Beloved Saint Caught Up in Conflict

Sun-Times March 17 1998

Imagine Dearborn street flanked on both sides with riot police while the Sons of St. Patrick and the Ancient Order of Hibernians play their bagpipes and march on pavement painted with shamrocks and green lines. Rows of armored cars line the surrounding streets, and in the alleys young people gather to make Molotov cocktails to the tune of “Wearing ‘O the Green.” Instead of a jovial Mayor Daley in a fedora and reports on the estimated number of green beers to be consumed, the evening news flashes shouting protesters and lists arrests and injuries. In the morning, plastic bullet casings outnumber the beer cans littering the streets.

Parades and marches have become symbolic of the so-called Troubles in Northern Ireland, and in a divided country, symbols either pull people together or drive them apart. A revered patron of both the Catholic and Protestant communities, St. Patrick may have had an easier time convincing the snakes to leave than persuading either side that as a symbol and a saint, he wished to remain non-political.

Last week when Belfast City Council announced plans for the first citywide, cross community St. Patrick’s Day celebration, the rumblings that followed may not have been the good saint turning in his grave, as one city councillor suggested. Nor was it politicians jostling for position next to the mayor, as is the case in Chicago. The response from the mostly Catholic, nationalist community reached something near euphoria, but fell somewhere between suspicion and open hostility from Protestant unionists who fear that such symbolism could undermine their fiercely protected Britishness.

“St. Patrick should be a figurehead that belongs to all of us,” said Tom Hartley, a Sinn Fein councillor and one of the parade’s sponsors. “It’s a shame we can’t get together as one city to do something as simple as St. Patrick’s Day, instead of turning on the TV to watch a parade in New York or Dublin.”

Like everything else in Northern Ireland, embattled mindsets could allow this historic first to degenerate into yet another sectarian squabble. Protestant community groups complain they have been frozen out of the planning of the parade, and Nationalists accuse the Unionist politicians of trying to quash anything with an Irish overtone.

“It’s good and right that we celebrate in honor of that good Protestant chap, but this parade will never be a success,” said Unionist councilor Hugh Smyth. “We’re not going to let them take our St. Paddy away!”

Because both communities hold St. Patrick as a symbol of their tradition, everyone agrees a city sponsored parade is a good thing. But the suggestion of an officially sanctioned citywide celebration comes at a time when talks toward a peaceful settlement has everyone on their guard.

For nationalists who have fought for nearly a century to reunite the province with the Irish Republic, the lack of a parade for so many years on the surface, holds little significance. In most cities in Ireland, north or south, people treat the day as any other, and marvel at the American propensity to wallow in green beer once a year.

But opposition from Unionists who cling tightly to their position in the United Kingdom has brought charges of bigotry from a city council led, for the first time in history by a nationalist Lord Mayor, a Catholic.

Up until the past few years, all nationalist marches to City Hall were banned, whatever the cause or event. This vast Victorian structure whose ornate facade is adorned with the symbols of Unionist allegiance to the Crown represented to nationalists the seat of Protestant Unionist power. The symbolic gesture of a city funded celebration of a perceived Irish nature under a Nationalist Lord Mayor has done more to inject hope in the nationalist community than months of reported progress in the peace talks.

Protestants view parades and marches as an integral part of their culture. Two weeks after St. Patrick’s Day, the Protestant marching season officially begins and from April until September, over 3,000 marches will take place around the province. Most of these will pass off peacefully, but negotiations for a dozen or more “contentious” marches are already deadlocked.

To an Ulster Protestant, “marching down the Queen’s highway” is a tradition that goes far deeper then the Irish immigrants’ celebration in America. They demand this outward display of their culture even if it means parading through nationalist districts overtly commemorating a Protestant King’s victory over Catholics in 1690.

A newly established Parades Commission will this year decide which parades will be permitted to pass. However, both communities have refused to recognize the legitimacy of the Commission, claiming the appointments were biased or not representative of the community. The Commission spent the last year interviewing anyone who would talk, traveling as far as New York and Boston to solicit testimony. With no support from either community, the commission is in danger of becoming an enormous public relations exercise. Like St. Patrick, they appear to be caught in the middle.

While the Commission has no jurisdiction over the St. Patrick’s Day Parade because it is a city sponsored event, the now familiar community divide could sour the celebrations. In order to be a success, the parade must pass off as completely nonpolitical and non-sectarian, void of any symbols that could be perceived as nationalist or unionist. This could prove to be difficult since who owns what symbols, such as St. Patrick, can be blurred. One Unionist leader blasted the promotional literature of the parade as “provocative, offensive, and extremely partisan” because it flaunted a Celtic logo and a Gaelic greeting.

Parade organizers acknowledge that efforts to make it cross community and less “Irish” came too little too late. Nationalist communities have sponsored small festivals over the years, and the original planned parade was only to pass through Catholic areas. But the parade idea gathered momentum. When city funding became available, there was a belated attempt to reach out to Protestant groups to avoid the battle that is now reaching its climax.

“The idea was for an all-inclusive St. Patrick’s Day, with all communities involved in the planning of it,” explained Sean McKnight, a member of the largely Nationalist West Belfast Festival Committee “That hasn’t happened, but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad thing that shouldn’t be funded. Rather we should use this years parade to build upon next years, as an experiment and a testing ground for future cross community events. Eventually we hope Belfast can hold an event equal to New York’s or Dublin’s every year.”

Ultimately it may take a few years before such an event in Northern Ireland can acquire the carefree, spontaneity attached to many American parades, but perhaps the Parade Commission can pick up a thing or two in the States. The elder Mayor Daley enthusiastically pronounced everybody Irish on St. Patrick’s Day. Whether the “honor” of being Irish for a day was ignored or enjoyed rarely became an issue. Few Chicagoans would object to watching a parade on a brisk March day, or slipping out of work early to lift a pint with other revelers. Nor do they care whether the pipes are Scottish made or Irish uilleans.

As a symbol, Saint Patrick lies at the foundation of Irish Protestants and Catholics, and in all likelihood the Belfast parade will pass off without riot police and plastic bullets. The outraged voice of Unionism has already diminished to grumbles of discontent. Old habits die hard, but perhaps there lies a faint hope one day both communities can indeed rejoice in a common symbol void of politics. But the march towards a peaceful settlement depends largely upon the negotiated give and take of such symbols, and it may be some time before the Molotov cocktail surrenders to the celebratory pint, green or otherwise.