The battle lines have been drawn over New York Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plans to end the city’s iconic horse-drawn carriage industry.
The carriage trade has garnered the support of Irish actor Liam Neeson and a major union body, but de Blasio appears determined to fulfil an election promise undertaking to end the business.
Neeson visited stables on Sunday where the horses are kept and has appeared on several celebrity talk shows to voice his support for the carriage industry and its drivers.
During his walkabout at the stables, he declared the horses “well cared for”.
During his tour, about 12 councillors and 100 carriage drivers attended. Neeson criticised de Blasio for not attending, saying “he should have manned up and come”.
“I’m disappointed he’s not here,” he added.
He did not believes plans to replace them with antique replica horseless carriages would work.
But the Coalition to Ban Horse-Drawn Carriages says Neeson does not know what he is talking about when it comes to the carriage trade.
President Elizabeth Forel said: “De Blasio has unequivocally said he will ban the horse-drawn carriage trade and Neeson is trying to bully him into changing his mind.
“The carriage drivers have tried for years to make the campaign to ban horse-drawn carriages in New York City into an anti-Irish issue. But these ‘poor Irish lads’ are hardly that.”
It was, she said, absurd to suggest opponents of the trade were opposed to any ethnic group, least of all the Irish.
“There are many good people living in Ireland and the US of Irish extraction, who support and work with us on this ban. If my late [Irish] mother could see how the drivers treat their horses and how they force them to live and work, she would be ashamed and heartbroken.
“She knew horses well and cared about the welfare of all animals.”
John Carmody, who heads the Animal Rights Action Network (ARAN) in Ireland said: “Neeson may be able to act and string lines together, but when it comes to understanding the suffering horses endure in all weather extremes often in suffocating traffic fumes in the carriage trade, sadly Mr Neeson has been a flop.
“The Irish public is commending Mayor de Blasio in his progressive efforts to retire this outdated industry in favor of a New York City that can hold its head up high with streets that do not harbor horse abuse.”
Kim Flaherty, of Irish descent, leads the group in Sacramento looking to ban the trade there. He said he found Neeson’s defense of the New York trade misguided and disappointing.
“This isn’t an Irish issue, it’s an animal welfare issue, and as an American of Irish descent who cares about the humane treatment of animals, I strongly support a ban on horse-drawn carriages in New York City.”
Kathy Burke, another person of Irish descent, heads the anti horse-carriage movement in Atlanta.
Allie Feldman, the executive director of NYCLASS, another group dedicated to ending the New York trade, said: “The issue is about the inhumanity of horses working in dangerous midtown traffic.
“Why continue to subject horses to a risky nose-to-tailpipe existence when there’s a gorgeous, cruelty-free alternative – the electric antique replica horseless carriage?
“We are exploring options to determine the smoothest, most fair and equitable way to transition out the use of inhumane horse carriages, and transition in the job-saving electric antique replica cars for current carriage drivers.
“The commitment of Mayor de Blasio and Speaker Mark Viverito is unwavering, and we look forward to working closely with them and other officials to get the horses off the streets in a way that is humane for all.”
Meanwhile, the New York City Central Labor Council, an umbrella group for more than 1.3 million union workers, has written to de Blasio and council members asking that the trade be retained.
President Vincent Alvarez and other senior members of the council said the 300 carriage drivers stood to lose their livelihoods.
“The horse carriage industry has been a part of New York City’s cultural identify for decades.
“As one of the New York City’s top three tourist attractions, the industry provides millions of dollars in revenue as well as hundreds of reliable, well-paying middle class jobs.”
The letter continued: “We firmly believe that banning the horse carriage industry would be detrimental to New York City on a number of levels. Hundreds of families would suddenly find themselves without income, a precarious situation for anyone in today’s economy.
“New York City stands to lose out on revenue generated by tourists, which helps to defray the cost of supporting city services.
“We acknowledge that opponents of these workers include powerful, well-funded voices. We ask you to weigh the merits of this issue by examining for yourself the facts of this industry, and to keep in mind that your decision will impact the lives of many New York families.”
However, the New York Daily News reported that de Blasio was unswayed by the letter.
“They’re friends, they’re people I respect, but they know where I stand,” de Blasio was reported as saying.
It also reported that the Manhattan Chamber of Commerce found overwhelming support for the industry in a poll of members.
Seventy-six percent of its members, comprising Manhattan business owners and executives, said the industry should be allowed to stay.
Many of the 24 percent who backed a ban cited animal welfare concerns.