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Why New York mayor is right to cold shoulder this St Patrick's parade


 Going green: dancers on Fifth Avenue, New York

Going green: dancers on Fifth Avenue, New York

Getty Images

Going green: dancers on Fifth Avenue, New York

The coldest I have ever been in my life was some years back standing foundered in New York, watching the annual St Patrick's Day parade. The footpaths were pocked with great concrete-hard outcrops of ice. There was a wind blowing down the street that would skin a polar bear. And I'd come dressed for a mild March day in Belfast.

Nearby, a group of gay demonstrators had gathered. In their case, not just frozen. But entirely frozen out. They'd been banned from taking part in the parade and, forced to the sidelines; they sang, chanted slogans and waved placards protesting against their exclusion.

That was back in the Nineties. All these years on, nothing has changed. Gay people are still banned from walking in the main St Patrick's Day parade in New York if they carry anything that identifies them as being from the LGBT community.

The parade's organisers (the Ancient Order of Hibernians) argue that gay people are welcome to take part. Just not with banners or flags that might identify them as... well... gay.

What is different this year is that, for the first time in a couple of decades, the mayor of New York will not be marching in the parade either. Recently-elected Bill de Blasio says he will not take part because he disagrees with the gay ban.

"I will be participating in a number of other events to honour the Irish heritage of this city," he explains. "But I simply disagree with the organisers of that parade in their exclusion of some individuals in this city."

In a city with such a large Irish-American population (and voting bloc) this is undeniably a politically intrepid move.

Bill Donohue, who is president of the Catholic League, hits back: "Personally, I am delighted. I do not want to march with a public official who does not want to be associated with Irish Catholics," he snipes online. He adds: "The great myth has always been that the parade is anti-gay: in previous years, I have gone on the radio inviting gays to march with the Catholic League, provided they do not draw attention to themselves or to some extrinsic cause. The parade is not about homosexuals, or abortion, or anything other than honouring St Patrick."

De Blasio's predecessor, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who claims Irish ancestry (doesn't everyone?), got around the parades issue cutely enough by attending two in one day. The main one which bans what Mr Donohue would see as gays "drawing attention to themselves," and another elsewhere in the city which welcomes them, rainbow flags and all.

A sort of Derry/Londonderry solution there, Michael. All things to all men, women, Irish, gay, transgendered and indeed homophobic.

De Blasio's stance is much braver, more honest and principled, and has once again turned the international spotlight on a ban that would appear to be totally at odds with a 21st century city that so prides itself on open-mindedness and liberalism. It says something that Vladimir Putin would feel entirely comfortable with the current St Paddy's parade restrictions.

Despite calls from some gay rights groups, De Blasio has, however, refused to bar police officers and firefighters from taking part in the event. "Uniformed city workers have a right to participate if they choose to, and I respect that right," he says. But his stance undoubtedly makes it tricky for other politicians planning to attend. Not least, Taoiseach Enda Kenny, who has signalled that he aims to be amid the Kiss Me I'm Irish masses in NYC on the day.

Some might say, of course, that the best place for an Irish PM on the patron saint's day might be back at home. But, as with our Stormont contingent, the lure of US shamrockery seems irresistible.

So brave Bill de Blasio's on his own and all these years later, the LGBT protestors are still exiled to the sidelines.

It's not just Sochi that's a cold house for gay people.


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