Interview with Paul Doris, St. Patrick’s Day Parade Grand Marshal and Irish Republican Activist

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By Sabina Clarke

Philadelphia’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade, the second oldest in the country has been held continuously since 1771. This year with a nod to the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising in Dublin the theme is “God Bless the Heroes of 1916.” So it is most fitting that Ireland’s native son and Philadelphia’s own Paul Doris is leading this historic 2016 parade.

Born in Clonoe in County Tyrone, Doris came to Philadelphia in March 1974 with the offer to play Gaelic football for Kevin Barry. At the time conditions at home were tense and job prospects dim, “I had two brothers in jail and my mother was under a lot of pressure and I probably would have wound up in prison myself. I also had a cousin killed and another wounded by the SAS. Back then, you could be locked up for anything because of the Special Powers Act. It was a part of life that wherever you went you could be stopped by the British Army or the RUC; it was just terrible harassment”

Long Kesh Prison

In November 1974 a friend was killed trying to escape from Long Kesh Prison so he went back to Ireland that Christmas and returned to Philadelphia in February 1975. He was there for the first Civil Rights March in 1967 in Coalisland which was started by the people and precipitated by an actual case, “A woman was trying to get a house for her husband and her family. But the local government gave it to a single Protestant girl before they would give it to a Catholic family. We were marching for one person, one vote and for equal housing and work opportunities. What came after that was the People’s Democracy. Soon after the Civil Rights Movement grew bigger and there were more marches all over Ireland.”

Teamsters, Tyrone Society, Irish Northern Aid Campaigns

When he settled in Philadelphia, he never forgot conditions at home; he joined Irish Northern Aid, NORAID, and the Tyrone Society. His first job was as a landscaper then he became a Teamster in 1979, “I’ve been a Teamster all my life.” He retired four years ago. When I suggested that he write his memoir — he responded “There’s not much to write about.” That is typical Paul Doris; he’s not given to talking about himself or his accomplishments.

NORAID led successful campaigns for the McBride Principles, Hunger Strikers, deportee cases and visa denial. “The big issue we worked on was the prisoners and particularly prisoners’ families. It was a big burden on them too. Most of the prisoners interned were men, so there was no income coming into the families. Through an organization called The Green Cross which was part of NORAID’S mission, we raised money for the relief of the families of the prisoners. We also sent letters and Christmas gifts and birthday cards.”

Protest Marches

Of the protest marches he helped organize in Philadelphia, he recalls the march during the Hunger Strike in 1981 from Torresdale and Cottman Avenues to the Roosevelt Mall as one of the biggest ones — “There were thousands and thousands of people there. It was the year Bobby Sands died. Also, the march in 1974 from Baltimore to Washington against internment. That was a major one.”

National President of NORAID

As National President of NORAID since 1996, prior to which he was NORAID’s chief fundraiser, his duties took him all over the country and to most states and major cities. He was a good friend of the legendary Irish revolutionary Joe Cahill who came to Philadelphia in August 1994 to pave the way for the October 1994 visit of Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams to Philadelphia — the beginning of the public face of the Northern Ireland Peace Process.

Legendary Irish Republican Joe Cahill

When Cahill became sick Doris visited him in Ireland right before he died and then went back for his funeral. Then in 2004 at a NORAID dinner attended by hundreds of guests, Cahill’s widow Annie presented Doris with the first Joe Cahill Award for lifetime achievement. Speaking about it now he said, “It was a big surprise—I thought somebody else was getting it.”

For 40 years, Paul Doris has been saying that if every American in the Irish Diaspora gave just $1, “It would help us to spread the word and achieve our goal which is a United Ireland. Britain has taken more money out of the North than they have put into it. It would be better for the economy with no British interference. There will come a day when the people of the Six Counties under British Rule can vote on this and we believe they will vote for a United Ireland.”

George Bernard Shaw and Ireland’s Independence

“George Bernard Shaw said, ‘Every country has the right to misrule itself’— we have never had that opportunity. I believe we can work with the everyday Protestant and Unionist person to make an Ireland that is better for them and for us with everybody equal. It would be shameful to think we would ever treat people the way we’ve been treated. I have friends who are against the Good Friday Agreement and believe that we have given up too much — especially with working within Stormont — and also with policing. I have no problem with that.”

“For years and years, the police force was 99 percent Protestant — it was just like another wing of the British military. So, we didn’t give the police any support whatsoever; but as part of the Good Friday Agreement, we were supposed to get equal representation on the force. It has happened to a certain extent but has not gone far enough yet. Every society needs a police force — a community police force not a military type police force — without a police force you have a lawless society. Some people believe that the only way to get the British out of Ireland is by force.

Sinn Fein on Side of Peace

“Sinn Fein has a different outlook on that. We believe we can make a United Ireland appeal to everybody by political means. A lot of people have died — especially in the past 30 or 40 years; and it has come to a standstill now. The British didn’t care how many people died in Ireland; they were happy with what they called ‘an acceptable level of violence.’There are enough young British soldiers and enough Irish people who have been killed. Then everything fell into place — we had the right President here and the right Taoiseach in Ireland and the right President of Sinn Fein to work on a Peace Process.”

Political Might and Change

“You have to be inside the system to change anything. We were outside the system for too long and it never got us anything. Our people were never getting a fair shake; the British were working against us, the Unionists were working against us and the Irish Government was certainly working against us.”

“So we are inside now and we’re trying our best. Coming up to these elections they are blaming the IRA for everything saying that they are involved in criminality. What the Irish Government has done for years is a disgrace; they are lockstep with Britain. It is especially coming to the fore on the anniversary of 1916.”

Peaceful Political Solution

“At the end of the day, you only fight a war to get a peaceful political solution and the IRA thought that that time had arrived and Sinn Fein was fully behind it. And we are still fully behind It — and here in the U.S., we are fully behind it.”

Doris is a close confidante of Sinn Fein President and Teachta Dala Gerry Adams. He was with Adams in New York in February 1994 when Adams came to the U.S. for the first time with a 48-hour visa and had to stay within a 25 mile radius.

Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams

About Gerry Adams he said, “I think he’ll go down in history as one of the great ones. Right now, there is a stream of negative publicity in Irish newspapers against Sinn Fein and especially Gerry Adams. They have been trying to take Adams down but the membership won’t allow it. He is still there – one of the longest running leaders of any political party in the world. Sinn Fein has stood their ground. They have truth on their side and justice on their side and peace on their side.”

Democratic Unionist Leader Ian Paisley

Asked what he thought of the now deceased former Democratic Unionist Party Leader Ian Paisley, he said, “I think the change in him was real. A strong leader will make tough decisions and he was a strong leader.”

In an address to NORAID’s General Meeting in Philadelphia in 2005, Paul Doris ended his talk with these parting words: “My friends, we are knocking on freedom’s door. We have come a long way. You have led the way — and I know you will continue to lead the way until freedom’s door is unlocked forever.”