The Irish Times - Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Johnson apologises to London Irish for St Patrick's Day slur

MARK HENNESSY, London Editor

MAYOR OF London Boris Johnson has apologised to the Irish community there for alleging that a gala St Patrick Day’s dinner was funded by ratepayers and used to promote Sinn Féin.

The comments, in an interview in the New Statesman last month, were seized upon by Mr Johnson’s opponent in the May mayoral elections, former mayor Ken Livingstone, who alleged Mr Johnson had no interest in the city’s Irish community.

The issue of Mr Johnson’s relationship with London’s Irish has emerged again this week, days before the City Hall-funded St Patrick Day’s parade to Trafalgar Square, as it emerged that the mayor, yet again, is not planning to attend.

In a letter released yesterday, Mr Johnson, who has fallen behind in the polls after months during which he enjoyed a comfortable lead, apologised for the New Statesman row, but claimed the issue had been exploited to suggest he had anti-Irish feelings.

“There has been real and admirable progress in the fight against any lingering anti-Irish sentiment in London and it is deeply upsetting that people have alleged that I harbour such feelings,” he told Catherina Casey, who chairs the city’s St Patrick’s Day Advisory Forum.

In the interview, Mr Johnson had claimed that £24,000 of London ratepayers’ money had been wasted by the Livingstone-controlled City Hall on funding the black-tie Dorchester hotel dinner, the city’s then highest-profile Irish event.

Accepting yesterday that he was wrong, Mr Johnson acknowledged in a letter to Ms Casey that the dinner had been “self-financing but had been backed by a Greater London Authority contingency” guarantee.

Sinn Féin had a very visible presence at the dinners because senior figures such as Martin McGuinness made a point of attending. In 2008, Mr McGuinness and fellow Sinn Féin MP Pat Doherty were guests of honour.

In 2009, sponsorship ran out for the dinner, he said, and he felt unable “at a time of shrinking budgets” to commit public money, or to risk that the guarantee offered in earlier years might be called upon.

However, he said he was pleased that the event had resumed in 2010 without City Hall funding.

In Downing Street earlier, British prime minister David Cameron had joked with Taoiseach Enda Kenny about Mr Johnson’s part in upcoming celebrations in London to mark St Patrick’s Day, which now run for most of the week.

“I am sure that there will be a good show put on in London this year. I can’t promise that Boris Johnson will dye his hair green, but, you never know, he might do, it’s election year,” Mr Cameron declared.

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