A closed door meeting was held last week between New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and a small group of leaders from the city’s Irish community.
Accounts differ as to how the meeting went with Irish leader Ciaran Staunton clashing with City Council Speaker Viverito on cuts to the Irish Center in Queens which provides services for many elderly Irish, the carriage horse ban which affects many Irish drivers and no liaison to the Irish community.
“I would describe the meeting as stormy," said Staunton. “While we appreciate the fact of the meeting the other fact is that we have lost funding for at least two projects since this administration came in, the New York Irish Center In Queens and the cultural festival in Brooklyn known as the Craic Fest.”
Those in attendance included Council members Elizabeth Crowley, Danny Dromm, Jimmy Van Bramer, and Corey Johnson, Consul General Barbara Jones, Staunton of the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform, leaders from the Irish Arts Center and the New York Irish Center, as well as other Irish community and cultural groups.
Eric Koch, a spokesperson for the Speaker, described it as part of an ongoing series of meetings Mark-Viverito holds with different communities and was much more upbeat about the meeting than Staunton was.
“This was a very positive, long-planned get together with Irish leaders from across New York City,” he told IrishCentral in an email. “The Speaker regularly holds these meetings and we look forward to working with Irish leaders from across the five boroughs.”
The attendees IrishCentral talked to were cautiously optimistic that the meeting would help improve relations and lead to clearer channels of communication going forward.
Since Mayor Bill de Blasio assumed office in January 2014, the relationship between his administration and New York’s Irish community has been fraught with tension over topics ranging from the proposed carriage horse ban to St. Patrick’s Day celebrations.
When the newly-elected de Blasio began naming his appointments at the start of 2014, the Irish found themselves without any high-ranking Irish Americans in the mayor’s administration for the first time in decades. In addition there was no liaison officer to the community
To date, no one has been tagged to fill this role, leaving many NY Irish feeling shunted aside. This has had very tangible consequences, with a number of nonprofits that historically received an annual grant from the council’s discretionary fund under previous speaker Christine Quinn left in the dark for fiscal year 2015. However, the major city funding for the Irish Arts Center renovation on Manhattan’s West Side is intact.
One of the program cuts is to the New York Irish Center (NYIC) in Queens, a non-profit operation that provides a vast array of cultural programs and performs critical outreach, especially for seniors across the borough.
When Christine Quinn was Speaker, the board of the NYIC reached out to her and received approval for $50,000 in funding, which was renewed each year. This came to be a vital resource for the center, which raises approximately half of its yearly funds through events and relies on the Irish government, the American Ireland Fund and the City of New York for the other half.
Until this year.
As Paul Finnegan, Executive Director of the NYIC, explained, “We had received, for several years running, $50,000 at the speaker's discretion. Once it was in place we applied for it every year and we built a relationship with Speaker Quinn, who unfortunately did not become Mayor.
“We didn’t get funded for 2015 via the speaker's office. I know [Councilman] Jimmy Van Bramer fought for funding for us, but there’s a new administration, new priorities.”
Finnegan was “personally shocked when the funding was removed from the speaker's office for [the NYIC]” and said that “[the NYIC] took a hit. We weren’t able to expand our services this year as we wanted to. We were able to maintain our regular operations, though this was by dipping into our reserves.
“I had to focus on a strategy for getting this funding back, so I reached out to the council members,” he added. “They were very supportive and strong advocates. I believe their support will help as we go forward. And then we had to put our needs before the speaker.”
Finnegan’s impression from the meeting was that Mark-Viverito is “wide open to listening. She regards our community as important so we feel we have a bit more of a relationship going forward for fiscal year 2016.”
The allocation of City Council discretionary funds has also changed under Mark-Viverito. When Christine Quinn was in office, she determined how much was allocated to each council member. Under Mark-Viverito, the amount of discretionary funding each council member receives depends upon the wealth of their district.
According to a report in the Wall Street Journal, for 2015, “Each [council] member received a base of $400,000; some members received up to $100,000 in additional funding depending on the level of poverty in their district.
“As the council's leader, Ms. Mark-Viverito allocated the largest amount of money among the 51 members. She distributed $16.6 million in funds.”
Another non-profit Irish group that saw its funding cut for 2015 was the Craic Fest, which for since 17 years has brought annual screenings of Irish films to New York City, as well as organizing a slew of other cultural events, such as concerts and children’s events.
For the past eight years, the Craic Fest and the Film Fleadh had received $30,000 from the speaker’s fund, so its founder and director Terence Mulligan was dismayed to find the Craic Fest off the list for 2015.
Mulligan said that he was not invited to last week’s meeting with Speaker Mark-Viverito, but the question of funding for the Craic Fest was raised.
“We met with some council people already and we expressed our disappointment that we went from $30,000 to $0.00, that’s unacceptable,” Mulligan told IrishCentral.
“It had a huge impact as we had to take money for flights to fly over artists for our events out of our own pockets. That should not happen, especially after the work we've been doing successfully for the past 17 years.”
For him, the key issue seemed to be forging a new relationship with the still young administration.
“I learned a lot from Speaker Quinn, she was very supportive of us. Now we just have to get back on the radar,” he said. They need to see the face of the organization and to learn about what we do.”
Mulligan also expressed optimism about 2016, citing the success of the most recent Craic Fest despite stretched funds. “We got major media coverage on CBS and I think that’s starting to resonate. Hopefully they will pay attention now.”
Mulligan said all reinstated funds would go towards the Craic Fest and the LGBT Craic Fest, one of the only events of its kind (the next one is April 17 at the Irish Consulate).
Funding was not the only issue on the table at the meeting. Ciaran Staunton, head of the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform, summarized, “We asked to restore funding, appoint a liaison with the Irish American community. We voiced our objection to the carriage horse legislation. Now she's heard it firsthand. We made the ask.”
He described the cuts to the NYIC and the Craic Fest as very serious, because of their impact on New York’s elderly Irish as well as the city’s younger Irish population.
“She shouldn't have waited a year and a half to hear this,” he said of Speaker Mark-Viverito. “She should have hired someone to replace Feerick [as community liaison] and listened in the first place.”