By Marcus E. Howard
NEW YORK (Reuters) - New York City's annual St. Patrick's Day Parade turns fashionable Fifth Avenue green on Thursday, and Mayor Bill de Blasio will end his two-year boycott over gay rights and march in the world's largest Irish heritage celebration.
After parade organizers agreed to allow a second lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender group to march under its own banner, de Blasio agreed to join the parade for the first time as mayor.
The Lavender and Green Alliance, an Irish American LGBT organization, joins returning marchers Out@NBCUniversal, a small LGBT group and affiliate of the parade's television sponsor that first participated in 2015.
The 255th edition of New York City's parade is expected to draw more than 1 million spectators to watch 200,000 spirited marchers, including more than 100 bands. This year's event honors the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising, which led to Ireland's independence.
Former U.S. senator and Northern Ireland peace negotiator George Mitchell agreed to lead the parade after being assured the gay rights dispute was resolved.
Months after he was elected, De Blasio in 2014 became the first mayor in more than 20 years to decline to march in the parade, which traditionally draws many politicians eager to win over the city's large Irish-Catholic population.
Others have also declined invitations due to the gay rights dispute, which led two sponsors, Heineken and Guinness, to drop out. They returned last year after the parade invited the NBC group.
"I've known so personally, so well so many members of the LGBT community who are Irish; who simply wanted to express their pride," de Blasio said at a March 3 news conference. "And they wanted to know that they could do that like any other person."
Boston's parade had long been involved in a similar dispute but last year opened its ranks to gay marchers.
"It's a big change for us and change at any organization doesn't come easy and takes a long time," said John Lahey, a veteran parade organizer in his first year as board chairman, who is also president of Quinnipiac University in Connecticut.
Lahey said it was uncertain whether more LGBT groups will be allowed in the future. He cited pressure to limit the size of the procession, which can last six hours. The Brehon Law Society, an Irish American lawyers group that previously boycotted in support of gay rights, is the parade's only other new addition.
(Reporting by Marcus E. Howard; Editing by David Gregorio)