The American Optimist

By Niall O’Dowd
Heritage Series 2008

First we must move past the many pretenders who have rushed in to claim how much they did for the peace process in Northern Ireland.

Then you will find that Bill Flynn and a precious few others stand alone as dedicated Irish Americans in that effort. For Flynn it meant he put his reputation on the line in order to help the country of his parents achieve the impossible.

It was not easy. At the time he was Chairman and CEO of Mutual of America, a major insurance company, and some looked askew at this peacemaker as he went about the exhaustive task of bringing the different sides together in Northern Ireland. Some even dismissed the mission as a fool’s errand and an impossible task.

Indeed, in his book Uncivil Wars Padraig O Maille, the Boston academic, essentially reached that conclusion, that very little could be done for peace in Northern Ireland.

Bill Flynn brushed past all that in his typical straightforward fashion. Flynn sensed the opportunity for peace from his family heritage but also from his accomplishments as a genuine American success story, up from the bootstraps, and as a man who never had anything handed to him.

So whatever the academics were saying, Bill Flynn believed something else. His incurable American optimism saw in Gerry Adams of Sinn Féin and David Ervine of the Progressive Unionist Party, political wing of the UVF, two men who could help make peace not war. The rest of the world may have called them terrorists, but Flynn saw opportunity where others saw paralysis.

He put himself on the line. I don’t know how many trips to Northern Ireland he took but I’d say 100 or so would be no exaggeration. Then consider the incredible number of meetings he held in America. He brought parties from all sides across the Atlantic to speak to the National Committee on American Foreign Policy or just to gather in his Park Avenue office and air their grievances before they settled down to the business of peace.

Flynn resembles Senator George Mitchell in his incredible patience and forbearance with all the protagonists in the North. Through it all, even the darkest days, he kept faith with his vision of a successful peace process.

The mantle of history he wears lightly. There is the Flynn self-deprecating humor, that dry wit that cracks up even the most committed foe. There is that actuarial-like mind, as befits an insurance executive always calculating the angles, even as others walked away.

In the end he was proven right. He can wear the mantle of peacemaker, which few in this world can ever don.

Throughout it all, the support of his loving wife Peg and marvelous family made it possible for him to adopt another kid called Ireland. We are very lucky he did so. This special issue in a small way recounts his achievements. There is no other story more fitting or compelling than his to be told in Irish America. ♦

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