The Washington Post reported incorrectly yesterday that Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) would attend a reception for Queen Elizabeth II in Los Angeles this weekend. Moynihan said yesterday that no such arrangement was "contemplated or agreed to."
The St. Patrick's Day Parade generally does not cause much of a stir in these parts, except for the perilous excitement of dodging caroming patriots and the seasonal outpouring of green beer. But this year, politics and controversy have come to the parade, in the person of an Irish Republican Army partisan named Michael Flannery, who's been named grand marshal.
Flannery has been variously described as a self-confessed gunrunner, a terrorist sympathizer and an IRA fund-raiser, and his participation in the parade has caused local politicians to line up on either side, emitting bleats.
Last week Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) started the commotion by issuing a statement saying that since Flannery had announced the parade would be "pro-IRA" and Moynihan "reject s without qualification the violence of the provisional IRA," he would decline to march; former governor Hugh Carey quickly followed suit. Cardinal Terence Cooke, who traditionally oversees the Fifth Avenue festivities from the steps of St. Patrick's Cathedral, is still making up his mind as to whether he'll come out this year or not.
Is Flannery perturbed by the snub from Moynihan?
"He's a nonentity," said the grand marshal-elect. "An Irishman for one day a year. He hasn't done a thing for us. Carey? He's in the same category."
Flannery is 81. "Isn't 81 years of age a little old to be running around with these gunrunners, or giving them money, or whatever it is you do?" he was asked.
His reply, in the brogue of his native Killarney, was enough to make the portrait of the martyred St. Plunkett on his wall stand up and salute, had not the poor fellow been hacked, centuries prior, into four parts.
"I wasn't always 81," said Flannery, who recently was acquitted of a charge of conspiracy to smuggle weapons. "I started out with the IRA at 14 and I see no reason why anyone should quit a good cause. I'll stay with it as long as I have breath to draw in my chest, and the people think I am of use." He paused to chuckle. "Which apparently they think I still am."
The parade, of course, is March 17, and though politicians are known to be open-minded folks, here is the lineup so far:
Carey and Moynihan (who will be attending a reception for Queen Elizabeth II in Los Angeles this weekend), certainly not; Mayor Ed Koch and Gov. Mario Cuomo, present, out of, respectively, "love" and "respect" for the Irish people, though both have said they "deplore" violence. Sen. Alfonse D'Amato (R-N.Y.), the other half of the senatorial bookend, is marching the sidestep, saying he will be there "if his schedule permits."
On the other hand, the controversy is pulling out New York City's old Irishmen in force. Flannery, who lives in Jackson Heights, Queens, says he has received "hundreds" of letters of support. And New York Daily News columnist Jimmy Breslin has noted the old IRA man has inspired so many ancient patriots to march "that Grand Marshal Flannery finds his major duty now is to ensure the presence of enough emergency medical equipment along the lines of march to take care of hordes who haven't walked a full block in 20 years."
He's a hero in Jackson Heights, Flannery is, though an idle observer might not guess it just to look at the man. He's tall as a pole, and thin as a stick, and his head is topped by pale orange strands, combed into one enormous spit curl, laid flat on his pate. His voice is quiet, his speech is modest. He says he has worn a temperance pin from the time he took the oath as a boy in Ireland, and it is only through questioning about his health that one learns of his 28-day hunger strike as a young member of the IRA. He left Ireland shortly after that, IRA men having trouble getting work, and settled in a modest two-family house in Queens, making his living at an insurance agency. But weekends and off-hours, he lived the old life; as an active member of the Irish Northern Aid Committee (Noraid), he raised, over the years, "millions."
And what were the millions for?
"The charities," said Flannery, the tiniest twinkle in his eye. "None goes to the IRA. Only to the thousands who have no manner of living, or their husbands are in prison, or off fighting so they can't go home . . . Of course, there's times people come to me and say, 'I'd like to make a donation, but we don't want to contribute to the charitable end of it, we want it to go directly to the IRA and I'll help them with that . . ."
It was ultimately this helpful nature that got Flannery--and four friends--in trouble a year or so ago. A fellow came to Flannery needing a loan of $17,000. Flannery gave him the money and the fellow went out and purchased 42 automatic rifles and submachine guns and handguns from a member of the FBI. Five men--including Flannery--were charged with conspiracy to smuggle weapons. At their trial here in November, their defense team admitted that yes, they had helped out the guy, but that they had done so only because they believed the CIA sanctioned their operation. After the acquittal, there was some complaint from the prosecution about "frivolous defense." Reportedly, however, it was drowned out by the general pandemonium in the courtroom, including shouts--from one defendent--of "Up The Provos."
Flannery--the senior member among the defendants--became a hero and was chosen grand marshal earlier this month by the Ancient Order of Hibernians, a Roman Catholic lay association in charge of the parade. Next month he will march proudly in a hero's position. The criticism does not bother him--the parade, he says, has always been political. The only thing that perturbs him, just a little bit, is the fact that he will be wearing a morning suit. It's too lah-dee-dah, "sort of lord and lady." He'd rather be dressed simply, in his Sunday best.
And would he go armed or unarmed?
The twinkle is back in his eye.
"Oh, I'd like to be carrying the latest machine gun, but I won't be," he says. "I'll just be a mouse-like man going up there."