I started with Corporation Ireland and did something small in the north, and then the American Ireland Fund approached me and said, look, your golf tournament’s becoming successful, would you not come in with us? I said, listen, guys, you’re raising millions, and I fear that the limited dollars we raise will be lost in the shuffle. I want to be able to touch it, feel it, and especially when people donate money [to the memorial fund] I insist that they know where it’s going. And they said, we have created a donor advisory board where you can pick different projects and 100 percent of the money that you raise goes straight to [that project]. So I went to Barrettstown where they bring seriously ill kids to enjoy normal activities like horseback riding, canoeing and such. It gives them the confidence they need to stay positive and fight [the illness]. And I visited the Corrymeela Reconciliation Centre up in Ballycastle, whose mission is to promote reconciliation between groups that were formerly divided. The weekend I was there I saw Catholic and Protestant children playing to-gether for the first time and it was a great sight. It is a beautiful place.
I knew that the Corrymeela center and Barrettstown were projects that were making a difference and that I could support. The one thing I insist is that my mother or father’s name [Paddy passed away in 2001] – not mine – must appear on any commemoration. But it has to be discreet; I don’t want a big gold plaque. And they’ve done a fantastic thing at Corrymeela. We helped build the main house, and carved into the wooden mantle over the fireplace is “Eithne Fitzpatrick Memorial.” Unless you get up close to it you don’t see it.
In terms of Northern Ireland, you had groups from both communities staying at your hotel during the peace process.
This was long before the Good Friday Agreement, it was all done very quietly. I would get a call from Bill Flynn [then chairman of Mutual of America and a leading Irish-American peacemaker] and he would say, “John, we have a few of them coming in. We don’t have resources, will you do it for me?” and I would say, “of course.” They all stayed here. Quietly, no one knew. We’ve come a long way, and it doesn’t have to be kept quiet anymore.
A year and a half ago we had Dr. Ian Paisley, on his first official visit to New York. Ian Jr., who I had gotten to know, calls me and says, “I’m going to put Dad with you.” I said, “Oh, great, sure, will he be comfortable?” He said, “Absolutely, but there’s only one thing I need from you.” I said, “Don’t worry, it’ll be flying” [the Union Jack]. It would’ve been flying anyway, that’s what we do when any head of state stays here.
So I go out as the cars pull up. I open the door and Ian Paisley gets out and puts his hat on and I swear, he looks at me seriously and says, “My son says you’re okay, and he’s right.” He walks in the door and it’s Christmas week, everybody from Ireland’s in and there are six women from Derry coming out with shopping bags going to get in a car to the airport. And he stops and talks with them and they’re saying, “Dr. Paisley!” It was very funny. He sat down in the front room in the restaurant – that’s his table, the one with the windows. There was no hiding! Some smart person came up to him one day and said, “What are you doing in an Irish hotel?” and he said, “We are Irish!”
You also held fundraisers for Hillary Clinton at the hotel. Are you still in touch?
Absolutely. People asked me at the time, “Why are you supporting Hillary?” I said “Look, guys, it goes back to what they did for Ireland.” We wouldn’t have peace in Northern Ireland without the Clintons’ help. It was their love for Ireland that kind of got me going [for her campaign]. This was when she was running for senator. We had no idea she was going to run for president. Of course I wanted her to be president. But in hindsight, I think we’ve got the best of both worlds. We’ve got a great president and we’ve got the best Secretary of State – one who understands Ireland. She really knows what’s going on; it’s second nature to her.
Would you say that there is something in your Irish heritage that has helped your career?
I think there is something about being Irish…we are a very warm people, and we are genuine. In Ireland if they say something to you, they mean it. The other thing is, and I say this to our employees: we’re all part of a team. I want everyone to be relaxed here. Yes, you do have bosses, but it’s a family business with family values. My father made that clear from day one. He knew everybody who worked for him. And my mother knew everybody too and the employees were part of the family.