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Two grand marshals

By Ray O'Hanlon

With President Mary McAleese unavailable to lead the 2011 New York St. Patrick's Day Parade up Fifth Avenue, parade organizers are moving to appoint two grand marshals to head what will be the 250th consecutive march.

One will be a woman, the other a man.

The identities of the two grand marshals will be revealed in a matter of days, but in the meantime the focus remains on President McAleese, who was sounded out last January by the parade committee as a possible grand marshal.

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At the outset, according to a parade source, it was acknowledged that there was a possible problem with McAleese's scheduling in 2011, the last year of her presidency.

Scheduling was outlined by McAleese's office as a reason for her not being able to accept the grand marshal's sash though the Irish Voice reported last week that the parade committee's continued refusal to allow Iris gays march under their own banner had figured prominently in her declining the offer.

"Unfortunately, due to scheduling constraints in a very busy final year in office, it is not possible for the president to travel to New York next March.

"The president has conveyed to the organizers her deep appreciation for the invitation as well as her very best wishes for the success of the parade in this significant anniversary year," the statement on behalf of the president said.

The parade committee, in turn, expressed it disappointment.

In a statement it said that President McAleese had communicated that she was "unable to join the Irish American community in celebrating 250 years of Irish culture in the United States of America on March 17th 2011 in New York City."

This, the statement said, was because of her "extremely busy schedule in the last six months of her tenure as President of Ireland, plus the mounting economic pressures in Ireland.

"While this is understandable, it is however disappointing for Irish America given the hugely historical significance of the event and the relationship between Ireland and the U.S." parade committee chairman, John Dunleavy, said in the statement.

"The president reassured Irish America by expressing her continued good wishes and support for the Irish community in the U.S. and for the 250 year celebration of Irish faith, heritage and culture in New York on March 17th 2011," the statement concluded.

For sure, an acceptance by McAleese would have placed a great strain on her schedule at a time of the year that is exceptionally busy for all Irish elected politicians and officials, not least the head of state.

Normally, a grand marshal is expected to attend a number of functions leading up to the actual parade, which next year will take place on a Thursday.

One intriguing possibility that has emerged is that McAleese will be staying close to Ireland because the now certain visit of Queen Elizabeth could take place on, or close, to March 17th.

In the meantime, parade organizers are making their plan anew.

"This is going to be a big year. We're moving forward," said committee chairman Dunleavy.

[PHOTOCALL: President Mary McAleese.]