New York society says banner, which shocked Irish, is an important parade tradition that represents the majority of Irish American opinion

Photos of Sinn Féin President Mary Lou McDonald marching behind an England Get Out of Ireland banner in last Saturday’s New York City St. Patrick’s Day parade were poorly received in Ireland, but a past president of the Brehon Law Society says the banner is an important parade tradition that represents the majority of Irish American opinion about the six northern counties being under British rule.

McDonald was excoriated by Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney and a number of unionist politicians for tweeting a photo on the Sinn Fein account of herself with members of the New York Brehons and their England Get Out of Ireland banner, with Coveney telling her on Twitter: “This is NOT leadership – it’s offensive, divisive and an embarrassment – grow up, this is NOT #ireland in 2019! we are better than this!”

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Sean Downes, a past president of the Brehons, is one of many Irish Americans who march behind an England Get Out of Ireland banner each year – there are a few on the parade route – and says the fuss over McDonald’s marching behind it is nonsense.

“This is how Irish Americans feel about the British presence in the six counties. On the biggest day of the year for us, we feel it is important to express that thought,” Downes told the Irish Voice.

The Brehons issued a statement on Sunday after McDonald’s photo behind the banner made headline news in Ireland. “The Brehon Law Society carried the banner England Get Out of Ireland as the only expression allowed to be carried on a banner in the New York City St. Patrick’s Day parade reflecting the desire of millions of Irish Americans and the Irish diaspora for the reunification of Ireland,” it said. “It is an iconic statement that has been carried in the NYC parade by many groups for decades. Irish reunification must be planned for, discussed openly and inclusively. “As a law society dedicated to peace and justice for a united Ireland, we are grateful for the opportunity to express a deeply-held sentiment felt by many Irish and Irish Americans.”

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Father Sean McManus, chairman of the Washington, D.C.-based Irish National Caucus, also weighed in on the controversy, saying that the banner is “a perfectly legitimate expression of historic Irish American wishes for Ireland.”

He added, “The only real story would be if Mary Lou had refused to march with that banner. After all, Jimmy Carter in 1976 -- seven months before he was elected president -- famously marched in the New York St. Patrick’s Day parade wearing the button England Get Out of Ireland.  And Mary Lou, the president of Sinn Fein, is not supposed to show such sensibility and solidarity. Are you kidding me!”

McDonald herself remains unrepentant. "The faux outrage of some of our political opponents owes more to the silly season of a holiday weekend and petty political point scoring," a Sinn Fein spokesperson said.

"However if Simon Coveney and the government is serious about achieving a new and agreed united Ireland then he should immediately convene an all-Ireland forum on Irish unity."

A source close to the New York City parade told the Irish Voice that the England Get Out of Ireland banner has been a tradition for decades, and there are no plans to remove it from Fifth Avenue.

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The Brehon Society and Mary Lou McDonald walk behind an "England Get Out of Ireland" banner at the New York St. Patrick's Day parade.Sinn Fein / Twitter