New York City mayor Bill de Blasio has hailed the opening up of the Manhattan St Patrick's Day parade to openly gay groups as a "beautiful day," saying the decades-long ban had been "a blemish" on the city.
At an event in the Irish consulate on Park Avenue, the mayor formally declared an end to his two-year boycott of parade after the lifting of a ban that had caused divisions in Irish groups in New York for a generation and overshadowed the 255-year-old event with annual protests.
Mr De Blasio plans to march in the parade alongside Brendan Fay, co-founder of the Irish lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender group, the Lavender and Green Alliance, and 300 others under the group’s banner.
"For the last two decades there has been a blemish on this city because we couldn't be all we were meant to be," the mayor said, flanked by Irish consul general Barbara Jones, Mr Fay, members of the Irish American Caucus of New York City Council and the city's Irish LGBT community.
Ms Jones said it was, in living memory, the first time a serving mayor of New York City had visited the consulate.
Mr De Blasio, a Democrat, refused to march in the parade in 2014, his first year as mayor, over the ban on openly gay groups participating.
He skipped the parade last year after the organisers permitted only one openly gay group – a small LGBT group from NBC television, which broadcasts the parade – to march.
The mayor said that every single day the “extraordinary contributions” of the Irish to the US’s most populous city must be recognised.
“But now we have an opportunity for everyone from that community to join together in celebrating their heritage, their pride in what the Irish have done for New York and America,” he said.
“For the first time in decades the whole Irish community will come together to celebrate,” he added, to warm applause from the crowd.
The mayor thanked the Government for bringing the parade organisers and Mr Fay’s group together in an effort to end the ban.
Discussions began at the encouragement of Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan during a visit to the city in September 2014.
Later negotiations had taken place “over tea”, said Ms Jones.
An emotional Mr Fay paid tribute to those who had fought to open up the parade and thanked the organisers for dropping the ban.
“Your historic gesture of welcome, like a miracle of hospitality, undoes the anguish and pain of exclusion and discrimination,” he said.
Parade board member Frank McGreal said that the event this year would celebrate the centenary of the 1916 Rising and the Proclamation that promised to cherish “all the children of the nation equally”.
“It is time to move forward,” said Mr McGreal.
Mr De Blasio evoked the Easter rebellion in the decision, describing the Rising as a “clarion call around the world” and praised the character of the Irish for continuing to inspire the fight for basic rights.
“That current runs so strong to this day and that understanding that is so important to stand up for your own rights, but also for the rights of others – that is such a deep impulse in the Irish community,” he said.
Ireland’s same-sex marriage referendum last year “sent a message to the entire world and clearly moved us all forward”, he said, adding that the “voice of the Irish people” played a pivotal role in the parade ban being lifted.
The mayor, standing in front of Irish and gay pride rainbow flags, used the occasion to criticise the “anti-immigrant, xenophobia message” in the Republican presidential race.
“This is New York City once again sending a message that New York values are American values: tolerance, dignity and understanding – that is what we need more of,” he said of the parade decision.
Asked about remarks by Republican candidate Ted Cruz on tracking down the hypothetical New York immigrant "Tommy O'Malley" and other "undocumented" in the US and deporting them, Mr De Blasio said it was "another example of Mr Cruz not understanding New York values".
The Texas senator was "making sport of the idea that we should deprive people of the blessings of the United States of America and separate families and tear them apart. They are literally peddling xenophobia in the ultimate nation of immigrants, so that's un-American. We are a nation of immigrants."
New York City Council member Danny Dromm, one of three gay members of the Irish National Caucus, shed tears during his remarks, admitting that there were times when they wanted to give up protests against the ban.
“For all the people who were arrested and who protested, and to my own family who wrote letters against what I am doing here today, today is a day of reconciliation and healing for us all,” he said.