When the Irish take to the streets this Saturday for the 258th St. Patrick’s Day Parade, our thoughts will take us far beyond the festivities on Fifth Ave. to Washington, D.C., and to the British Parliament in London.
The theme of this year’s parade is immigration, something close to the hearts of Irish Americans, who know what the ability to come to this country meant to us, both to our ancestors and to those who still try to arrive today. And we know that it is far more than just Irish immigrants who enrich this city and country.
That is why I will be marching right behind the Fighting 69th — the New York National Guard regiment that traditionally leads off the parade — with five Latino clients of the Emerald Isle Immigration Center in Queens, which serves immigrants from all over the world who still come to New York to seek the American Dream.
We are cognizant of the anti-immigrant ugliness emanating from the current administration in Washington. The 69th Regiment, formed by Irish immigrants in the 1850s for the unrealized dream of fighting for Irish independence, fought with distinction in every war from the Civil War to Afghanistan. Their service was a powerful counter to the anti-Irish nativism of the time, the so-called Know-Nothing movement, in a way that today’s immigrants prove every day as well.
And we are keeping our eyes on the British Parliament as it wrestles with its self-inflicted Brexit wound, which is hung up in part on the question of whether pulling out of the European Union will require the restoration of a hard border between the Republic of Ireland and the six counties of Northern Ireland that remain in the United Kingdom.
It was Irish-American activists who pressured former President Bill Clinton, over the objections of London and the U.S. State Department, to grant a visa to Sinn Fein’s Gerry Adams that set in motion the process that led to the Good Friday Agreement, which ended the sectarian violence known as the Troubles and opened the border between the two Irelands for the first time since partition at the time of Irish Independence in 1921.
London has no good options when it comes to the so-called Irish border “backstop.” A hard border will threaten economic livelihoods on both sides and carry the potential to reignite the Troubles. Leaving the border open will mean that Northern Ireland will effectively remain in the European Union while the rest of Great Britain pulls out.
And a nominal border down the Irish Sea will reinforce the idea that the Irish north and south have more in common with each other than the English on the other side.
We have been talking to leaders on both sides of the Atlantic to let them know that the same Irish-American activists who pressured the Clinton administration are ready to saddle up again and fight against a post-Brexit trade deal between the U.S. and Great Britain if a hard border is restored. These are not idle words, as leaders in the newly-Democratic House of Representatives are either Irish-American themselves — including the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, where proposed trade deals are first considered — or represent districts with large Irish-American constituencies.
So if everyone is Irish on St. Patrick’s Day, we know that is a two way street. Those of us who remember the not-so-ancient stings of xenophobic bigotry know that today’s immigrants carry the same potential to transform America as the Irish who came before them. That is why we stand and march for them, and with them.