Why the Taoiseach should not join the St Patrick’s Day parade
Opinion: Our Irishness is pluralist and non-sectarian
‘The Taoiseach told the Dáil on February 18th that he will be “happy” to march in New York because “The St Patrick’s Day parade is a parade about our Irishness, not sexuality.” He is wrong on both counts.’ Photograph: Shannon Stapleton/Reuters
Last year, Enda Kenny declared in the Dáil that he was “proud to stand here as a public representative, a Taoiseach who happens to be a Catholic but not a Catholic Taoiseach. A Taoiseach for all of the people, that’s my job”. It is indeed. And if he is serious about doing that job he will explain next week, courteously but firmly, why he can’t march in New York’s St Patrick’s Day parade. He will join the city’s mayor Bill de Blasio in declining to march while gay and lesbian Irish people are refused the same opportunity. In doing so he will make a momentous statement about what it means to be Irish. The Taoiseach told the Dáil on February 18th that he would be “happy” to march in New York because “the St Patrick’s Day parade is a parade about our Irishness, not sexuality”. He is wrong on both counts. The ban on the Irish Gay and Lesbian Organization (ILGO) is, of course, about their sexuality: they’re not banned because they drink the wrong beer or follow the wrong football team. Just as significantly, though, the parade is emphatically not about “our Irishness”. Our Irishness, if “our” has any meaning in this context, is pluralist and non-sectarian. A taoiseach “for all the people” surely understands that the people are Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, Orthodox, atheist and 100 shades of belief and non- belief.
The St Patrick’s Day parade in New York is explicitly and exclusively Catholic. This is not a value judgment. It is a fact. It is held “in honour of the patron saint of Ireland and the archdiocese of New York”.
It is preceded by Mass in St Patrick’s Catholic cathedral and then reviewed from the steps of the cathedral by the serving archbishop, currently Cardinal Timothy Dolan. The issue of gay and lesbian marchers is utterly intertwined with the religious nature of the parade.
The decision to ban ILGO was made on the grounds that the parade’s then organiser, the Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH), is a Catholic organisation and could therefore exclude any group or person “whose purposes, principles or agenda are inconsistent with the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church”.
Although the AOH no longer formally or- ganises the parade (fear of legal action led to the creation of a committee headed by John Dunleavy, who is acknowledged to be close to Cardinal Dolan), these are still the grounds on which ILGO is banned.
In argument before the New York city human rights commission, the parade organisers insisted the ban was legitimate precisely because “the parade is a celebration of Irish Roman Catholic heritage”.
"They allege that among the unwritten requirements for inclusion in the parade is that no group admitted have a political agenda or an agenda contrary to the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. They argue ILGO advocates the right to pursue a homosexual lifestyle and is thus in violation of church doctrine."
In arguing (successfully) for the ban before the US federal court, the organisers claimed “the right to associate merely with those who adhere to any one element of Irish heritage, such as Catholicism”.
In itself, this is fine: US law protects the right to free expression of people who hold such views, even if they offend others. The organisers of the New York parade are entitled to run an event in which they “associate merely” with “one element” of Irishness. What they are not entitled to do is to then claim that this “one element” is Irishness itself. It isn’t. Most Irish people are not conservative Catholics. Most Irish Catholics believe things – about contraception, divorce, abortion and gay rights — that are contrary to Catholic doctrine.
And – here’s a thing that is almost always forgotten – most Irish-Americans are Protestant. The Taoiseach is profoundly mistaken: the parade is not about “our Irishness”. It is not even about Irish-American heritage. It is quite explicitly a celebration and endorsement of the Catholic archdiocese of New York and of the doctrinally orthodox Catholic “element of Irish heritage”.
The distinguished conservative Irish- American historian John McCarthy, who argues strongly in favour of the ban on ILGO, was usefully blunt about this in a recent letter to The Irish Times . He compared the parade to a Corpus Christi procession and said this allowed the organisers the “right to control what groups can march in it, as well as to assert the distinctly Catholic character of the event”. This is entirely fair and also the best summary of why the taoiseach of a pluralist, non-sectarian democracy has no business marching in a religious procession posing as a celebration of Irish identity.
Kenny has made some real progress in ending precisely the identification the organisers of the parade want to maintain, of Irishness with monolithic Catholicism. On St Patrick’s Day, the international spotlight will be on Ireland and he will have to make a statement about what he understands “our Irishness” to be. He must not tell those who think of it as diverse, open and inclusive to take a walk.