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A Parade of Troubles

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A Parade of Troubles

Irish politics come to the streets of New York. January 15, 2015

More than one controversy is brewing as this year’s New York City Saint Patrick’s Day Parade approaches. The press will be out in force on March 17th to document the first-ever appearance in the 253-year-old parade of an openly gay group marching under its own banner. The media will surely pepper Grand Marshal Timothy Cardinal Dolan with questions about the Catholic Church’s views on homosexuality and the parade committee’s historic ban on such groups. If they want a really juicy story, though, reporters should ask about Martin Galvin, one of Cardinal Dolan’s 12 honorary aides, a ceremonial position selected by the Bronx County board of the Ancient Order of Hibernians.

A former Department of Sanitation lawyer, Galvin also happens to be a former leader of the Irish Northern Aid Committee, sometimes known as Noraid. The Irish, British, and American governments long regarded Noraid as a U.S.-based fundraiser for the Provisional IRA, which waged a guerrilla war against British occupation of Northern Ireland, and which the British Home Office still considers a terrorist organization. The IRA has maintained a ceasefire since 1997, when its political arm, Sinn Féin, was admitted to the Northern Ireland peace talks. However, dissidents such as Galvin remain unhappy with the accommodations Sinn Féin and other nationalist parties made under the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which affirmed the North’s place in the United Kingdom.

In 1984, Galvin was banned from entering the U.K. after giving a speech that encouraged violence against British soldiers, according to media reports. He defied the ban in August 1984, dying his hair and slipping into heavily Catholic West Belfast to speak at a rally of thousands of IRA supporters. When Galvin took the dais, the Royal Ulster Constabulary moved in to arrest him, and a riot broke out. In the clash between protesters and cops, dozens were injured. The RUC fired rubber bullets into the crowd, killing 22-year-old Sean Downes. According to the Associated Press, Galvin was lifted above the heads of the crowd and “vanished up a back street.” He wasn’t so lucky on a return visit to Northern Ireland in 1989, when he was arrested and deported to America.

Seventeen years after the Good Friday Agreement and ten years after the IRA voluntarily disarmed, Galvin, now a lawyer in the Bronx, continues to advocate for a united Ireland, free of British rule. But even if Galvin hasn’t changed, some things about the situation in Northern Ireland have—dramatically. The Protestant-dominated RUC—long considered biased and discriminatory by Northern Ireland’s minority Catholic population—was reorganized under the Good Friday Agreement into the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI). Critics question whether the change was substantive or merely cosmetic, but the number of Catholic officers in the organization has risen significantly. In 2002, the PSNI was 92 percent Protestant. By 2011, nearly 30 percent of officers came from Catholic backgrounds.

It’s sometimes said about Northern Ireland’s politics that if you aren’t confused, you aren’t paying attention. But it’s fair to say that the PSNI’s reputation has improved considerably from the days when—as the RUC—it was credibly accused of colluding with Protestant paramilitary gangs against Republican groups such as the IRA. A contingent of six PSNI officers marched in the 2014 St. Patrick’s Day parade alongside officers from An Garda Síochána, the Republic of Ireland’s police force. Some in Northern Ireland view PSNI participation in the parade as an insult to the memory of the 300 RUC officers murdered by the IRA and dissident Republican groups during the Troubles. Galvin’s presence, they say, is particularly inflammatory. “It was shameful enough that the PSNI participated in [last] year’s event, but to march behind a man who is so extreme that he thinks Sinn Féin and the IRA sold out would be unforgivable,” charged Jim Allister, leader of the Traditional Unionist Voice, a loyalist political party that supports Northern Ireland’s continued union with Great Britain.

A spokesman for the TUV said the party had asked the PSNI to explain why “a police service from the UK [is] officially participating in a parade behind an anti-British and offensive banner endorsing the ‘Brits Out’ message which saw the IRA murder so many gallant police officers.” The TUV says it has not received an answer. The PSNI didn't respond to a request for comment on this story.

For his part, Galvin rejects as “categorically untrue” the claim that he supports a return to violence by the IRA. And he would be more than happy for the PSNI contingent to pull out of the parade. “I don’t care if they march behind me,” said Galvin in an interview with the New York-based radio program Radio Free Eireann. “I don’t understand why they’re marching in a parade that is dedicated to ‘England get out of Ireland.’ To me that’s bizarre.”

Some of Galvin’s supporters, including Radio Free Eireann host John McDonagh, are bemused by the flap: “It would be a great irony if Martin was able to keep the same police that arrested and deported him from Ireland off of 5th Avenue.”

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