

On March 1, White House press secretary Sean Spicer - a man of Irish descent who annually dons a pair of shamrock-patterned trousers, one leg white, one leg green - announced on Twitter that Trump had declared it "Irish-American Heritage Month".

Since, little to nothing has been said of the designation. When Spicer raised upcoming diplomatic meetings earlier this week, he even neglected to mention the March 17 meeting with Taoiseach Enda Kenny.

The Trump administration's "revised" executive order on immigration, restricting freedom of movement for people from predominantly Muslim countries, is to come into effect on the eve of the parade. With immigrants' fundamental rights and liberties under threat, the Bronx-based Emerald Isle Immigration Center has been given permission say a few words during NBC's four-hour live broadcast of the parade.

Traditionally, however, the parade has been hewed closely to a set of narrow parameters, rarely veering off course or allowing experimentation or imagination in response to current affairs.

It did briefly in 1991, when Brendan Fay and other gay rights activists marched unidentified beside the then-mayor, David Dinkins, who had brokered a one-off arrangement with the parade. The mayor and those with him were booed, taunted and the target for beer cans thrown by spectators.

"We as LGBTQ appreciate the significance of parades more than most," Fay says. "A parade or a march is often the setting where we have first felt there are others like us. I never thought my life would be absorbed by parades, organising them, appreciating them," says Fay.

"Our parades can become spaces of welcome and hospitality and reflect an Irishness rooted in the memory of our own scattering across the world as refugees and immigrants longing for home," he adds.

He believes strongly in "an Irishness that is generous and celebrates diversity as gift... transforming the anguish of the past into a compassionate advocacy for human rights across the globe".

The last of the acrimony was working its way out of the New York St Patrick's Day Parade and Celebration Committee as recently as last May. Choice adjectives were reportedly traded at the meeting in question: "back-stabbing" was among the charges levelled. The 2016 parade was branded an "atrocity", "disgrace", and "logistical nightmare".

"We do not want a Halloween party on Fifth Avenue," one worked-up man is reported to have said. "We celebrate our Catholicism." Another said that the parade was being infiltrated by secularism. The imagined upset of one board member's late father was invoked by another.

In this hail of criticisms and insults, the former chairman, John Dunleavy, stepped back. According to his successor, John Lahey, the meetings since have been comparatively peaceable affairs.

Lahey, who is president of Quinnipiac University in Connecticut, says that for "about a dozen years" he had come down on the side of gay rights groups' participation in the parade. But the conviction held by himself and others was not enough.

"The Irish in Ireland were further ahead than the Irish-American community," Lahey says of the entrenched resistance to change.

The earliest St Patrick's Day parades in New York City were held last weekend, among them a parade Fay co-chairs, St Pat's For All. Taking place in Sunnyside, Queens, it is a lively, multicultural parade, the composition of which would likely make some hail-glorious-Saint-Patrick traditionalists flinch.

Fay extends the invitation to all races, minority groups, and faiths. Actively extending the celebration to Muslim friends, he says, is in keeping with "a sense of Irishness based on our own story and our connections with other people".

"This is very, very important as we rally together in the era of Trump," he adds.

While Fay's vision (realised for the 18th consecutive year last weekend in Queens) is one of "not simply an inclusive Irish parade, but of it communities and individuals finding each other and sharing a heartfelt commitment that another world is possible, of welcome, and equality, and a spirit of activism", Lahey's view of the parade he chairs is simpler.

"From my point of view, the parade should be a celebration of Saint Patrick, and of the Irish in New York City. I don't think we've been able to convey that message for 25 years because of the controversy," he says. Lahey was bothered by the portrayal by the press of those opposed to the inclusion of gay groups, which he deemed unfair. "People who weren't supportive weren't bigots, they weren't homophobes," he says. "This is ­ultimately a private parade, and it has the right to decide the [participant] groups and the message."

The parade's message is better off without political statements of any kind, Lahey says (although "England get out of Ireland" is an outlier that has been permissible in recent years).

He says his only remote concern is the available physical space in the vicinity of Trump Tower, a part of Fifth Avenue that continues to be clad with security barricades and police prefabs.

In 2015, Hilary Beirne concluded his "peace appeal" by dramatically appealing directly to St Patrick himself.

"It is vital we protect and preserve this parade that our forefathers built over the last 253 years. Our mission is a sacred trust that we hold but for a short period of time. May St Patrick guide us through this together."

Fay has continued to take guidance from numerous and diverse sources. Above all, he says, familiarity with the experience of exile and exclusion compels him to "reach out in friendship and solidarity with Muslim and immigrant friends and neighbours".

At a state dinner last December, Fay was awarded for service to the Irish abroad by President Michael D Higgins.

In his speech, Higgins borrowed a phrase about a "fundamental truth" from a speech originally made in Vietnam, one he has used a couple of times since, which Fay was particularly struck by: "We are all migrants in time and space."

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