William Flynn

The Troubles

VTR Date: October 30, 1996

Guest: Flynn, William


Guest: William J. Flynn
Title: “The Troubles”
VTR: 10/30/96

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And my guest today is an old friend and a true benefactor of this program. Of course, the fact is that my guest is an old friend and a true benefactor of more good causes than you and I together could shake a stick at. And while many of them are Irish or Catholic oriented, just as many are not. He’s president of the American Association of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, and a member of the board of Fordham University. He’s also a member of the board of the Elie Wiesel Foundation, and chaired the Advisory Committee to the United States Holocaust Memorial Council. And on and on and on, believe me. And, not so incidentally, to make a living, William J. Flynn has for many years brilliantly served the Mutual of America Life Insurance Company, previously as president and chief executive officer, and now as chairman.

But Bill Flynn perhaps became best known in this country when the President of the United States quietly sent him, along with a couple of other distinguished Irish-Americans, to help bring an end to what we have sadly come to know as “the troubles in Ireland.” His leadership is well recognized. So that I want to begin our program to ask Mr. Flynn to tell us as we record this program at the end of October 1996: What are the prospects for peace, and what must be done? Tell me, tell us what the prospects are.

FLYNN: I think the prospects are good. There’s a deep division of thought about that. I’m an optimist by nature. And I based my conclusion on the fact that the people of Northern Ireland and the people of the entire Ireland have indicated time and time again in poll after poll that they want peace, and they want peace now. And God help the political leaders who don’t bend to the will of the people. It’s based on that primarily when I say the time for peace has come and the time for peace is now.

HEFFNER: Then how do you explain the fact that there is no peace?

FLYNN: This difficulty goes back, the present state of the difficulty goes back at least 25 years. There were horror stories of discrimination in employment and housing, civil and human rights abuses, abuses in the justice system, in the police system. And this finally broke out into fighting in the late ’60’s and the early ’70’s. And it got so bad that the British government had to step into Northern Ireland and remove local rule. And Ireland has, ever since 1974, been ruled from London directly through a secretary of state. The bitterness, the mistrust, the fear, the suspicion that was aroused in those years and which has continued on almost unabated is the reason people doubt that they can ever see a peaceful settlement. But the people are beginning to realize that they are suffering, and suffering badly. And more, their children are suffering, their loved ones are suffering, the economy of Northern Ireland is suffering, their jobs are at risk. And for all of these reasons, they want a peaceful settlement.
HEFFNER: Well, you say, you concede, in fact, you claim, and you should proudly, that you’re an optimist.


HEFFNER: But those of us who are not privy to what’s going on, those of us who haven’t been as close as you have been since the president first put you in that position, have this sense of again and again and again having our hopes raised and then dashed. Have you managed … And as I read what you’ve done, Bill Flynn, I’m very serious, I wonder, “How does he keep going back? How does he keep making these trips?” How does he keep investing his energy, his time, his beliefs, in the notion that something good is going to come of this?”

FLYNN: Well, it goes to this: Sometime back, several years ago, I was asked to help out the Nationalist Movement, or the Republican Movement, in the North of Ireland, by people who fiercely wanted the six northern countries, which are now British, which were separated 75 years ago from the rest of Ireland, they wanted this taken care of. And as I was approached, I realized that the money that was being asked for was tainted in that it was going to be going for guns and bullets and bombs. And I didn’t approve of that. And I turned down the request. And these people then said to me, “If you’re so interested in the future of the reunification of Ireland, what in the world are you doing about it?” And I said, “This is the first time I’ve been made to feel like a draft-dodger.” And I got on my horse and went to Ireland, in the hands of very capable people, to find out what the situation really was. And I found the answer. And the answer was spelled out by John Hume, who is one of the great political leaders in the North of Ireland. It was taken up by Cardinal Daly, the primate of all Ireland, by Archbishop Games of the Church of Ireland, by the Presbyterian ministers, by the Methodist ministers, by educated people, by business people. And it has to do with the simple proposition that Ireland can be reunited only with the approval of the majority of the people in the North of Ireland, and not before that time. And I agreed with that. And I said, “That’s the solution.”

