In early February, New York City Mayor, Bill de Blasio, announced he would not march in the city's annual St. Patrick's Day Parade due to its ban over public displays of gay pride. He is also joined by New York's City Council. Boston Mayor Martin Walsh has made a similar decision. Likewise, an invited Irish official, cabinet minister Joan Burton will not attend. Yet, missing this opportunity to send a message of human rights and equality on this global day of Irish celebration is Ireland's Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Enda Kenny -- who says he will march.
The New York parade does not overtly ban gays and lesbians from joining - but they cannot display their core identity as equal citizens. Enda Kenny, in defending his decision said the celebration is about our "Irishness, and not about our sexuality." Unfortunately, he misses the point of those who question the legitimacy of using the public streets for a parade which denies basic freedoms. He also fails to use the occasion to explain how Ireland has evolved on issues of gay, lesbian, and transgender equality.
Each year on Irish pride day many thousands of people -- gay and straight -- now march in a great show of equality through central Dublin. For decades, however, Irish people struggled against overt and structural discrimination due to their identity. Only in 1993 were Irish laws criminalizing homosexual acts taken off the books. According to Kieran Rose, a founder of Ireland's Gay and Lesbian Equality Network, one early pride march was just a handful of people "with a car who's battery was dying, which made the loudspeaker they had impossible to hear...and then we had to push the car. An apt symbol for those times."
Ireland legalized civil partnership rights in 2010. Solid majorities today support full marriage equality which will likely come soon in Ireland with a referendum scheduled for 2015. A recent poll showed that 76 percent of the Irish people support marriage equality -- only 19 percent are opposed. Commenting on the 2010 partnership law, Kieran Rose said this was Ireland's "greatest civil rights reform since independence." Of course today, in Ireland, gays and lesbians and transgender citizens march openly in the annual Dublin St. Patrick's Day parade.
Ireland is, nevertheless, going through a difficult division over marriage equality -- with ongoing media debate over the extent and meaning of homophobia. Fear of change is real, and there remain structural barriers to genuine equity in Ireland. Recently, Dublin Archbishop Dairmuid Martin said, "Anyone who grew up in Ireland would have told jokes that were pointed at the gay community...it is part of the culture we grew up in, but we have to grow out of it." He said, "...Anybody who doesn't show love towards gay and lesbian people is insulting God. They are not just homophobic if they do that -- they are actually Godophobic because God loves every one of those people." He went on, saying that of Irish society: "We all belong to one another and there is no way we can build up a society in which people are excluded or insulted."
Head of the Catholic League, Bill Donohue is "delighted" that the New York mayor will not march saying that, "I do not want to march with a public official who does not want to be associated with Irish Catholics". But he will march in the parade with the Irish Prime Minister. This is the same Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, who in 2011 declared boldly, in reference to a damaging report about abuse of children by members of the Catholic church that this "...report excavates the dysfunction, disconnection, elitism -- the narcissism -- that dominate the culture of the Vatican to this day. The rape and torture of children were downplayed or 'managed' to uphold instead, the primacy of the institution, its power, standing and 'reputation'."
Today in America we have states that have placed discrimination into their constitution, like in Ohio. We have a state, Arizona, whose legislature just passed a law allowing businesses to discriminate based on gender identity. Ireland, meanwhile, has become a progressive Catholic nation. If Enda Kenny really wants America to understand Irishness today, then he would do well to demonstrate to the world his nation's long concern for those who have suffered and stood up for their dignity in the long path towards human rights.
By announcing he will respect the decision of New York's mayor by refusing to march in this year's St. Patrick's Day parade, and continue to avoid it until its rules are changed to support equality, Enda Kenny can show what true Irish leadership looks like on this great symbolic day. If he does attend, then hopefully he will use this opportunity to be a strong spokesman for the welcoming and embracing society that Ireland has become in a very short period of time -- explaining to the world what "Irishness" means for the 21st century.