Irish-American businessman credited with expediting the peace process
Obituary: William J Flynn involved in Northern Ireland since Bill Clinton’s 1992 White House campaign
William J Flynn: the Irish-American businessman playing a crucial role in paving the way for the Belfast Agreement
William J Flynn
Born: September 6th, 1926
Died: June 2nd, 2018
In the words of Tom Moran, chancellor of Queen’s University Belfast, William J Flynn – Bill to family and friends – “brought the Irish peace process out of the bar room and into the boardroom” in the early 1990s, so playing a crucial role in paving the way for the Belfast Agreement in 1998.
Flynn, who has died aged 91, was one of a number of prominent Irish-Americans, including the former congressman Bruce Morrison, the businessman Chuck Feeney and the trade unionists Bill Lenahan and Joe Jamison, who supported a campaign by the New York-based Irish journalist and publisher Niall O’Dowd to get a visa for Gerry Adams, who was leader of Sinn Féin at the time, to visit the United States for a peace conference in 1994 that many observers see as a crucial first step towards the IRA’s announcement of its ceasefire that year.
Flynn’s involvement in peacemaking was not originally focused on Ireland, however. A former seminarian who had abandoned the priesthood for a very successful career in business, as chairman and chief executive of Mutual of America, one of the largest life-assurance companies in the US, he retained throughout his life a strong sense of social solidarity as a backer, often with his own money, of initiatives designed to promote peace around the world.
One of these, in the 1980s, was the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity, named in honour of the Holocaust survivor and Nobel peace laureate, whom Flynn helped fund conferences in the US and Europe designed to counter racial and religious hatred.
His fellow Holocaust survivor George Schwab says Wiesel brought Flynn to Paris as an adviser for a conference attended by 80 Nobel laureates in 1988, the costs of which were underwritten by Flynn and Mutual of America. Schwab was an initiator of the National Committee on American Foreign Policy, a think tank that he invited Flynn to join, and of which Flynn became chairman in 1993. He also served as president for 22 years, retiring only in 2015.
Flynn became interested in Northern Ireland’s problems during Bill Clinton’s campaign for the White House in 1992, as part of the group Irish-Americans for Clinton, and funded a conference, Beyond Hate, in Derry, where he first encountered both Adams and Martin McGuinness. This was controversial work, as the IRA was still militarily active.
The following year Flynn’s group visited Belfast and held meetings with both Sinn Féin and, secretly, loyalist paramilitary and political leaders, including the late Gusty Spence of the Ulster Volunteer Force and Billy Hutchinson and David Ervine of the Progressive Unionist Party.
“Bill Flynn took a special interest in reaching out to the loyalists,” Bruce Morrison says. “Very few Americans at that time had met unionists of any type. Our group was committed to meeting everybody. They” – the loyalists – “felt for the first time that someone not of their own community was listening to them.”
When the IRA ceasefire eventually came, the loyalist one followed six weeks later.
Nancy Soderberg, deputy national-security adviser in Clinton’s White House and, later, US ambassador to the United Nations, says that at the time they were under pressure from Irish-Americans to grant Adams a visa to attend the peace conference in New York. “Bill Flynn was basically the mastermind behind all that. The reason we had a peace process as early as we did was because of Bill Flynn. He really launched the process of reaching out to Gerry Adams and Sinn Féin, and putting the weight of the White House behind the peace process.”
Tom Moran, who succeeded Flynn as chief executive of Mutual of America, says the businessman got other prominent Irish-Americans, including Donald Keough, the head of Coca-Cola, and Dan Tully of Merrill Lynch, to support his group’s initiative, which was facilitated by the office of the late senator Ted Kennedy, who acted as a conduit to President Clinton for them.
William Flynn was born in New York in 1926 to Irish parents. His father, Bill snr, was from Loughinisland, in Co Down, and his mother, Anna Connors, from Castlebar, in Co Mayo. He grew up in the borough of Queens and went to school at Cathedral College of the Immaculate Conception, followed by a year studying for the priesthood, before joining the US army air corps.
After graduating with an economics degree from Fordham University in 1951, he went into the insurance business, originally with the Equitable Life Assurance Society of the United States. In 1971 he became chief executive of the National Health & Welfare Mutual Life Insurance Association, which, as Tom Moran explains, was on its last legs. “It had always been run by health-and-welfare people who didn’t have the business skills.”
Flynn transformed the company, rebranding it Mutual of America and turning it over the following 20 years into one of the largest financial-services firms in the US.
In 2008, in a belated recognition of his work for peace, the British government, under Gordon Brown, awarded him an honorary CBE; John Major’s government had originally opposed his efforts in the early 1990s.
Bill Flynn is survived by his widow, Peggy, nee Collins, whom he married in 1953, and two children, Maureen and William jnr, and by his brother Hugh. He was predeceased by his sons James and Robert and by his sisters, Anne and Caroline.