PRESIDENT Mary McAleese has insisted that "scheduling constraints" and a very busy final year in office were behind her decision not to accept an invitation to be grand marshal of the New York St Patrick's Day parade.
The organisers of the world's largest St Patrick's Day parade had invited the President to be grand marshal to celebrate the 250th anniversary of the event next year.
A statement from Aras an Uachtarain said the President had attended the New York St Patrick's Day parade in 2002 and was honoured to be considered as grand marshal for 2011.
"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 organisers her deep appreciation for the invitation as well as her best wishes for the success of the parade in this significant anniversary year."
But Irish-American commentator Niall O'Dowd insisted yesterday that Mrs McAleese's decision was connected to the issue of gays being refused the right to march in the parade under their own banners.
"I think she made her decision based on the fact that she has a great relationship with gay groups in Ireland and this would be a hugely controversial move for her because of the ban on gays in the parade," he said.
She had made her decision and many gay groups in Ireland would probably agree with her, Mr O'Dowd said.
Controversy over the participation of gays in the New York event has continued, with the parade excluding gay organisations for more than 20 years.
Mr O'Dowd said efforts were made to reach a compromise in which President McAleese could attend the gay-organised, all-inclusive St Patrick's parade in Queens on the weekend before March 17 and then march in the Fifth Avenue parade the following Thursday.
But that failed because it would have entailed the President having to stay in New York from Sunday to Thursday and that was not possible.
Brian Sheehan, director of GLEN, the Gay and Lesbian Equality Network, said their understanding was that a scheduling issue was behind the President's decision not to attend the New York parade.
"The President has been a strong advocate for lesbian and gay people in Ireland and has highlighted equality for them and has spoken eloquently about the issues," he said.