“It was like a Christmas punch in the gut.”

That’s how Colm McKeever, an Irish-born horse and carriage driver in Central Park, described the news that the New York City Council, at the behest of Mayor Bill de Blasio, will introduce a bill next week that aims to eliminate the fabled horse and carriage trade from the city’s landscape by 2016.

De Blasio, who campaigned last year on a platform of abolishing the horses from Central Park – and the 300 working-class jobs that the industry supports – can expect a renewed fight from the drivers and their supporters who are stunned at the holiday timing of the bill.

“I believe it speaks volumes about this administration,” Stephen Malone, a second-generation driver and spokesperson for the Horse and Carriage Association, told the Irish Voice.

“We had no advance notice of the timing of this bill. So 300 men and women with families to support, who have done nothing wrong at all, woke up to the news on Monday that their jobs are in jeopardy. Unbelievable.”

Final details of the bill are still being crafted, but what is known is that the horse and carriage industry would be abolished by May of 2016, as existing licenses held by the drivers would not be renewed.

To compensate for the loss of jobs, the bill proposes to allow unemployed drivers to apply for licenses to drive green taxis which operate outside of Manhattan, and would eliminate the licensing fees. Also included is an employment training program for those forced out of their jobs.

While the bill will be unveiled by its main sponsor, Queens Councilman Daniel Dromm, next week, a vote won’t take place until spring or early summer. According to a report in the website Capital New York, which broke the story late Sunday night, the votes to pass the legislation don’t currently exist as more than half of the City Council’s 51 members are undecided on the issue.

“Horses don’t belong on New York City’s congested streets amid cars and pollution. There have been too many crashes and too many horse deaths and injuries to justify the continuation of this industry,” Dromm said in a statement.

“The legislation, being introduced at the next Stated Meeting of the New York City Council, will provide a valuable alternative for the drivers while at the same time ensuring the humane treatment of the horses.”

The drivers were buoyed by a wave of positive publicity in March when actor Liam Neeson rallied to their cause, making TV appearances during which he criticized de Blasio and hosting a press day at one of the stables on the West Side to show how well the horses are cared for. Neeson, McKeever told the Irish Voice, is aware of the bill’s imminent introduction.

The drivers are ready to fight for their livelihoods and will commence a lobbying campaign to swing undecided City Council members to their side.

“New Yorkers support us by a huge majority. The mayor has spoken about a tale of two cities, the elites and the working class. The animal activist groups that support him are elite in the extreme. And the mayor will make us, the common working people, suffer. How is that fair?” McKeever said.

Supporters of the drivers have long contended that the efforts to eliminate horses from Central Park are fueled by real estate interests as opposed to animal safety concerns. Two of the stables that house the horses sit on prime property on the West Side of Manhattan, and much of the money behind the main activist group against the industry, NYCLASS, came from its founder, businessman Stephen Nislick, who has real estate holdings throughout the city.

NYCLASS threw its weight behind de Blasio’s campaign last year, and the newly-installed mayor proclaimed that he’d eliminate the horse and carriage industry on “day one” in office. NYCLASS applauded de Blasio’s plan on Monday.

“This is the right, creative solution that benefits all New Yorkers by adding jobs while also ending an unsafe and inhumane industry,” a statement from the group said.

The drivers are incensed by the animal cruelty charge, and criticize de Blasio for not once visiting a stable to see for himself how the horses live despite repeated invitations to do so.

“We have made so many offers to the mayor to talk with us directly, which is the least he could do seeing as he wants to get rid of our livelihoods. But we’ve heard nothing,” said Malone, whose father from Co. Louth was also a carriage driver.

“Our plan going forward is to continue to educate members of the City Council about our industry and what we do, and how much we love our horses. We want them to come to our stables and we want them to hear what we have to say. It’s a slap in our faces if those who are against us don’t do that.”

The bill’s Christmas timing was unexpected, but the drivers say they knew de Blasio would eventually move against their industry to appease the animal rights groups that helped propel him to office. Malone says he’s looking forward to dealing with the issue once and for all next year.

“I want to get back to carriage driving. I’m tired of having to constantly defend what we do. And I can tell you this – we are not, not taking this lying down,” he said.

The drivers are members of the Teamsters Union, and their leader George Miranda issued a statement sharply critical of the bill. All the major New York media outlets have editorialized in favor of the industry, and the drivers say they’re angry that their livelihoods could be so easily discarded by the mayor with his plan to shift them to green cabs.

“That’s totally not happening,” said McKeever, a native of Co. Meath with three children. “We’re not driving a green cab or a yellow one or any other color. The only cabs we want are the ones that we’ve got with our horses.”

The sole provider for his family, McKeever says his children are especially upset with the news that their father’s job is in jeopardy.

“My seven year old asked me on Monday, ‘Dad, what’s to be thankful for?’ And I really couldn’t answer him,” McKeever said.

Irish horse and carriage drivers vow to fight City Hall. “It was like a Christmas punch in the gut.”Irish Voice