Category: Archive

Echo Profile: In like Flynn

February 17, 2011

By Staff Reporter

When William J. Flynn first became involved in the search for a peaceful settlement in Northern Ireland the place looked like the political equivalent of Florida after Hurricane Andrew.
If he had applied his industry’s actuarial techniques at the time, Flynn would have quickly concluded that becoming involved in the North’s daily strife would be a high risk, low return venture.
He jumped in anyway.
And now, close to twenty years later, Flynn is drawing a well-earned dividend in the form of the IRA’s withdrawal from war.
Flynn has dedicated his business life to turning profits and boosting shares. Much of his own time has been dedicated to turning swords into plowshares.
At his core, Flynn is a businessman and realist more than he is a theorist and dreamer.
And yet, his pursuit of peace brought with it the kind of risk that only comes with chasing a dream.
Wading into the morass that is the history of Ireland and its larger neighbor to the east was always going to result in surprises.
Last week’s IRA order to dump arms was, for sure, one of the better ones. And Flynn was ready for it.
Flynn’s resume runs a long arm’s length.
But to most he is known as former CEO and chairman of the Park-Avenue based Mutual of America insurance company, and as the still active chairman of the National Committee on America Foreign Policy, a think-tank with far flung reach and high-placed influence.
Over the years, Flynn combined his roles in both organizations into what became a most unusual stratagem.
He used his numerous economic, political and diplomatic connections to engage with and hold the attention of the warring groups in Northern Ireland and, additionally, the governments in Dublin, London and Washington.
On a more practical level, he literally threw open the doors of a Manhattan corporate tower to a most unusual assemblage of guests.
It was at 320 Park Avenue, Mutual’s spire-topped headquarters, that Irish president Mary Robinson shook hands with, of all people, the hard-edged leaders of Ulster Loyalist paramilitarism. It was as odd an encounter as it was once unimaginable.
But that meeting — as would innumerable other events and encounters at 320 Park — would be simply another piece in the jigsaw assembled, painstakingly, by Flynn and others of Irish America who passionately believed that the United States, its prestige, and ultimately its president, could make a real difference in Ireland.
Flynn’s involvement in the quest for normality took form in the 1980s when he offered his assistance to the Peace People group led by Nobel Peace Prize winners Betty Williams and Mairead Corrigan.
Flynn was sympathetic towards the group, but soon concluded that more would be needed to take the cause of peace to the ultimate level.
In the years that followed, Flynn and his colleagues at the National Committee worked out a ten-point peace plan for the North. It was a simple, clear and unambiguous formula. But what chance for even a sensible plan if dropped into a boiling cauldron?
A better one if the plan for peace was delivered in person.
In Sept. of 1993, Flynn traveled to Belfast with an Irish American delegation.
The mission would ultimately pave the way for President Bill Clinton, but, in the shorter term, it would be seen as having a real effect on the lives of people in the six counties.
“The IRA decided to call a ceasefire while we were there. That sure impressed the hell out of me,” Flynn said.
The positive response would lead to more visits, both for the group and for Flynn himself.
And as political leaders argued back and forth, won office and left office, Flynn, selling peace as he might a sound insurance policy, emerged as a constant.
He hosted and cajoled, shook hands and scolded. Most importantly, perhaps, he developed a reputation for a salty honesty. He had seen enough, heard enough and wasn’t afraid to speak his own mind.
“Bill has been quite unique in his willingness to use his well earned status as an establishment figure to take a lot of risks and be very persistent in his pursuit of a dream, the dream that is peace,” said former congressman Bruce Morrison, a member of Flynn’s peace delegation.
“In the early 1990s, his willingness to play that leading role made a huge difference. Many would not have taken that kind of risk at that time,” Morrison said.
Flynn, for sure, brought his business edge and personal toughness to the table.
But ultimate control would always rest in the hands of those who were the targets of Flynn’s rather singular powers of persuasion, the IRA among them.
“These people have now had the courage to put down their arms even though the policing problem remains unsolved,” said Flynn.
Not for the first time, Flynn has been impressed by people who have been dismissed repeatedly as being beyond the bounds of politic reason.
But though he found himself pleasantly surprised by the content and scope of the IRA statement, Flynn was not completely taken aback by its naissance.
“We provided money and facilities, no matter the ups or downs,” said Flynn of his friends, colleagues and associates.
“And we stuck with it. The secret of success is sticking with it and never being forced to say something that you’re actually against. We Irish are splitters but the key to this was that we did not split.”
Flynn has his political expectations for the coming months. And he also harbors a wish. He would like to be an eyewitness when the IRA blows its arms up.
In the meantime, with the IRA’s words echoing through the headlines late last week, Bill Flynn prepared himself for a lunch.
The guest of honor would be Sinn F

Other Articles You Might Like

Sign up to our Daily Newsletter

Click to access the login or register cheese