The parade went straight up Fifth Avenue

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The Independent Online
'Two, four, six, eight -

How do you know St Patrick's straight?'

THIS 17 March, as for many generations past, the liveliest and most resonant celebrations of St Patrick's Day have been those in the United States, especially on the East Coast, and most especially in New York City. The celebration of Irishness is mostly good humoured and sentimental, but there is always at least a thin cold current of anti-British feeling.

That current makes the good humoured shiver slightly, but they have little resistance to it. These are Catholic celebrations, and for Irish Catholics in the United States - even more than in today's Ireland - two things are axiomatic: first, that all Ireland rightly belongs to the Irish; and second, that 'the Irish' means primarily the Catholics, along with the decent Protestants. The decent Protestants are those who agree with the Catholics, politically speaking. Unfortunately, Protestants able to meet this particular criterion of decency are few in number; so Irish, in practice, means Catholic Irish.

There are 40 million Americans to whom Irish ancestry is a sufficiently significant factor in their sense of identity to figure in their responses to questionnaires. Slightly more than half of these are Protestants. But very few of these would identify themselves as Irish in a political sense, or feel at home on Fifth Avenue in New York on 17 March of any year.

The governing rhetoric of these celebrations (in their political aspects) is that of the Irish Catholic tradition, of which IRA sympathisers are part, and which they are adept at manipulating from within. In certain circumstances, and especially in the Seventies and early Eighties, the Irish Republicans have been able to dominate the political rhetoric of American parades, especially in New York City, greatly to the benefit to the morale and recruitment of the IRA.

This St Patrick's Day, both in the national politics of the US, and in the Irish and Catholic politics of New York City, the Anglophobia count was distinctly down. St Patrick's Day can be used to whip up anti-British feeling, but it can also be used to cool things down, to wheel on the sweetness and light. That is how it was in Washington last Wednesday.

During the presidential campaign, candidate Clinton had made a bid for the (pro-IRA) Noraid lobby, with his talk of 'wanton violence' by the British security forces, and of the need for an American 'peace envoy' to Northern Ireland. Last Wednesday, after President Clinton, in the Oval Office, had received from the Prime Minister, Albert Reynolds, the traditional bowl of shamrock, the atmosphere was, understandably enough, more composed than had been the case on the campaign trail.

There will be no peace envoy, for the moment; there may or may not be one later, but, whether there is one or not, the President declared: 'I don't think the United States can make peace in Northern Ireland.' Neither the President nor the Prime Minister said a word (on this St Patrick's Day) that could raise eyebrows in London.

Right now Mr Clinton's only real concern, that has any connection with Ireland, is to reward Democratic politicians from Massachusetts. Senator Edward Kennedy's sister, Jean Kennedy Smith, is nominated ambassador to Dublin. Raymond Flynn, the Mayor of Boston, is nominated ambassador to the Vatican. If there ever is to be a peace envoy, it is likely to be another senior Massachusetts politician, the Speaker of the House, Tom Foley.

In this marked preference for Massachusetts politicians - as distinct from say, Irish-American politicians from New York - the President is thinking not about Ireland, or even about Anglo-American relations, but about the United States Congress, and those politicians who can help or hinder him in the delivery of his domestic economic programme.

Certain Irish-American families - the Kennedys predominant among them - have Massachusetts politics sewn up, to the benefit of one ethnic group, more than prevails anywhere else in the immensely complicated ethnic class and clan politics of the US. One result of this long-established and quasi-dynastic Irish political hegemony in Massachusetts is that relevant politicians have great seniority, powerful committee chairmanships, and immense and lucid experience of how Congress works.

These are precisely the allies that the new President, with no congressional experience of his own, most needs. This week, and with a sure touch, he reached out to them. The President no longer needs to rely on this shrill rhetoric of the campaign trail because he can now speak a language that has a more powerful and abiding appeal: that of patronage. He has secured his Massachusetts flank.

THE SHIFT from the language of presidential candidate to that of president is a classical one. The shift that has been happening in the Irish and Catholic politics of New York City around the focus of the greatest of all St Patrick's Day parades is more arcane. It has to do with the relative priorities of religion and nationalism within the Irish Catholic tradition in the United States.

Since its establishment, the great parade has been not merely Catholic in its ethos but tightly controlled by the New York archdiocese through the Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH), an organisation of Catholic laymen responsible to the archbishop. Up to three years ago, the Catholic institutional hegemony over the parade was partly concealed under vaguely ecumenical trappings. In this period the AOH worked closely with Noraid, and condoned the tendency of extreme nationalists to take over.

The archdiocese effectively acquiesced in this, seeing in it no challenge to the institutional authority of the Catholic Church. But then, in the late Eighties, such a challenge emerged: the claim of Irish gay and lesbian groups to take part in the parade. In order to block this without coming into conflict with the civil authorities, the archdiocese was obliged to define the parade as - what it has always been in substance - a religious occasion.

This does not suit the nationalists: first, because it makes religion rather than nationalism the focus; and second, because it distracts from Brit-bashing to gay-bashing. Some of the gays, protesting against exclusion, also protested against that distraction. One placard read: 'Brits out of Ireland, bigots out of the parade.' Noraid's long-comfortable symbiosis with the IRA on the one hand, and the Catholic Church on the other, is now being


Protestors, sitting in Fifth Avenue, chanted: How do you know St Patrick's straight?'

No answer was forthcoming, but St Patrick's Day in New York will never be the same again.

(Photograph omitted)