Gerry Adams, President of Sinn Féin, writes about the crucial role that Bill Flynn played in ending the violence in Northern Ireland.
Bill Flynn is widely known in the U.S.A. as one of its foremost business leaders, as well as a patron of great causes in support of humanitarian, civil liberties and health issues.
In Ireland and among Irish Americans, he is also known as one of those who played a pivotal role in shaping the Irish peace process and making the progress of recent years a possibility.
I have known Bill Flynn for more than 16 years. We first met in Belfast after Bill had organized and funded a peace conference in Derry in 1992 called “Beyond Hate.” He met and was impressed by Martin McGuinness and later he travelled to Belfast where he and I had tea in the battle-scarred, dilapidated Sinn Féin offices on the Falls Road.
Bill is a first-generation Irish American who has family connections in County Down and County Mayo.
Bill came to the Irish situation through the Peace but quickly realized that there were huge issues of injustice underpinning the conflict.
Around the same time Sinn Féin was involved in discussions with Irish Americans interested in internationalizing the Irish cause for peace and freedom, and in developing a new direction, a new way forward.
In 1993 Bill was invited to take part in a delegation to Ireland as part of the “Americans for a New Irish Agenda.” This group had emerged out of “Irish Americans for Clinton” and its purpose was to secure the implementation of the commitments President Clinton had made in the election campaign for the White House.
The delegation was to meet a wide range of opinions and on its return to the U.S.A. from this fact-finding mission, to report to the White House.
In order to enhance the visit but in particular to persuade the delegation members of the importance of this project, and of the seriousness of the Sinn Féin peace strategy, Niall O’Dowd, the editor of The Irish Voice, advocated that the I.R.A. should do nothing during the period of time the delegation was in Ireland. The I.R.A. agreed.
Bill and his friends, including Bruce Morrison, Chuck Feeney, Bill Lenihan, Niall O’Dowd and Joe Jameson, met a range of groups and individuals, including the Irish and British governments. In West Belfast we met in the Sinn Féin office – Connolly House. As a result the group were forever labelled the “Connolly House group.”
The “Connolly House group” gave us some sense of what they could do. We agreed that the issue of a visa for me would be the short term focus of their efforts. They thought that this issue had the potential to unite many of the Irish American organisations and groups. From our point of view this campaign would provide tangible evidence of the ability of Irish America to positively influence the administration.
On their return to the U.S. Niall O’Dowd met with Bill and another colleague Ciaran Staunton to plan their next move. They went to Famous Original Ray’s Pizza at 688 Third Avenue. They agreed that Bill would ask the National Committee on Foreign Policy, a non-profit-making organization of which Bill was chair, to hold a peace conference on the north of Ireland. They would invite all of the party leaders from the six counties, including me. The three then left the pizza parlor to get on with the business of making peace in Ireland.
Several weeks after the meeting it emerged that the pizza parlor was being used by the Mafia as a centre for a major drugs operation.
The organization running the drugs was run by Aniello Ambrosio who owned the pizza parlor. He arranged drugs shipments and stored drugs in his basement. And for some time his parlor had been under surveillance by the federal authorities. In fact the pizza parlor where Bill and his two fellow conspirators had gone to have their quiet meeting was at that time probably the most heavily bugged place in the United States!
The invitation to me from the National Committee on American Foreign Policy duly arrived. It created a major political storm. The unionist leaders refused to attend. The British Embassy in Washington worked around the clock arguing against granting me a visa and claimed that it would be a diplomatic catastrophe. They were supported by some within President Clinton’s administration. But the issue excited Irish American opinion which mobilized in an unprecedented way and lobbied extensively for a visa.
Two days before the conference, President Clinton authorised a 48 hour visa that restricted me to the New York area. The backlash from the British government and system was hysterical. The Daily Telegraph summed it up by describing it as “the worst rift since Suez.”
Notwithstanding the propaganda spin there can be no doubt that the granting of the visa was a major shift in U.S. foreign policy and it marked a defining moment in the development of the Irish peace process. It was also evidence that an organized and focused IrishAmerica lobby could deliver.
The visit was a frenetic 48 hours of interviews, meetings and the National Committee conference. I especially remember the comments Bill made as he opened the conference. He said: “Several months ago I was invited to join a delegation to go to the north of Ireland. Despite my belief that altogether too many delegations have visited the north of Ireland to no avail, I went, and the trip turned out to be a very important week in my life . . . what we found was worse than what some of us, particularly me, had expected. From the Falls Road to the Shankill Road and from one end of Ireland to the other, we found deprivation, discouragement, fear and mistrust. We came away distressed but with the determination to act in a positive way if we found some way to do so.”
And in the many years since then, that has been the guiding ethos of Bill’s engagement with the Irish peace process – a determination to act in a positive way.
Bill has travelled to Ireland many times, accompanied by his friend Bill Barry. He has consciously sought to reach out to unionists and loyalists and to engage them in the process of peace making and partnership government. Under his guidance the National Committee has brought all of the major players to New York to outline their views and to set out their way forward.
Bill’s importance can be measured in the frequency with which all of the governments – Irish, British, and U.S. – talk to him and seek to involve him in whatever the current initiative might be. His presence at the Investment Conference in Belfast in May was very important.
He has also been a very important and valued point of contact for Rita O Hare, Sinn Féin’s representative in the USA.
I make a point of trying to meet Bill every time I visit New York. I find his analysis of the political situation there and in Ireland, and the machinations of the various players, insightful and enormously valuable.
I also greatly enjoy his observations about life, politics, Bill Barry’s efforts to lead him astray, religion, vegetable soup, and international affairs.
He is a good American patriot and a decent human being.
I wish him and his wife Peggy and their family the very best of good wishes.
Bill Flynn is a friend – a friend of Ireland but more importantly my friend. I know that there have been many times over the years when he has been put under enormous personal pressure to adopt positions the governments were advocating but with which he disagreed. I have always found him to be an honorable man who keeps his word and is prepared to take risks for peace. ♦