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The arguments in the Boston City Council chamber swirled around the redistricting proposal dubbed the “unity” map.
And divisions over how exactly the council’s district boundaries should be redrawn for the 2020’s on Wednesday, in an instant, turned from squabbles over streets and neighborhoods into something much larger, with a focus on history half-the-world away.
With a quip from Dorchester Councilor Frank Baker, councilors were quickly lifted out of the Hub and thrown into the centuries-deep sectarian strife between Irish Catholics and Protestants — divisions that erupted into the violent conflicts known collectively as “The Troubles” that once plagued Northern Ireland for decades.
Baker, donning a Celtic cross pin on his lapel, told councilors of a conversation he had with a Catholic priest that morning, saying the city’s clergy are “all talking about this process right here and they’re viewing (this) as an all-out assault on Catholic life in Boston.”
Then he added: “And it’s not lost on them that the person that’s leading the charge is a Protestant from Fermanagh,” a county in Northern Ireland.
Baker’s remarks were aimed squarely at his colleague, Allston-Brighton Councilor Liz Breadon, who was born Protestant in Northern Ireland before immigrating to Boston nearly 30 years ago. Breadon is the chair of the council’s redistricting committee and the lead sponsor of the map councilors voted 9-4 this week to approve.
This was far from the only tensions that have boiled over on the council this session. Councilors of color have openly discussed the disrespect and racism they have faced since taking office, alleging the unfair treatment has, at times, even come from their white colleagues.
Race undeniably has been linked throughout the redistricting process, as Breadon and other supporters of the unity map say it gives more political agency to communities of color and satisfies federal legal requirements for diversity among Boston’s voting blocs.
But Baker and other councilors argued those changes have come at the expense of the communities in their districts.
Still, Baker’s remarks folded in a new element to the latest chapter of division on the city’s legislative body — one that even the Archdiocese of Boston has waded into now.
Here’s what happened:
Between the late 1960s and the late 1990s, Northern Ireland experienced violence through riots, car bombings, and revenge killings.
These acts were the product of conflict amid Catholic discrimination under the Protestant-controlled government and the complex issues around Irish identity and secular beliefs, nationalism, and the rivaling sentiments over the state’s ties to the United Kingdom and the idea of a united Ireland, independent of British rule.
Catholic nationalists had tried to push back on government-sanctioned discrimination by modeling a civil rights movement similar to that led by Black Americans in the United States. But matters grew more intense in subsequent years, and by the time peace prevailed just before the turn of the last century, some 3,600 people had lost their lives and another 30,000-plus had been injured.
Baker’s comments on Wednesday are apparently in reaction to how the city’s latest political map — if approved by Mayor Michelle Wu — does not follow the same boundaries as parish lines sanctioned by the Archdiocese of Boston.
The map’s major changes that have fueled opposition largely center on moving a section of Dorchester — near Cedar Grove, Neponset, and Adams Village — from Baker’s District 3 into District 4, and shifting areas of South Boston home to a public housing complex from District 2 into District 3.
Proponents of the map say District 2, under the law, has too many residents as it currently stands, while the Dorchester section eyed in District 3 would provide District 4 more racial diversity to help the city avoid possible allegations of “packing” Black voting blocs.
Opponents — who also include Council President Ed Flynn and Councilors Erin Murphy and Michael Flaherty — had meanwhile said the map splits their neighborhoods up and divides their communities.
After Baker’s remarks drew audible shock among onlookers of the council’s Wednesday meeting, Baker attempted to continue speaking, but Flynn banged his gavel and sent the meeting into a recess.
About five minutes later, councilors returned, and Flynn said Baker broke the council’s conduct rule.
Baker apologized for his choice of words and asked, if possible, to have them stricken from the record.
“That was unlike me,” he said. “I apologize first to the chair (Breadon) and to the body, also. A good Catholic boy like myself shouldn’t do that or be like that. … I shouldn’t use language like that.”
But Baker also acknowledged why he remained frustrated.
“I’m heated because I think that neighborhoods in District 3 that happen to be Catholic are under attack,” he said.
And on Thursday, Baker apparently doubled down on his comments, saying in a statement that they reflect what he has heard from his Catholic constituents for months, GBH News reports.
“The redistricting process in Boston has been conducted unlawfully to intentionally harm [Catholic voters] for who they are,” Baker said.
