Peace has very nearly become a fighting word when it comes to the annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade in South Boston.
This Sunday’s parade — more precisely, who can march in it — has again pitted the Allied War Veterans Council, which runs the annual event, against Veterans For Peace, a group of former soldiers who hope to use the parade as a venue to promote alternatives to war.
The Allied War Veterans need little introduction. Their claim to fame, besides the parade itself, is winning a unanimous 1995 victory before the US Supreme Court in their bid to ban gays and lesbians from the parade. Since affirming their right to block whomever they want, they have asserted that any “political” group violates the spirit of St. Patrick.
Veterans for Peace have sought to march in the parade for nearly a decade, and they began holding their own counter-parade in 2011. They rightly mock the notion that the traditional parade, a key date on Boston’s political calendar, is somehow apolitical. Banning Veterans for Peace, they say, is about exclusion, pure and simple.
“The only reason given is that they consider the word peace objectionable,” said Vietnam veteran Tony Flaherty. “Peace is actively a dirty word.”
The conflict between the two veterans’ organizations is about more than just a parade. Veterans For Peace say they are driven, in part, by reflecting on their own wartime experiences.
Flaherty, 81, recalls that when he returned from duty in Vietnam to South Boston in 1974, he struggled with post-traumatic stress, then an unknown disorder. He understands the cost of war and dismisses the military-cheering crowds lining Broadway as clueless, saying, “It’s not going to be their . . . children who are cannon fodder.”
Ironically, the two veterans groups are linked in many odd ways: The best man at Flaherty’s wedding was John “Wacko” Hurley, long the face of the parade, and the guiding force behind banning gays and lesbians. Flaherty proudly asserts his hardscrabble South Boston heritage and derides parade organizers, his neighbors, as promoters of intolerance.
The ban on letting Veterans For Peace in the parade — reaffirmed, in writing, every year — led it to begin a counterparade in South Boston, beginning in 2011. This year’s parade will include not only decorated veterans from around the region, but gay and lesbian groups, religious groups, and environmentalists.
However, the event will be far behind the traditional St. Patrick’s Day marchers. A federal court ruled a few years ago that any counterparade had to walk at least 1 mile behind the end of the official parade.
It also defines the end of the parade as the moment when the last street-sweeping machine reaches the end of the route. Unfortunately, dust-blowing street-sweeping machines have a way of dispersing crowds. So the veterans are left marching after much of the crowd has left.
With the legal backing of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, they are contesting that ruling.
The veterans argue that Mayor Thomas M. Menino, who has refused to march in the official parade since the antigay policy went into effect, could allow Veterans for Peace to begin closer to the end of the original parade. But Menino spokeswoman Dot Joyce said Tuesday that the city’s hands are tied by the court ruling.
Veterans for Peace organizer Pat Scanlon expects as many as 4,000 marchers in its parade this year. For Scanlon, a former US Army intelligence officer in Cambodia, the cause of peace became personal when he realized just how much destruction he had helped to oversee.
“Every day a flatbed truck went by my window with coffins on it,” he said softly. “Some day there were two; some days there were 10; some days there were 20. Every day I’ve been trying to pay back the universe for what I did.”