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Sides bicker over whether to bring back South Side parade

030807/chgo Luis D Negrwith Liberty Flag hangs banners along route South SIde Irish Parade near 103rd Western March 8 2007.

030807/chgo Luis D Negron with Liberty Flag hangs banners along the route of the South SIde Irish Parade, near 103rd and Western on March 8, 2007. | Bill Konway~Daily Southtown Star

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Updated: March 18, 2012 8:22AM

In the 19th Ward, the South Side Irish are fighting — themselves.

“How’s life in the Balkans?” powerhouse Ald. Edward Burke (14th) has chided fellow Irish politicos from a part of town proudly clinging to its ethnic roots.

The raging battle in Beverly, Mt. Greenwood and parts of Morgan Park isn’t over political loyalty or who gets clouted contracts. It’s not even about the great Mount Carmel vs. St. Rita debate.

This time they’re brawling over something more precious — the South Side Irish Parade’s resurrection. It’s getting nasty.

And Mayor Rahm Emanuel has found himself smack in the middle of this Irish feud.

The mayor backs the parade, which his former boss President Barack Obama has called “one of the great events in America.”

In January, City Hall approved a parade permit application, one step in clearing the way for the marching to begin. Since then, the mayor’s administration has dragged out the process of deciding if the parade — that jubilant, boozy celebration the Sunday before St. Patrick’s Day — can safely return to Western Avenue after a three-year hiatus. Parade day is just 23 days away.

On Friday, parade organizers and city department heads are set to meet, again.

But the parade standoff isn’t a City Hall showdown. It’s about who gets to say what’s best for The Neighborhood.

On this issue, foes are friends. And for Ald. Matt O’Shea it’s, awkwardly, a family matter.

That’s because the guy leading the pro-parade push is James “Skinny” Sheahan.

In Beverly, Sheahan’s best known as a veteran political strategist, master party planner and a guy who takes no guff.

But at the O’Shea house he’s just “Uncle Skinny” — the guy who helped his niece’s husband get elected last year.

The whole parade rift, to put it nicely, “is trying from the family perspective,” O’Shea said.

It even has the family split on whether to support the parade committee’s final fund-raiser on Saturday — a boozy party at 115 Bourbon Street in Merrionette Park.

O’Shea said he’s not sure if he’ll attend, “but I know my wife is going.”

Hijacked by
‘drunken idiots’

O’Shea loves the South Side Irish Parade — or at least how it used to be.

For 13 years, he was on the organizing committee. But O’Shea also voted to kill the parade in 2009. It was the right call, he said.

“Drunken idiots hijacked” his neighborhood that year with acts of violence, vandalism, public urination and public sex that surpassed the neighborhood’s historically tolerant standard for post-parade havoc — most notably by punching cops.

“At the end of the day, any tragedy is on me,” O’Shea said. “It’s not on the parade committee. It’s not on the mayor’s office. And it’s not just that I’m alderman. I’m a father of three kids and live a block and a half from the parade route.”

His main goal is to make sure that doesn’t happen again. Fact is, Emanuel’s pro-parade stance hasn’t made that easy for the freshman ward boss.

The mayor’s administration, over O’Shea’s objection, ignored the traditional courtesy of allowing aldermen the final say on local issues by approving the parade application. O’Shea isn’t happy about that. If there is a parade and it goes badly, “a lot of people will have explaining to do and I’ll be at the podium,” the alderman said.

It appears O’Shea’s only chance to stop the parade might be in the permit application fine print — a clause that states a final permit won’t be issued until the parade committee coughs up cash to cover the cost of barricades and cleanup of the mess, among other things.

City Hall hasn’t produced a price tag yet, so parade organizers haven’t had the chance to pay. Since then, O’Shea has pressured the mayor’s administration to make sure his safety concerns are satisfied. So far, every meeting — and there have been plenty — has gone nowhere.

It’s like “Groundhog’s Day,” the alderman said.

‘Zero tolerence’

Sheahan and parade planners say they continue to try to compromise with the city, but — to put it mildly — the hold-up really gets their Irish up.

“No other parade committee in the history of Chicago has ever attempted to address the concerns of the neighborhood like we have,” he said.

City transportation department spokesman Pete Scales says meeting with parade committees about safety concerns is commonplace. What’s unusual is the stalemate over the safety plan, which hasn’t passed muster, so far.

Sheahan doesn’t buy it.

The way he sees it, the parade committee has presented an “unheard of security plan,” Sheahan said. They’ve hired a security firm to man more than 40 checkpoints with mostly off-duty cops to reinforce a “zero-tolerance” on public drinking, especially by minors. They’ve asked surrounding suburbs, Metra and bus companies offering to help deter drinkers with open alcohol — especially drunken drivers — from making it to the parade route. They’ve even rented more portable toilets than ever before.

Still, O’Shea and city officials aren’t satisfied.

The plan is incomplete, the alderman said.

“I get calls from people saying, ‘Skinny says it’s going to work, you have to trust him,’ ” O’Shea said. “But at the end of the day, hope isn’t a strategy, You can’t just hope it won’t happen again.”

Emanuel’s staff wouldn’t say who makes the final call on issuing a permit. And it’s not clear if the city can deny the permit once the application has been approved and the parade committee cuts the city a check. Those topics will likely be discussed at Friday’s City Hall sit-down, Scales said.

Whatever happens, Sheahan says he’s sure about this: The floats are ready. The bagpipers and marching bands are booked. The grand marshals — veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars — are set to lead the march down Western. St. Xavier University’s NAIA National Champion football team will follow the heroes.

“We are doing the parade on March 11 at 11:30 in the morning,” Sheahan said. “We think this parade can be done and get back to the basic things the parade is about — families and children and the Irish.”

Eventually, the neighborhood bickering will stop. The alderman and Uncle Skinny agree on that. They’re a good Irish family.

“Look, I grew up with six brothers. We fought every day and sat down for dinner together at night,” Sheahan said. “We can take it.”

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