Flanagan, in a letter to Alliance president Trina Vargo, said her absence from the Oscar Wilde: “Honoring The Irish In Film” Pre-Academy Awards Party, would be directly as a result of views expressed by Vargo in the op-ed which was published in the Times on November 16.
The Oscar Wilde event is scheduled to take place February 21 at the Wilshire Ebell hotel in Los Angeles, three days before the Academy Awards are presented.
Vargo sparked controversy in the op-ed when she warned against “a small group of Irish-Americans” that was working “to encourage the US Congress to carve out a special deal for illegal Irish immigrants, while leaving behind the millions of others in the same situation. They are wrong to single out one group for preferential treatment.”
In the op-ed, Vargo acknowledges that the U.S. immigration system needs fixing and notes that “sadly” the effort to bring about change had been stalled.
“But to support a special deal that would single out illegal Irish immigrants for preferential treatment would be morally wrong, could harm the US-Ireland relationship, damage the high regard in which Irish-Americans are held, and lead to a divisive debate in the US between the Hispanic community and the Irish-American community,” Vargo wrote.
The views expressed in the op-ed sparked furious criticism, not least from the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform, the organization which, it was widely believed, fell into Vargo’s “small group” of Irish Americans, category.
The criticism has not abated and is being given fresh impetus by Flanagan, an immigrant herself as well as being one of Ireland’s internationally best known stage and screen stars.
Flanagan had accepted the invitation to the Oscar Wilde attempt but in a letter dated January 11 said she had “no idea” at that point “of the views you and/or the U.S.-Ireland Alliance held on the issue of illegal Irish immigrants to the United States.”
Wrote Flanagan in her letter to Vargo: “Upon my return from Ecuador after Christmas, the Irish Times article in its entirety, awaited my attention. I have no desire to enter into arguments with you on the very painful and inflammatory issue of illegal immigration. Others are much more qualified to do so than I.
“However, I can speak from my own experience as an immigrant to the U.S. Today I am fortunate to hold permanent legal status and am immensely grateful for the many opportunities the Unites States has given me.”
Flanagan wrote that at one point in her early career she had lost her legal status in the U.S. for a while and was unable to work.
“I could not go back and forth to Ireland and, unemployed, could not afford to do so. I was broke, dreadfully homesick for my family and lived in constant fear of deportation. My time of living with such insecurity was relatively short; I can only imagine the anxiety and suffering of families who live thus for years. The experience made me very empathetic to the plight and suffering of all illegal immigrants,” the Dublin-born actress stated in the letter.
And she added: “I applaud the efforts of all the immigrant groups who are actively involved in lobbying the cause of their ‘undocumented’ members. I applaud their respective homeland governments when they help to plead their case.
“We are the sum of our experiences and mine being what they are I particularly empathize with Irish illegal families. I have supported and will continue to support, both privately and publicly, the work of the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform and have campaigned for their cause. I have no evidence that they, or any of the other Irish organizations who support them, wish to exclude anyone for reasons of ethnicity or otherwise. To the contrary, as with the other lobbying immigrant groups with which I am familiar, they express a keen understanding of the power of solidarity.”
Flanagan said that to “castigate or shame” Irish immigrants for attempting to secure change in their status was not something “to which I can in conscience lend my name. Or even appear to do so. And while it is true Trina that there are many subjects on which you and I probably agree, this is not one of them.
“Therefore, as I stated in my initial letter to you of January 3rd, I must respectfully decline to be honored by your organization which appears to have taken such a strong position against the most vulnerable of my countrymen. I thank you and your Board for wishing to honor me; however I wish to withdraw my name from the list of honorees and will not be attending the upcoming Oscar Wilde Event.
Asked Tuesday for her reaction to the letter from Flanagan, Vargo issued this response.
“Ms. Flanagan supports a special deal for illegal Irish immigrants. I support legalization of all immigrants. Because of her position, Ms. Flanagan contacted me to say she’d rather not be honored in Hollywood and that she was doing us the courtesy of withdrawing quietly.
“We regret her decision as the event is Los Angeles is solely dedicated to honoring Irish work in film and creating opportunities for people in the film industry in Ireland to meet with people in the industry in Los Angeles.
“Ms. Flanagan reiterated her ‘admiration of and support for the work the US-Ireland Alliance has done in the areas of the arts and education.’ She is a very fine actress and we wish her every continued success.”
At presstime Tuesday the Alliance website still featured a notice to the effect that Flanagan was attending the Oscar Wilde event.
“Ms. Flanagan joins Academy Award winner James L. Brooks and actress Fiona Shaw as an honoree at the event that was created to bring together people in the film industry in the US and Ireland,” the website notice said.
“In announcing the news of Ms. Flanagan, Trina Vargo, President of the US-Ireland Alliance, noted that in addition to being a great actress, Fionnula is a warm and generous person who freely gives of her time and talent to help others. She has been hugely supportive of this event since the start and takes every opportunity to support the Irish film industry and Irish culture in general,” the alliance website stated.