By C.J. Miller
A boycott of New York’s second-largest St. Patrick’s Day parade by some of Rockland County’s police and fire departments drew support from the British government and condemnation of Britain’s involvement from Washington.
U.S. Rep. Ben Gilman attacked British officials’ words of encouragement of the Orangetown Police Honor Guard’s refusal to participate in last week’s Pearl River parade, which was led by Brian Pearson, a former member of the IRA.
“It is unfortunate that the British government would seek to take advantage of an internal disagreement in Rockland County following the tragic events of Sept. 11,” said Gilman, who is co-chairman of the Ad Hoc Committee on Irish Affairs and chairman emeritus of the House International Relations Committee. “This has been an emotional issue for all those involved and the British government’s derogatory public comments only further divides our communities.”
Gilman’s criticism came after representatives from the British Consulate in Manhattan called Orangetown Policemen’s Benevolent Association President Patrick Frawley to relay messages of support to the 16-member honor guard for the boycott.
Pearl River resident Pearson led the 40th annual parade, which was dedicated to the victims of Sept. 11 and their families as well as the ongoing peace process in Northern Ireland. Pearson, who is 50, served 12 years in Long Kesh prison for political offenses before coming to the United States in 1988. He was granted political asylum in 1997 after a U.S. Federal Court judge ruled that his involvement in the 1976 bombing of a Royal Ulster Constabulary military barracks in Pearson’s hometown of Clogher, Co. Tyrone, was an act of political resistance, not terrorism. A 50-minute warning was called in before the attack and no injuries were reported.
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“Brian Pearson’s links to the Troubles in Northern Ireland are a thing of the past and should have remained there,” said Gilman, who testified on Pearson’s behalf during his deportation trial. “The British government’s involvement in this issue is completely inappropriate.”
Dissent surrounding Pearson’s unanimous selection as grand marshal by the Rockland County Ancient Order of Hibernians began officially two weeks ago, after Frawley released a statement saying that the honor guard would not march because the AOH’s choice was “a controversial one” in the days following the World Trade Center tragedy.
“Who the people of Pearl River and Rockland County chose to lead their parade is a matter for them, but clearly a lot of the people were unhappy, given the number of police officers who were killed in Northern Ireland,” said Paul Johnston, consul for Northern Ireland at the British Consulate.
Sinn Fein Vice President Pat Doherty, who traveled to Pearl River to march with Pearson, called British involvement in the controversy “grossly inappropriate.”
“Clearly there is a huge distinction between a national liberation struggle and the terrorism that we saw here on Sept. 11,” he said. “For people to confuse the two does a massive injustice to what’s going on in Northern Ireland.”
The 80-member Pearl River Hook & Ladder Fire Co., headed by president Hugh Johnson, joined the Orangetown Honor Guard in the parade boycott. Sources within the fire department who asked not to be identified said that Johnson, who is also an Orangetown police officer, threatened them with expulsion if they marched in the Pearl River parade in uniform.
Members of Pearl River’s Excelsior Fire Company marched in this year’s parade, despite alleged warnings from Johnson, who denied the threats in a written statement last week.
Former Orangetown Police Honor Guard members Edward Fitzgerald and Timothy Sheridan escorted Pearson to this year’s event, despite the boycott of their fellow officers.
Orangetown Supervisor Thom Kleiner said he was proud to march with Pearson and hoped “some good will come out of all of this.”
“It would be too bad if all of this heightened attention to what’s going on in Northern Ireland should disappear. We should take advantage of that,” said Kleiner, who added that he was arranging a lecture series on the Irish peace process at a local college. “This does not have to be the end of the issue — it should be the beginning.”