A gay group of employees from NBC will march in next year’s New York City St. Patrick’s Day Parade behind their own banner, a source with knowledge of the ongoing parade controversy has told the Irish Voice.
On Wednesday, September 3, at a reception at the New York Athletic Club, Cardinal Timothy Dolan will be named as the grand marshal of the 254th St. Patrick’s Day parade, set to step off on Tuesday, March 17.
In a historic move aimed at defusing the storm that erupted this year over the exclusion of gay banners in the march, the addition of a banner identifying gay NBC staffers is a compromise forged at the insistence of several New York City St. Patrick’s Day Parade Committee members, including Dr. John Lahey, president of Quinnipiac University in Connecticut, and Francis X. Comerford, chief revenue officer for NBC-owned TV stations.
NBC, the long-time broadcast home of the St. Patrick’s Day parade, was prepared to drop its coverage unless a compromise that resulted in the inclusion of a gay group was brokered.
The withdrawal of parade sponsorship last year by Guinness was also a huge factor in bringing about the change, according to a former grand marshal.
"Once an iconic company like Guinness showed it was standing up pretty much everyone else had to follow," said the source, who revealed that Guinness had met with parade figures on several occasions since to help seek a compromise.
The NBC network has a large and visible presence on Fifth Avenue for the event, and a majority of committee officials and trustees are on board with the inclusion of gay NBC staffers in the line of march.
It is unknown whether this development will lead to a more widespread gay presence next March 17 – for example, if the NBC marchers will be accompanied by other participants who would also like to identify as gay.
This year’s parade was marred by sponsor withdrawals and politicians who refused to take part due to the ongoing exclusion of gay groups marching with their own banners.
Though the parade committee has for years steadfastly maintained the policy, it was freshly highlighted in February by new Mayor Bill de Blasio, who said he would not take part in the event unless gay groups could also march. He was the first mayor to boycott the parade since David Dinkins, who also protested the exclusion of gay groups and worked to broker a solution that ultimately never arrived.
De Blasio was quickly followed by a succession of New York politicians also opting out of the march, including City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, who called for a council-wide boycott of the event and was more or less granted her wish as only a handful of the 51 council members took part.
More damaging for the parade itself was the withdrawal of long-term sponsors Heineken and Guinness.
“Guinness has a strong history of supporting diversity and being an advocate for equality for all. We were hopeful that the policy of exclusion would be reversed for this year’s parade. As this has not come to pass, Guinness has withdrawn its participation. We will continue to work with community leaders to ensure that future parades have an inclusionary policy,” a Guinness statement at the time said.
Though some establishments also chose to institute their own Heineken/Guinness boycotts in support of the parade’s policy against gay banners, a concerted effort has been in place behind the scenes since March 18 to broker a compromise acceptable to all interests in advance of next year’s march.
The consensus, according to several Irish Voice sources, was clear – a repeat of this year’s sponsor withdrawals and attendant negative publicity was unacceptable and clearly damaging to the well-being of the march from many standpoints, including financial, political and public relations-wise. It is also believed that another long-time parade sponsor, the Ford Motor Company, was prepared to end its financial support unless a compromise was put in place.
“Having to go through this year again in 2015? No way,” said one source. “It just couldn’t happen.”
For 19 years, John Dunleavy has been the chairman of the New York City St. Patrick’s Day Parade. Dunleavy, 75, a native of Co. Westmeath, has been handily elected to the post by affiliated parade groups – AOH groups, county organizations – who vote every two years. He is next up for election in 2015.
“There’s no question that John is popular with the people who vote. He goes to every dance, every funeral and shakes every hand,” said an Irish Voice source.
“For a long time, he has done a great job organizing the parade. No one wants to take that away from him.
“But within the parade leadership, he has worn out his welcome. Times have changed, but John doesn’t want to change and it’s damaging the parade.
“It’s time for a new direction. How does the parade survive if we have all the same negative headlines as we had last year?”
John Lahey, the current committee vice chairman and parade grand marshal in 1997, and Francis Comerford, who held the same honor in 2012 and sits on the committee’s board of trustees, have led the effort to reach a compromise for next year’s event. Both executives are deeply committed to the long-term viability of one of the oldest and most famous parades in the world, say supporters.
Whether Dunleavy is agreeable to the NBC gay marchers “doesn’t really matter,” says one Irish Voice source.
“The reality is that there will be a gay marching contingent in the parade,” the source added. “There has to be.”
Asked if grand marshal Cardinal Dolan is aware of the plan, the source said, “He’s the grand marshal, so you would have to assume yes, he’s aware of what’s happening and he is okay with it.”