William J. Flynn, the son of Irish immigrants and one of Irish America’s most successful activists and businessmen, passed away on Saturday, June 2, at the age of 91.
Flynn, best known as Bill, was the president, chairman and CEO of the financial services company Mutual of America, headquartered on Park Avenue in Manhattan. In the Irish American community, he was part of a group of leaders that helped to arrange the first ever U.S. visa for Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams, and he traveled to Ireland multiple times over the years in an effort to promote the peace process.
The tributes to Flynn from the Irish American community were led by former Congressman Bruce Morrison, a close friend who worked with Flynn during the early 1990s to promote greater U.S. involvement in securing peace in the North.
“The passing of Bill Flynn was a sad day. Not because he had not lived a good life, full of great accomplishments, public and private, but because it was a reminder of good times of days now long past,” Morrison said.
“Bill and I shared the good fortune of being invited to join a special group assembled by [Irish Voice founding publisher] Niall O’Dowd—including also Chuck Feeney, Joe Jamison and Bill Lenahan. We got to be the unofficial group of Americans in the early days of the Clinton administration who forged a way forward for a new approach to peace in Northern Ireland.
“The group was special because each member brought his own special gifts to the process. Bill was the consummate successful businessman who never forgot his Irish roots. He was all-in with a process that went anywhere and met anyone if it might open doors to a just way to end The Troubles,” Morrison continued.
“We met Loyalists who had never spoken to an American and Bill made a point of taking them under his wing to support them as they joined the ceasefire process. Bill drafted and financed ads in The New York Times, letting his peers know that this was the new way forward and it was time for all to join in supporting what Bill Clinton could accomplish by taking ‘risks for peace.’
“Now some 25 years after our group got started and on the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, some think the peace process was inevitable or that the way forward was a consensus. Bill knew better because he was there when it was not at all obvious or popular to do what our little group was doing.”
Former Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams, a close friend of Flynn, also praised the businessman for his role in the early days of the peace process.
"In 1994 he arranged for the National Committee on American Foreign Policy to organize a conference on Ireland to which I was invited. I applied for a visa which was eventually agreed and I received a 48-hour restricted visa to New York. It was a key moment in the efforts for peace,” Adams recalled.
"Since then Bill has remained solidly behind the peace process. He traveled to Ireland many times and consciously sought to reach out to unionists and loyalists and to engage them in the process of peacemaking and partnership government.
"Bill’s importance can be measured in the frequency with which all of the governments – Irish, British and US – talk to him and seek to involve him in whatever the current initiative might be.
"I always make a point of trying to meet Bill every time I visit New York. His analysis of the political situation in the USA and in Ireland was always insightful.”
Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney also reacted to the news of Flynn’s passing.
“I learned with sadness of the death of Bill Flynn, a giant of Irish America + key figure in US support for peace on the island of Ireland. He showed real leadership in mobilizing Irish American support for peace. Very proud of his contribution. Our thoughts with his family + friends,” Coveney tweeted.
Sinn Féin’s new leader Mary Lou McDonald also remembered Flynn.
“I met Bill several times on visits to New York over recent years. 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,” she said.
“With Chuck Feeney, Niall O’Dowd, Bruce Morrison and others, Bill succeeded in initiating a process that is now world famous.”
Congressman Joe Crowley, Democrat from New York, praised Flynn’s role in the peace process.
Read More: Bill Flynn's Irish heritage
“Bill was an early and strong supporter of peace in the North of Ireland and played a critical role in organizing Irish Americans to support the peace process. Without his pioneering efforts, securing peace would have been all the more difficult. He will truly be missed,” Crowley said in a statement.
Flynn joined Mutual of America as president in 1971. The following year, he was appointed president and CEO, and in February 1982, chairman of the board, president and CEO.
He retired from Mutual of America in 1994 but continued to serve as board chairman until 2005, when he retired from the board and was awarded the honorary title of chairman emeritus.
“Flynn had an exceptional career and played a significant role in Mutual of America's success over many decades. His many years of dedicated service to Mutual of America were distinguished by his visionary leadership and driven by his unwavering belief in Mutual of America's mission to help those who dedicate their lives to helping others,” the company said in a statement.
“Flynn was involved with numerous philanthropic organizations, and on the world stage, he played a critical role in bringing peace to Ireland. His personal commitment to addressing social issues is well known and admired, and he was honored by secular, political and religious entities alike, both within the United States and abroad.”
Mutual’s current chairman, president and CEO John R. Greed said, "Bill Flynn was the consummate professional and an outstanding executive, a dedicated and compassionate humanitarian, an innovative leader, and a gentleman who touched the lives of countless individuals both in the United States and abroad. We who were privileged to have known him will gratefully remember his wise counsel, exceptional insights, high ethical standards, moral courage and most especially, his friendship. He will be greatly missed."
In 1953, Flynn 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.
Flynn, who served as grand marshal of the New York City St. Patrick’s Day parade in 1996, is survived by his wife, two children, 11 grandchildren and one great-grandchild. Two of his sons predeceased him.