William J. Flynn, the former chairman of Mutual of America, was recently asked by the British government to accept an honorary Commander of the British Empire award for services to Northern Ireland. Flynn, the son of Irish Catholics from Down and Mayo, accepted, and thus became the fourth prominent Irish American leader to figure on the British honors list in recent times. Flynn played an indispensable role in the American part of the peace process. Crucially, his organization, the National Committee on American Foreign Policy, arranged for the speaking invitation to Gerry Adams, which delivered the U.S. visa to the Sinn Fein leader in January 1994, a key building block in the IRA ceasefire the same year. In addition he built close links to Loyalist groups and was one of the very few outsiders invited to their ceasefire statement in October 1994. His company also opened a subsidiary in Dublin. Flynn joins Loretta Brennan Glucksman, chairman of the American Ireland Fund, who received a similar British award, as did the head of Ireland Funds worldwide Kingsley Aikins, and Co. Louth-born, Washington-based businessman George Moore, head of Targus Information Services, which is also a leading investor in start up technology companies. It is easy to see where this is going. The British government has identified leading Irish Americans and drawn them into their orbit by officially acknowledging their achievements. In return they access key figures in the community and can use them to help their own agenda in America. There is cognitive dissonance in these British awards for Irish Americans, almost as if the Irish government suddenly had decided to honor Richard Branson and David Beckham for services to Ireland. Why, they ask, does the Irish government not acknowledge their own? The lack of an Irish awards system is especially glaring when we look at the role of the global Irish and the importance of the connection to Ireland, especially in these troubled times. None of the leading Irish Americans of this generation have received any honor officially from the Irish government. The work of men such as philanthropist Chuck Feeney, who has invested billions in Irish higher level education, and Don Keough, the former president of Coca-Cola, who has personally brought scores of potential investors, including men like Bill Gates and Warren Buffet, to Ireland, is totally officially unacknowledged. Other countries are not so slow. Flynn has also received several high level awards from the Vatican for his support of Catholic causes. Other leading Irish Americans have also been so honored. Recently the French government honored film director Sidney Lumet with their Legion D'Honneur. Sean Connery and Liam Neeson were among the attendees at a star-studded bash at the consulate in New York. Possibly the best example for Ireland to follow is the Presidential Medal of Freedom in America which honors now just American-born heroes, but also foreign dignitaries such as Nelson Mandela and the late Pope John Paul II. In the past the president of the day has officially acknowledged such accomplished figures as Neil Armstrong, Rosa Parks and Gordon Moore, co-founder of Intel. One could envisage the president of Ireland deciding on a similar Irish and Irish global list every year and providing a powerful platform for building new links between Ireland and its diaspora. By making it the remit of the president it removes it from the immediate day to day of politics. Currently the Irish government is undergoing a major examination of the role of the diaspora and its importance to Ireland. An honors list could well be part of that recommendation. It is time to do so.
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