NEW YORK — The St. Patrick’s Day Parade is just a parade again.
With Mayor Bill de Blasio finally joining the ranks of New York City mayors who have marched in the annual procession, the path to peace seems to have worked its way to Fifth Avenue, where on Thursday a gay Irish delegation, accompanied by the mayor, marched proudly under its own banner for the first time.
“For two decades and more we had a blemish on our city,” de Blasio said at a breakfast at Gracie Mansion before the parade. “People worked together. They overcame it. People will be able to express their pride, their pride as Irish-Americans, their pride as LGBT Americans, their pride as New Yorkers.” Since taking office two years ago, he had declined to march as a way of protesting a ban by the organizers of the event on the open participation by gay groups.
In what seems a fitting selection, George J. Mitchell, the former Senate majority leader who presided over the negotiations that led to the Good Friday Agreement and power sharing in Northern Ireland, served as the parade’s grand marshal this year.
Mitchell took his place on the line of march, just ahead of de Blasio, who was marching with the police commissioner, William J. Bratton, and a Police Department contingent. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo was supposed to march with a contingent that included the State Police, just behind the mayor; instead, he marched at the front of the parade, with the 69th Regiment of the New York Army National Guard.
Outside St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Thursday morning, where a Mass was held before the parade began, a lone protester stood with a cardboard sign. In marker, he had scrawled: “Gay mafia defeat Irish at Fifth Avenue.”
But the language of militancy did not find much of a constituency in the Manhattan streets. It was a far cry from the roiling atmosphere in 1990, when the parade first became an occasion of divisiveness.
The controversy actually began in December 1989. That month, with New York City in the midst of the AIDS epidemic, thousands of people demonstrated outside St. Patrick’s Cathedral to protest statements by Cardinal John J. O’Connor of the New York Archdiocese on abortion, homosexuality and AIDS.
As the 1990 parade approached, the Irish Lesbian and Gay Organization sought permission to march, but its request was turned down.
The battle lines were drawn, and the next year, when Mayor David N. Dinkins sought a compromise by marching with a lesbian and gay delegation, the response was more ferocious than many had anticipated.
Dinkins was greeted with catcalls and jeers. At one point, two beer cans were thrown in his direction. They narrowly missed, but drenched him in suds.
Since then, the parade — and the decision to ban gay groups by the Ancient Order of Hibernians, an Irish Catholic fraternal group that has helped organize the event — has been associated with protest nearly as much as it has with celebrating Irish pride.
In more recent years, though, same-sex marriage has become legal in the United States and in Ireland.
The parade’s organizers ultimately decided to allow gay groups march, and last year one gay group was permitted to join the parade: Out@NBCUniversal, from the television network that broadcasts the event on its New York station.
In October, the organizers announced that the Lavender & Green Alliance, an association of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, would be permitted to carry a banner this year and march as an independent group. It would the first openly Irish-American gay and lesbian group allowed to march.
Brendan Fay of the alliance, who had worked for the change for years, was overjoyed as he joined the mayor at Gracie Mansion on Thursday.
“I call it a day of history and hospitality,” Fay said. He recalled how different he had felt about St. Patrick’s Day in the early 1990s. “I never thought back then that I’d be marching up Fifth Avenue with my spouse, Tom, with the mayor and everybody celebrating inclusion.”
De Blasio would end up marching with three separate groups, joining a Fire Department group in the early afternoon, and then returning to accompany the Lavender & Green, marching the entire parade route with his wife, Chirlane McCray. The group let out a cheer as it stepped from 48th Street onto Fifth Avenue at 4:26 p.m., marching to a dwindling crowd as the day began to fade.
As for Cuomo, his decision to march at the front “certainly wasn’t authorized by the parade,” said John L. Lahey, chairman of the St. Patrick’s Day Parade board of directors. Lahey acknowledged that he was caught by surprise, but added that he wanted to focus on the inclusionary spirit of the parade, rather than speculate on the governor’s motive.
The governor also offered little insight into his marching position, saying that he did not think the order was significant. “The 69th Regiment is the National Guard, and I’m proud of that,” he said.
When asked if he wanted to march ahead of de Blasio, his frequent rival, Cuomo chuckled. His laugh continued throughout his answer: “Even with the most circuitous thinking, I can’t imagine anyone coming to that conclusion.”