He went on to point to allegations the process violated the state’s Open Meeting Law and the federal Voting Rights Act.
“I won’t be silent on it,” he said.
Soon after Baker’s apology, Breadon rose to offer a rebuttal and a condemnation. She called Baker’s comments a “personal attack.”
Indeed she did grow up as a Protestant in Northern Ireland, she said. Throughout that time in her life, she watched how her government “systemically discriminated against Catholics in housing, job opportunities, funding of education, access to health care, the ability to vote.”
“The greatest travesty in Northern Ireland’s history was a systemic disenfranchisement of Catholic people,” she said. “There was no one man, one vote. That’s what the Northern Ireland civil rights movement was about in the 1960s. They were out in the streets protesting for one man, one vote just like the folks here, African Americans in the United States.”
When the Troubles started in 1969, Breadon was 10 years old, she said.
On the campaign trail in 2019, Breadon recalled those experiences to the Boston University News Service and remembered how, as a child, she often heard the whirling of helicopters overhead.
“Basically, we had troops and armored cars and people with guns and helicopters,” Breadon said at the time. “So even though I was living in a rural area where we were protected from much of the intense conflict that was in the more urban areas, it really permeated my whole growing up.”
Breadon, on Wednesday, also acknowledged how as a lesbian, she was unable to live and express herself as she wanted in her native, Christian-conscientious country.
In 1995, she arrived in Boston — “this light on a hill, (this) city on a hill” — and she married a “nice Irish Catholic girl,” she said.
She called Baker’s comments “an insult.”
“It is an insult to me to have a colleague in this City Council insinuate that I am discriminating against Catholics. That is not what’s happening here,” Breadon said. “I’m standing up for the rights of our minority communities — Hispanic, Asian, and Black — to have equal access to voting and to have an equal opportunity to elect the candidate of their choice.
“And if that means annoying and upsetting Catholics, I’m very, very sorry,” she added. “And I don’t think that is reflective of Catholic values. … This is an insult. It is an absolute disgrace.”
In an email newsletter to supporters and constituents on Thursday, Breadon reflected on the incident, calling it “offensive on multiple levels,” including “as an outrageous breach of decorum, in its militaristic language, and in the thinly veiled homophobic attitudes underpinning the remarks.”
“For many reasons, not least because of the support that my spouse Mary and I feel from the Allston-Brighton community that we call home, I was able to call out the ignorance and bias laid at my feet yesterday,” Breadon wrote.
In a statement to the Dorchester Reporter on Thursday, Terrence Donilon, a spokesperson for the Archdiocese of Boston, said the church does not view the unity map as an attack on Catholic life, but stopped short of making any acknowledgement to Baker’s anti-Protestant remark:
The Catholic Church appreciates, and in many cases collaborates with local officials in addressing the various complex issues facing the city. Clearly the City of Boston redistricting debate is complicated as officials seek to meet this post census requirement.
That said, we do not believe the process is an assault on Catholic life. Given the significant issues raised and the debate that has ensued, perhaps more time is required for all parties to deliberate on this important matter so that all districts within the city have fair representation.
Asked by a reporter if the church is suggesting Wu should veto the map, Donilon said, “That decision is completely in the hands of the governmental leaders. Our suggestion was mainly one of prudence because of the complexity of the issue.”
In Dorchester, Bill Forry, editor of the Dorchester Reporter, told GBH News Baker’s remarks were a “terrible blunder” and have been widely rejected in Baker’s own district.
“We’ve heard outrage from people who feel that this is an absolute misrepresentation of how people feel. … Folks who do have concerns about this final redistricting map that the council passed have other arguments,” Forry said. “At no point did anybody raise objections about Councilor Breadon’s heritage, or her place of origin or her religion. It simply has no place in the political dialogue here in the city.”
“It shows a grave ignorance on his part about Irish America and about the Irish American role in helping to resolve the Irish ‘Troubles’ in the North,” he added.
GBH News also obtained a copy of a letter from Jack Ahern, a pastor at St. Gregory’s Parish in Dorchester, in which Ahern says the redistricting process comes across as discriminatory. But when reached by the outlet, Ahern clarified his statements.
“I was more so trying to keep the district united under one councilor,” he told GBH of his letter. The correspondence does not make mention of Breadon’s religion. “I was taken aback by Baker’s comments. I didn’t even know she was Protestant.”
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