Post “Troubles,” Anti-British Banner Still Flies in St. Patrick’s Parade

Posted By: March 19, 2018

Corey Kilgannon. New York Times. Friday, March 16, 2018

The St. Patrick’s Day Parade in New York City has long been steeped in politics and controversy, but parade organizers have strictly forbidden any signs or banners reflecting political views or slogans — except for one.

“England Get Out of Ireland.”

This full-throated denunciation of the British governance of six counties that make up Northern Ireland has for decades been the only political banner allowed in the parade, which will be held on Saturday for the 257th consecutive year, on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan.

The banner has long been a crowd favorite.

“It always gets the loudest cheer,” said Tim Myles, an Irish nationalist from Long Island who carries the banner with the Nassau County Ancient Order of Hibernians.

The statement might seem a throwback to the more politically charged 1970s and 1980s when paradegoers passionately supported hunger strikers and Irish Republican Army members during “The Troubles.”

The parade has gotten less political over the years since the Good Friday accord was signed 20 years ago. Parade leadership has also shifted, with new organizers adopting more progressive policies, including reversing a longtime ban on gay groups marching under their own banner.

And yet the nationalist banners have increased in recent years, said Mr. Myles, who claimed some credit for this. After noticing fewer banners in the parade, he exhorted marching groups several years ago to dust off their forgotten banners or have new ones made.

“I put the word out that we have to keep carrying the banners as a reminder that we still don’t have a 32-county united Ireland,” he said.

To Mr. Myles and many other participants, the banner is the most important reason for marching, a highly visible way of resisting British rule and the lack of progress on the Good Friday Agreement, not to mention the effect on Ireland of England’s decision to leave the European Union.

“Nationalism has always been part of the parade, and the ‘England Get Out of Ireland’ banner still expresses that today,” said Martin Galvin, a former publicity director for Northern Irish Aid, which raised money for families of I.R.A. political prisoners.

Mr. Galvin, a lawyer from Woodlawn in the Bronx, said the banner carries a message to Irish residents of Northern Ireland “who are still victims of British rule, and still denied freedoms, that we still support their right to freedom and don’t forget them on St. Patrick’s Day.”

The banner is typically carried by Emerald societies, county organizations, nationalist groups and chapters of the Ancient Order of Hibernians.

But the banner has had its critics.

In 2014, a delegation from the Police Service of Northern Ireland marched in the New York parade not far from the banners. An editorial in The Belfast Telegraph afterward called the sight of the banners in the New York parade a “time warp,” and a Northern Ireland political leader called the parade “anti-British” and said parade officials should ban the banner.

“Parading under such a banner shows a complete lack of understanding of the political landscape in Northern Ireland in 2018,” said Mark Lindsay, the chairman of the union of officers in the Police Federation for Northern Ireland. He, too, urged that the banners be prohibited.

“This is the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, which was wholeheartedly supported by the United States and which signaled a new beginning for Northern Ireland,” Mr. Lindsay added, referring to the political arrangement between Ireland and England that governs Northern Ireland. “If Northern Ireland has moved forward so much in 20 years, is it not reasonable to ask the same of others?”

John L. Lahey, the chairman of the parade’s board, said that signs and slogans — aside from each marching group’s identifying banner — are banned in order to keep the parade free of politics and protest. The “England” sign has long been permitted, he said, because it simply represents the overwhelming desire among the Irish for a unified nation and is not meant to express an anti-British sentiment.

“There still are strong feelings that England still occupies six counties of Ireland,” he said, adding that in his 25 years on the board no one has ever raised objections.

Still, he added, “It may be a good question for the parade board to take a look at, going forward.”

John T. Ridge, a former official historian of the parade and author of the 1988 book “The St. Patrick’s Day Parade In New York,” said the slogan was created by James J. Comerford, a former parade chairman and outspoken nationalist who fought the British as an I.R.A. soldier in the 1920s before emigrating to New York.

Organizers first began allowing the banners in 1948 as an outgrowth of the Anti-Partition campaign in Ireland at the time, Mr. Ridge said.

In 1972, after the Bloody Sunday massacre of Catholic demonstrators by British soldiers, the “England Get Out of Ireland” slogan was made the theme of the parade, prompting the United States Defense Department to bar military bands from participating, saying the parade had become a political event. A similar ban was ordered in 1983, when Michael Flannery, an ardent I.R.A. supporter, was named grand marshal and called it “a pro-I.R.A. parade.”

During those years, many marchers brazenly flouted parade regulations by carrying signs supporting icons of the I.R.A. movement, including Bobby Sands, who died during a hunger strike in Northern Ireland in 1981.

Over the years, some gay groups argued that since the “England” banner was permitted, gay groups should also be able to march under their own banner. The controversy helped pave the way for a leadership change in 2015.

For years, the parade was run by John Dunleavy, a board member whose control was loosened in 2015 when the board elected Mr. Lahey as the new chairman.

Mr. Dunleavy and his supporters — many of whom were members of the Parade and Celebration Committee, which he chaired — called the election illegally conducted and claimed that the board rewrote bylaws, appointed new members and eliminated elections in order to seize and expand its power, said Denis McCarthy, the committee’s current chairman.

Mr. Dunleavy has filed a lawsuit against the board challenging the leadership and raising claims of covert finances and the spending of more than $300,000 on legal fees.

Mr. Lahey said those fees were necessary “because they filed the lawsuits,” and said the new leadership was critical in bringing the parade board into compliance with state laws and to change policies, including the ban against gay groups, which had attracted bad publicity and endangered sponsorships and advertising.

For the third year in a row, the Lavender & Green Alliance, an association of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, will be permitted to march under their group’s banner on Saturday.

And Mr. Myles will be carrying his banner ordering England out of Ireland.

“Most people watching the parade aren’t up on the political situation — they’re Irish for one day a year,” Mr. Myles said. “But they see it, and they can relate to it.”