You received the Ellis Island Medal of Honor, what did that mean to you and how do you see the current policy on immigration?
It was fantastic to receive the Ellis Island Medal because knowing the history of the “Irish need not apply” signs, I just think, “Look how far we’ve come.” I think it’s important for those of us who are here legally to be thankful for that, but we shouldn’t forget those others. Changing the immigration policy should be very high on our agenda. I don’t know if you can say this, but they’re not going home, they’re staying here and they’ve got families and kids here, so something has to be done. You just can’t say they’re illegal and the problem will go away. Ireland and the United States have been intertwined for a long time, and there are so many Irish here that are valuable contributors to American society.
What advice would you give to the Irish in terms of dealing with the current economic climate?
You go back to Ireland and they’re so depressed and so down, and I say, “Would you stop being so negative? Okay, you’ve come down, but look how far you’ve still come.” For example, my brothers at home are in the property business, which is unfortunately not going well at the moment, but at the height of the market, labor was so hard to find, my brothers were bringing in laborers from overseas. We just have to realize how far we’ve come and look at the positive side. Perfect example: when I opened this hotel I named the suites after the [Irish] presidents and half of them were dead, and when I opened Fitzpatrick’s Grand Central ten years later – look at what Ireland had done – I was able to name suites after the many Irish luminaries who had emerged in recent years. We had a Nobel Peace Prize winner, U2 had exploded, we had Riverdance. We had all these internationally recognized names in the arts and in the business world – we’d done it. So yes, we’ve gone down but we can go back up again. We may never get back to [where we were] but I think that [where we were] was a little bit unrealistic.
I think everybody has to wake up and be mature and say there’s a bit of blame for everyone to share. Nobody can say it’s his fault or it’s the bank’s fault or the government’s fault – it’s a bit of everybody’s fault. It’s about taking this negative energy and making it positive. If you keep yourself positive and look for new ideas, there are ways of getting through it – whatever the adversities that you face.
What did receiving the OBE mean to you?
The OBE [Order of the British Empire] was totally unexpected – they gave it to me mainly because of the philanthropic work I did in Northern Ireland and maybe because I helped make all parties welcome in New York during the early stages of the peace process. But really the charity work is made possible by my donors and my team. My fund is not my fund. All my employees give up their free time. The golf tournament is in May, we start [organizing] in November. My salespeople, my bartenders, my restaurant people, my housekeepers…they all get involved and they’re on the committee. And it’s a tough thing [to organize]. People think the golf tournament is just one day, but it takes six or seven months to raise sponsorship. So I have to give credit to the team and my donors, and my great operations director, Kate Simpson, she’s really taken this on.
Any qualms, as an Irishman, about accepting the OBE?
Absolutely none, I consider it an honor and a privilege, and I look forward to the bright future that all of Ireland has.
Thank you, John.