The death has occurred of Irish and American patriot William J. Flynn, formerly Chairman and CEO of Mutual of America and a vital figure in the Irish Peace Process. He was 92.
Gerry Adams, Sinn Fein former chairman, stated: “I learned today with great regret that Bill Flynn died yesterday at home in New York. Bill was one of the main American supporters of the Peace Process. He determined in the early 90s that the USA had a positive role to play in bringing a resolution to the conflict in the north of Ireland.
"As Chairman of the National Committee on American Foreign Policy, Bill initiated a series of advertisements in the New York Times calling on America to help in bringing peace. The Committee sponsored the conference which President Clinton granted me a visa to attend.
"With Chuck Feeney, Niall O’Dowd, Bruce Morrison and others, Bill succeeded in initiating a process that is now world famous. His commitment to peace in Ireland remained till his death yesterday, Saturday, June 2nd. My deepest sympathies to Peggy, Bill’s wife of 65 years, to his children, grandchildren and many friends.”
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The IRA and Loyalist ceasefires of 1994 were heavily influenced by Flynn, a hugely important part of the peace process.
Flynn at the time was a leading Irish-American businessman and chairman of Mutual of America with major influence within business and political circles.
The visa was a hugely controversial move that brought Flynn a considerable amount of criticism at the time. Had it backfired it could have seriously damaged his career and reputation
"We wanted to get corporate Irish America and our government behind peace in the North,” he later explained. “We began to bring together our business executives, labor leaders and educators with political leaders from both sides in the North. We wanted them to hear us and for us to hear them."
Flynn was Chairman of the National Committee on American Foreign Policy, the group that issued the invitation to Gerry Adams to speak. He was slammed by the British government and often in the British media for inviting a “terrorist” to America. He also paid for full-page ads in The New York Times calling for Adams to be allowed speak in America.
History proved him right: the move to grant Gerry Adams a visa eventually led to the IRA ceasefire that year, a vital milestone that would culminate in the Good Friday Peace Agreement four years later. Adams himself stated that without that visa the IRA ceasefire would not have happened when it did.
Flynn whose father came from County Down, also forged links with Loyalist groups in the North, unheard of for an Irish American leader and was the only non-unionist person present when the combined loyalist leaders of the UVF and UDA announced their ceasefire in 1994, Flynn played a major role in bringing about that ceasefire by ensuring Loyalists had a voice in America and they were frequent speakers at the National Committee lunches as well as invited to the White House.
Flynn also succeeded in having unionist leaders such as David Trimble and Ian Paisley speak at his forum as well as leading figures such as Martin McGuinness and John Hume. He became very close to the Kennedy family, especially Jean Ambassador to Ireland, and Senator Ted Kennedy.
His advocacy for peace in the North led him to make scores of trips there and his successor at Mutual of America, Tom Moran, continued that peacemaking outreach.
When William J. Flynn was celebrated in a special issue of Irish America Magazine in 2008, the outpouring of praise from both sides of the Atlantic was immense. Irish President Mary McAleese, Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams, deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland Martin McGuinness, Edward Cardinal Egan, Governor Hugh Carey, and many more came forth with words of great appreciation for Flynn and all that he has done. Though certainly impressive and meaningful, none of this was all that surprising.
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 accomplished. His story is one of determination and care; of no possibility overlooked and no opportunity abandoned. He has been a leader in business, a catalyst for peace, and he has always been equally committed to his native country and the land of his ancestors.
One of four children of Bill Flynn Sr. from Loughinisland, Co. Down and Anna Connors from outside Castlebar, Co. Mayo, Flynn grew up in the East Elmhurst section of Queens. His childhood spanned the years of the Great Depression, but Bill Sr. was fortunate enough to stay employed as a stationary engineer, something the family never took for granted.
At a young age, Flynn felt he had a calling. After attending Cathedral High School Preparatory Seminary in Brooklyn, Flynn went on to the Seminary of the Immaculate Conception in Huntington, Long Island to prepare himself for the priesthood. There he studied theology, language and philosophy, but he also came to the realization that the life of a priest was not his path. His real calling lay elsewhere.
In 1953, he married his sweetheart Peg Collins, the Bronx born-and-raised daughter of immigrants from Co. Kerry. The war over, the two newlyweds were soon living on Long Island and starting a family.
He quickly discovered his skill in the insurance industry – expertly calculating risk on retirement and long-term insurance plans and developing the now standard practice of Guaranteed Insurance Contracts (GICs).
In his 2008 interview with publisher Niall O’Dowd, Flynn offered his sage, down-to-earth business philosophy, culled from his lifelong experience. “Greed is the biggest problem...Look at the recent 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.”
This approach served him well in his next position: president and CEO of the National Health and Welfare Insurance Company. Under Flynn’s direction, the small, struggling company became Mutual of America, the insurance giant we know today. One of his finest accomplishments in this role was to steer Mutual’s attention towards the non-profit sector, where it now provides pension plans for the employees of more than 15,000 charities throughout America. He was also responsible for the establishment of the impressive Mutual of America Building at 320 Park Avenue.
Flynn was right from the start in thinking that he had a calling, though it didn’t lie with the church, as he first believed. Throughout his professional career, Flynn was a leader and innovator. But the scope of his influence has traveled far beyond the world of business. The Mutual CEO also used his position of power in corporate America as a force for peace, communication and understanding in the social and political spheres.
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With his guidance, Mutual of America took on a significant philanthropic role, sponsoring landmark events and discussions such as the “First Liberty Summit” in Williamsburg, VA, the subsequent “First Liberty Forum” in New York, and the international “Anatomy of Hate” conferences hosted by the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity. These events brought Nobel laureates, leading intellectuals and involved citizens together for important meetings of minds. He aso had Mutual sponsor PBS programs featuring social historian Bill Moyers
Having already been party to many important conversations on the religious and political conflicts in the Middle East and South Africa, Flynn was drawn to and deeply affected by the troubles in Northern Ireland. As an advocate for human rights and peace, the son of two Irish immigrants couldn’t ignore the violence and discord. It was a vital moment for Irish peace when he began that involvement.
In the years that followed, Flynn remained an active part of the talks negotiations, often flying over to Ireland on a moment’s notice to help facilitate communication or smooth things. Martin McGuinness declared him to be “one of the heroes of the peace process.”
The accolades are many: Flynn was honored as Grand Marshal of the New York City St. Patrick’s Day Parade in 1996, he held seven honorary degrees from prestigious colleges and universities, and is the namesake of the recently launched William J. Flynn Center for Irish Studies at the University of St. Thomas.
In addition, the businessman and peacemaker has also been a loving husband, father and grandfather. Flynn’s calling wasn’t confined to one area or institution; rather, he was a leader in so many ways.