New York’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade holds an often forgotten place in Irish history. The parade was a beacon of Irish achievement in dark days when successes were few.
Those Irish driven to New York in the 1840s by the Great Hunger and landlord evictions were met by Punch Cartoon stereotypes and job listing signs proclaiming ‘no Irish need apply’. The prevailing myth was that the Irish had brought catastrophic hunger and emigration upon themselves. British rule was thought blameless.
These new arrivals set out to take their share of the American dream. They counted their numbers at St. Patrick’s Day Parades to demand political power, which they used to pry open doors to jobs and prosperity. The New York parade became a showpiece of what the Irish could achieve once free of the shackles of British colonial laws and policies.
The St. Patrick’s Day Parade was also a beacon of hope and support, in days when freedom from British rule for any part of Ireland seemed a hopeless cause. Risings were crushed. Patriot leaders were executed, imprisoned or exiled to America where they were expected to trouble the crown no more.
Patriots like Thomas Addis Emmet, John O’Mahoney, Thomas Kelly, John Devoy, Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa, Tom Clarke and Michael Flannery never gave up. They and many others used their exile beyond Britain’s reach to support and encourage those struggling for freedom in Ireland. The St. Patrick’s Day Parade was an annual rallying point in their planning.
This continued in recent years. Marching contingents today are permitted only two banners. One banner identifying the group may be carried; ‘ENGLAND GET OUT OF IRELAND’ is the other (the timeliness of this slogan being illustrated yet again as Cameron and Villiers bludgeon through cuts and austerity).
Successive Irish governments had tried and failed to discourage support for Irish republicans in the parade. Their St. Patrick’s Day statements of condemnation were ridiculed and cost them support and credibility.
Since the 1998 Stormont Agreement, however, there was a subtle change. Joe Cahill told Americans Sinn Fein was pushing an open door and a United Ireland would be secured within 5 years. He said it in 1998. However the victory claims got louder even as the predicted triumphs for 2003, 2014 and soon 2016 proved hollow.
Americans were led to believe they need do no more than donate to party coffers, congratulate themselves on an inevitable victory, and Ireland would be united after elections by Sinn Fein ministers North and South. Skeptical observers, who fear the British are trying to nail the door to a United Ireland shut and lock us in a permanent ‘partition by consent’ behind these ministries, are avoided.
Last year for the first time a British constabulary sought permission to march in the parade. The British thought the time was right to pursue old objectives of normalisation, criminalisation and Ulsterisation. The PSNI would march with Irish Garda and be congratulated by Enda Kenny. It would signal that the British constabulary should no longer be regarded as a force imposing British injustice.
If the PSNI were accepted by Americans at the parade, so British strategists thought, it would mean their constabulary was now seen as a normal police force, that those it arrested like Gerry McGeough and Ivor Bell must therefore be criminals, and American pressure against injustices like the Craigavon Two was outdated. It would signal that Americans were starting to forget that six contingents in the parade represented counties where freedom from British rule is still unfinished business.
The British went to great efforts. In 2014 the PSNI was initially refused. They were permitted entry on the eve of the parade only after Irish parties interceded for them. Photos with Enda Kenny were arranged. It was claimed as a success. These claims were premature. They succeeded in reminding Irish-Americans about what was at stake.
My election as an Aide to the Grand Marshal triggered an immediate reaction. The position meant that I would march at the head of the parade and then be on the reviewing stand as any PSNI contingent passed in review. There were angry complaints to get me removed.
These calls merely led to a new debate about the PSNI. Americans pointed to Bloody Sunday families marching in Derry against the PSNI’s failure to arrest those who shot down their loved ones, or the constabulary’s refusal to charge crown force members for shoot-to-kill or collusion murders.
The Parade Committee, National, State and County AOH leaders refused to be told who they could honour. The answer was a campaign to encourage more groups to march with ‘ENGLAND GET OUT of IRELAND’ banners. Contingents came by bus to march with the Bronx AOH, who had elected me. WBAI host John McDonagh said St. Patrick had driven the snakes out of Ireland and New Yorkers must drive the PSNI snakes out of the St. Patrick’s Day Parade.
Finally Britain conceded defeat in the form of a press release by TUV unionist leader Jim Allister. The PSNI announced via Allister that its members would not attempt to return for the 2015 New York parade. They refused to say why. I will not take it personally. They were not missed. The banners and protests will be there next year if they try to make a comeback. The deep feelings for those six contingents from counties still not free from British rule will always be there to meet them.