By Ray O’Hanlon
The man who brought Northern Ireland’s bitterly divided political parties together to sign the 1998 Good Friday Agreement will be leading the 2016 New York St. Patrick’s Day Parade, set to step off on March 17, this despite the strong divisions of recent months in the parade’s governing ranks.
The former U.S. Senator from Maine will be Grand Marshal of what will be the 255th consecutive parade and a march dedicated to the 1916 Rising.
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He will also be leading a parade that, for the first time, will include a specifically gay Irish marching group taking part as a result of being invited by parade organizers.
Mitchell’s position at the head of the parade could also be a lure for some politicians who have absented themselves in recent years.
Mitchell is a Democrat, as is New York Mayor Bill De Blasio who boycotted the last couple of parades because of the absence of a gay Irish marching group.
Democrats also dominate New York City Council which has been an absent grouping in recent years for the same reason.
Mitchell, the man and his record, might even be enough to attract a presidential candidate or two, not least Hillary Rodham Clinton whose role in bringing peace to Northern Ireland has also been historically acknowledged alongside that of her husband, former president Bill Clinton who tasked the then former senator Mitchell with what seemed to many at the time to be an impossible task.
Mitchell was Senate Majority Leader from 1989 until 1995 when he retired from full time politics.
He was U.S. Special Envoy to Northern Ireland from 1995 until 2001 and Chancellor of Queen’s University Belfast from 1999 until 2009. The Mitchell Scholarship program, which sends U.S. college students annually to Irish universities, is named after him.
Mitchell was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1999, appropriately on March 17 of that year.
Mitchell, interestingly, will be making a little religious history by virtue of his being grand marshal.
He will be the first non-Roman Catholic to lead the parade.
He is a member of the Maronite Catholic Church, an ancient religious grouping that is in communion with Rome and whose leader is a member of the College of Cardinals.
Mitchell was born in Waterville, Maine.
His father, George John Mitchell, Sr. was born Joseph Kilroy but was adopted by a Lebanese family when he was orphaned.
Mitchell’s mother, Mary, was Lebanese-born.
Mitchell, whose full name is George John Mitchell Jr., is now 82, though still spry enough to lead marchers up Fifth Avenue.
Given his service to the cause of peace and reconciliation in Ireland the veteran politician, who is also a U.S. Army veteran, is certain to be a popular parade leader.