By Jim Smith
BOSTON — A recent series in the Boston Globe about the Boston Fire Department has evoked outrage in the city’s Irish-American community.
While much of the three-part series by reporter David Armstrong, which ran from February 7-9, focuses on examples of wasteful spending and bureaucratic excess within the department, the February 8 installment purports to expose an entrenched system in which Irish-Americans control the better-paying, upper-echelon jobs.
The Globe caption below a front-page photo of a firetruck with a shamrock emblazoned on its side reads: “To many minority groups, the shamrock adorning several fire engines and ladder trucks is a reminder that the Boston Fire Department remains an old-boy network, still controlled by white, mostly Irish-American men.”
One minority captain is then quoted as describing the department as “one of the most racist departments in the country.”
“This is another cheap shot by the Globe directed at the Irish-American community,” former ambassador to the Vatican, Ray Flynn, now a Saturday radio talk-show host on WRKO-AM, told the Echo earlier this week. “My callers last week were very angry. This is one of the finest departments in the nation with a very proud tradition.”
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In a lead-in line to the article, the Globe asks rhetorically if the shamrocks on the fire engines are symbols of pride or of racial prejudice.
According to sources within the department, a detailed response by fire officials, submitted as an op-ed article, has been rejected by Globe staffers because of its length. An abbreviated version has recently been submitted.
The Globe series acknowledges that minorities, who comprise 44 percent of the city’s population, have benefited from affirmative action hiring practices and now make up 28 percent of the workforce, a ratio comparable to other big cities.
The series contends, however, that promotional opportunities for minorities within the department should also be facilitated by some form of quota system, a measure that the current commissioner, Martin Pierce Jr., is reportedly reluctant to embrace because of the morale problems it would create among his staff. Many staff have worked their way up through the ranks within the civil service system. In addition, many white applicants trying to get on the force are already complaining about reverse discrimination.
Pierce is said to favor the current promotional exam system because he feels it is “colorblind and fair.” The Globe series, on the other hand, condemns the traditional promotional policies as unfair to women and minorities.
What irks Flynn, his callers, and several authors of recently published letters to the Globe editor is the framing of the argument along Irish-American versus minority lines.
“The Globe did this with busing years ago, pitting people of one race against another, “Flynn said. “It’s very divisive and unfair. Irish-Americans shouldn’t put up with it.”
Just over a year ago, tensions between Irish-Americans and the Boston Globe spilled out into the street when about 150 people gathered in front of Globe offices to protest the portrayal of residents of Northern Ireland as drunken and lazy. The newspaper had apologized a few days earlier for the disparaging editorial cartoon which sparked the protest.
At that time, editorial cartoonist Paul Szep also apologized to the residents of South Boston for having portrayed them during the 1970s as belligerent, unenlightened bigots because of their opposition to forced school busing.