“It’s a great honor to have him and I’m looking forward to meeting him,” Orangetown Supervisor Thom Kleiner said. “The parade is a festive occasion for everyone in Orangetown, whether they are Irish or not.”
Maskey, who has spent more than 25 years in Irish politics as a Sinn Fein leader, has been offered a place in the honor battalion during the annual Pearl River parade on Sunday, March 23, said Cy Hughes, president of the Rockland County Ancient Order of Hibernians. This year’s parade, sponsored by the Rockland County AOH, will be led by Grand Marshal Jack O’Connor of Pearl River and will be dedicated to the memory of “all the patriots who have given their lives for the cause of freedom in Ireland,” Hughes said.
The mood in Rockland has changed since last year’s St. Patrick’s Day parade, which was dedicated to the memory of those who died in the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center as well as those who lost their lives in more than 30 years of conflict in the north of Ireland. Some local groups boycotted the event because of 2002 Grand Marshal Brian Pearson, a former IRA member who was given political asylum in the U.S. in 1997.
Maskey, a former dock worker in West Belfast, was the first Sinn Fein councilor to be elected to the Belfast City Council in 1983. He was a key negotiator for the party during talks that preceded the birth of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. The former amateur boxer was elected to the power-sharing Stormont Assembly in 1998 and served as Sinn Fein’s chief whip until the devolved government was suspended by British Prime Minister Tony Blair last October for the third time in four years.
“Alex’s election is the crescendo of Sinn Fein’s movement forward in the political arena,” said U.S. Friends of Sinn Fein representative Sean Downes. “He’s reaching out to create equality for all people and achieve a united Ireland.”
The nationalist lord mayor, who was elected by a majority vote by Sinn Fein and the Alliance and Social Democratic Labor Parties, asked his loyalist counterparts to elect a deputy lord mayor from one of their parties, Downes said. The unionist refused his request, and Maskey has operated without a deputy for almost the entire length of his one-year term in office.
“Maskey has done a tremendous job of bringing both sides together despite the odds,” said James Normoyle, vice president of AOH Division I in Stony Point. “He came into office saying he was going to be a mayor for all the people and he’s really lived up to that.”
Maskey, who was shot in the stomach by loyalists several years ago, has survived at least four attempts on his life while in political office, Downes said. Jailed twice in the early 1970s, Maskey narrowly missed death in the 1980s as loyalists, intent on killing him, shot his best friend dead in Maskey’s home.
“He’s a very down-to-earth person who’s shown he has a soft side and a tough side,” Downes said. “He’s not afraid to take a stand.”
Pearl River resident Pearson called Maskey “the best symbol of the struggle we’ve ever had here in Rockland County.”
“Despite the intimidation and injustice against him, he’s prevailed for more than 20 years,” said Pearson, president of AOH Division V in Blauvelt. “That teaches people to stand up for their rights no matter what they’re up against. He’s a prime example that there can be change for the better for all people.”
Maskey, who just finished a ten-city U.S. tour, is looking forward to coming to Rockland County and marching in this year’s Pearl River parade, Downes said.
“He knows he has a lot of friends in Rcckland and he’s happy to be part of this year’s St. Patrick’s Day celebration,” Downes said.
Maskey will be welcomed to Rockland at a reception in his honor at 8 p.m. on Saturday, March 22, at the Porter House restaurant in Montvale, NJ, Downes said.
Kleiner, who said he was “educating himself on the issues that affect Northern Ireland,” recalled that in 1951, British military forces banned St. Patrick’s Day parades in the north.
“We hope that will never happen again,” Kleiner said. “The parade here in Pearl River is one of our most awaited community events, but it’s also a celebration of the freedom to be able to march.”