New York City St. Patrick’s Day parade internal politics make it almost impossible to fashion a last-minute compromise on an Irish gay group insiders say.
The inclusion of the OUT@NBCUniversal gay group was a carefully fashioned compromise between the pragmatic tendency in the parade led by Vice Chairman Dr. John Lahey and his backers, who are key members of the St. Patrick’s Day Parade Foundation, and conservative elements led by parade committee Chairman John Dunleavy, who has the backing of grassroots Irish county groups. (The foundation and committee are two separate organizations.)
Because NBC has been the long-time broadcast network home for the parade in New York, the network was seen as the perfect instrument to end the ban on gays marching. As NBC already marched in the parade too, the naming of the OUT@NBCUniversal group representing NBC conceded the principle of gays marching without upsetting the rules.
The foundation board is a 'Who's who' list of Irish American business interests and power. Among the names are senior figures in Wall Street, top lawyers and entrepreneurs and, most importantly, Cardinal Timothy Dolan.
The group worries about the future of the parade given the hostility of the current mayor and the City Council, the extremely perilous state of the parade’s finances (it costs about $500,000 a year to run the parade) and the zeitgeist now evident all across America that LGBT equality is a matter of fact.
That will likely soon to be confirmed by the Supreme Court, which is expected to approve gay marriage.
Dunleavy and his faction, however, are implacably opposed to gay groups marching and he makes that clear in trenchant private comments.
His public comments, especially in a 2006 interview with the Irish Times, leave little doubt where he stands.
“If an Israeli group wants to march in New York, do you allow neo-Nazis into their parade? If African-Americans are marching in Harlem, do they have to let the Ku Klux Klan into their parade?"People have rights," Dunleavy added. "If we let the [Irish Lesbian and Gay Organization] in, is it the Irish Prostitute Association next?
To him it is a Catholic parade first and foremost, not Irish, and gays marching is an acceptance of the gay lifestyle and a clear breach of his sense of Catholic doctrine.
His power comes from his popularity among Irish county organizations and their mostly Irish-born older memberships that elect the parade chairman.
Dunleavy (77), like a rural Irish politician, is ever present at their events and funerals and is deeply supported.
Dunleavy is the latest in a long line of conservative Irish leaders drawn from the same pool of expatriate leaders of the parade. Judge James Comerford from Kilkenny and Francis Beirne before him were long-time iron fist rulers of all things Fifth Avenue on St. Patrick’s Day.
(Ironically one of Dunleavy’s main opponents nowadays from the moderate wing is Hilary Beirne, chairman of the St. Patrick’s Foundation and a nephew of Francis Beirne.)
Dunleavy is probably the last of the old-style leaders as the county organizations struggle for membership. The next parade leader will likely be far more pragmatic.
The current controversy began in 1991 when the Irish Lesbian and Gay Organization first applied to march and was rejected. Successors of that organization have attempted to gain permission to march every year since.
Dunleavy held sway all these years with his uncompromising message, even when the Lavender and Green Alliance headed by Irish activist Brendan Fay started a widely supported rival St. Pat’s for All parade in Queens which further highlighted the Fifth Avenue parade problem.
However, last year’s debacle when Mayor Bill de Blasio refused to march and advertisers boycotted endangered the future of the parade.
IrishCentral has seen letters which made clear that foundation members had had enough and wanted a resolution of the issue.
The finances are in chaos and the foundation members made clear they wanted resolution of the issue before this year’s parade to bring sponsors back in and remove the imminent threat from City Hall of shortening the parade, possibly banning police overtime and forcing firefighters and police to march out of uniform.
John Lahey, president of Quinnipiac University and a former grand marshal, is the key figure behind the compromise, sidelining Dunleavy and giving the parade a path towards the future. He is widely praised on all sides as an expert negotiator and as a person seeking to mollify all sides.
The NBC compromise conceded the principle and was likely as far as he could go pushing the parade committee still dominated by Dunleavy loyalists.
However, including another group such as Lavender and Green this year may be a bridge too far, though insiders say they would very likely be allowed to march in 2016.
A parade insider said “before gay marriage there was civil unions. Not everything was conceded right away. The same will happen with the parade.”
The annoyance with such sentiments among gay groups, who have been seeking to access the parade since 1991, is understandable given they feel they have waited 24 years.
However, as always with the parade there is nothing certain. Dunleavy has been making clear he intends to stay and bend the parade committee his way.
Ironically, the major person standing against him is not Lahey but Cardinal Dolan, who, by accepting the title of grand marshal this year when a gay group is marching, has clearly tipped his cardinal’s hat towards the acceptance of gays in the parade.
In the end he has the biggest trump card of all to play.