Monday 20 August 2018

Obituary: Bill Flynn

Key player in securing the 1994 IRA ceasefire that paved the way for the peace process, writes Liam Collins

HISTORY MAKERS: Peacemaker Bill Flynn (right) with Martin McGuinness, Ian Paisley and Paula Dobriansky at an event in New York. Photo: Press Association
HISTORY MAKERS: Peacemaker Bill Flynn (right) with Martin McGuinness, Ian Paisley and Paula Dobriansky at an event in New York. Photo: Press Association

Bill Flynn, who at a vital juncture in the peace process secured a visa for Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams to visit the United States to talk to hard-line IRA supporters, was one of the most influential Irish-American figures in business and politics in modern times.

In his business career William (Bill) J Flynn, who died on June 2 at the age of 92, was responsible for the transformation of Mutual of America from a small retirement association into one of the largest financial services firm in the United States.

"To say that William J Flynn has embodied the American dream millions of immigrant parents have for their children is true - but it also understates all that he has accomplished," wrote Sheila Langan when he was inducted into the Irish-America Hall of Fame in 2011. "His story is one of determination and care; of no possibility overlooked and no opportunity abandoned."

Bill Flynn was one of four children born into a staunch Catholic Irish family in Queens, New York, his father Bill Snr was originally from Loughinisland, Co Down, and his mother Ann Connors, from Castlebar, Co Mayo. He was educated in Brooklyn, New York, and studied for the priesthood.

After abandoning his vocation, he attended Fordham University and started teaching high school maths in New York. At the outbreak of the Korean War, he enlisted in the US Air Force and was stationed in Texas and later Washington. His marriage, in 1953, to Peg Collins, whose parents came from Kerry, added another layer of Irish influence to the Flynn family.

Living in Long Island, he joined the Equitable Life insurance company and rapidly rose through the executive ranks to become a senior vice-president. He left in 1971 to become chief executive of the National Health and Welfare Insurance Company which, largely through his guidance, became Mutual of America with an impressive office on Park Avenue in Manhattan. He later became president and chairman of the financial conglomerate before retiring in 2005.

"Greed is the biggest problem," he once told journalist Niall O'Dowd in an interview. "Look at the mortgage crisis and all the Wall Street firms that overextended themselves. It's the same mistake over and over: My advice is, don't get greedy, help the other guy and stay in the real world."

Flynn's role in philanthropy started with the Elie Wiesel Foundation and the National Committee on American Foreign Policy of which he became chairman, concentrating on conflict and religious differences in the Middle East and South Africa.

He later said the seminal moment came in the mid-1980s when he met two senior figures in the IRA's American fundraising organisation Noraid and told them, at length, of his opposition to terrorism and violence. "Just what the hell have you ever done about it?" one of them replied.

Flynn and other Irish Americans, like Chuck Feeney and Bruce Morrison, then decided to harness Bill Clinton's campaign promise to devote attention to Northern Ireland by making it a plank of the new president's foreign policy.

He organised conferences in Derry and, later the Waldorf Astoria New York, to bring all the major players in the conflict together, away from Northern Ireland. It did not lead to a breakthrough but it established vital "lines of communications" between what had been warring factions who didn't talk to each other.

Perhaps his most controversial intervention came in 1994, after the IRA had ended the first ceasefire and launched a new campaign of bombing financial targets in London.

Former Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams had been refused a visa by the US State Department and Flynn intervened directly with Bill Clinton to secure a 48-hour visa to get Adams into the US. It brought heavy criticism and he was portrayed by some British government officials as a terrorist "fellow traveller".

That summer Flynn and other influential Irish Americans, like Chuck Feeney, stopped in Dublin on their way to Belfast to discuss the ongoing situation with the Taoiseach, Albert Reynolds. When they told him they expected a temporary six-month IRA ceasefire, Reynolds reacted with fury. "Permanent or nothing," he snapped back. "I knew Bill Flynn was surprised, but I told him, I know Republicans are tough negotiators, but we have to be tougher. I haven't devoted two years of my life to this to be insulted with something temporary."

Flynn was personally informed of the impending IRA ceasefire, which was announced on August 31 that year, and would eventually lead to the Good Friday Agreement. Loyalist leaders David Ervine and Gusty Spence later invited him to help with the wording and be present at the announcement of their ceasefire. He flew to Ireland regularly, and sometimes at very short notice, when the process hit many of the speed bumps that emerged over the years. Martin McGuinness, the former IRA Commander turned Deputy First Minister in Northern Ireland, said Flynn was "one of the heroes" of the process.

Bill Flynn was Grand Marshal of the New York City St Patrick's Day parade in 1996; he was given a string of honorary degrees by various universities in Ireland and the USA and awarded a CBE by Queen Elizabeth in 2009.

He is survived by his wife of 65 years, Peggy, their children and grandchildren.

Sunday Independent

Editor's Choice

Also in Irish News