Now, the key was the Downing Street Declaration, which was issued a few years ago. It was brought about, this declaration was arrived at by the Prime Minister of Ireland, we call him “The T-shirt,” Albert Reynolds, and by John Major, the Prime Minister of England. And these two men and their associates crafted a document that laid out a basis whereby Ireland could be reunified provided the people wanted that to happen. And that would happen when that day came that they wanted that to happen; and not before. This, to me, was the first, this was historic. It was the first time that the English and the Irish governments had sat down and said, “There’s a peaceful way to resolve this. We want to observe the will of the people.” And that’s what gives me the optimism, the sincerity. And that’s the first time that’s happened in the modern history of Ireland.

HEFFNER: What will be required for it to happen? What will be required for a majority to be present to opt for this solution?

FLYNN: I don’t know. You know, when the six northern counties were separated from Ireland (This goes back three-quarters of a century, three-quarters), I believe it was an illegal thing. It was a terrible thing to do. But nevertheless it was done. So the British held six counties of the 32 counties that make up all of Ireland. And it was selected because there was a majority of people who felt British and who were mostly Protestant. Two-thirds/one-third. One third were nationalist and Catholic, mainly; and the others. And so, for all of these years, 75 years, majority rule was obtained in the North of Ireland. There’s no bill of Civil Rights, there’s no constitution. Whatever the local government imposed was the law of the land. So this whole situation has come to a head with fighting and bombs and bullets, and for Prime Minister Major and Prime Minister Albert Reynolds to come together and say, “Here is a peaceful way to do this,” all of the Irish people endorse this. An overwhelming number of the Irish people on both sides of the border endorse this principle. And so do we.

HEFFNER: Yes, but how do you explain then the fact that it doesn’t take place and that violence has appeared again?

FLYNN: It’s the mistrust and the suspicion. And for one side and the other. The Unionists, for example, feel they have so much to lose by any negotiation whatever because they have it all now. The Nationalists see negotiation as the only way forward. So the government said, “In return for cease-fire on both the Loyalist Paramilitary side and the Irish Republican /Army side, we’ll gather all party talks. And we’ll sit around a table, and we’ll come to grips with this.” And this is what led to the cease-fire in August 31 of 1994. Six seeks later, the Loyalist Paramilitary entered into a cease-fire. Now, the difficulty was this: No sooner had the cease-fires occurred and people were ready for the all-party talk than a whole series of delays occurred because preconditions were added, such as decommissioning of arms. In other words, they were asking the army men to give up their arms before they even sat at the table. Eighteen months later, in absolute frustration, the Irish Republican Army bombed Canary Wharf in Great Britain. That was a terrible thing for them to have done. We condemn it, we deplore it, we condemn the thinking that led to do that. But nevertheless, that is what brought that about.

HEFFNER: Now, explain if you can John Major’s reasons for those delays, for demanding concessions that couldn’t be provided.

FLYNN: That’s a very good question. That’s a very good question. The first thing I have to say is that I believe John Major. I have faith in him. I believe that, in signing the Downing Street Declaration, he committed himself and his government and Great Britain to a peaceful resolution of this problem. And I don’t think he steps back from that. However, his political position in Great Britain is such that he depends on the votes of the small group of Unionists in his own Parliament. And if they were to deny him their votes, his government would fail. As a result, he must lead them; he cannot direct them, he can’t push them too hard. And I believe this explains John Major’s attitude. But it does not explain the unionist attitude. And a real question that exists today is: Do the people of the Unionist tradition really want more party talks? Do they want a peaceful resolution?

HEFFNER: What do you think, Bill?

FLYNN: I think their people want it very, very badly. The leadership, however, seems reluctant. And they seem to throw up one obstacle after another to all parties sitting around the table.

HEFFNER: Because that leadership position will be much less worthwhile if there is the kind of movement you want?

FLYNN: It’s so difficult to say. You know, there are two major Unionist leaders. One is the Reverend Ian Paisley, who has been adamant on this. He will not accept, nor will his party accept, that there can be any question about British sovereignty in the North of Ireland. It’s not subject to a vote; it is. So great hope was placed in the other party, David Trumbull, a major, major party leader. Here a young man who was just elected about a year, two years ago, lawyer, in his mid-fifties, fine looking man, well-spoken man. And we thought, “Finally, a new day in Irish politics has come about.” He’s disappointed us greatly. He is almost more adamant than the Reverend Paisley. And so we don’t know what yet to make of him. But we do know it’s going to take urging by the British government to see these people through.

HEFFNER: You say “urging.” You mean pressure?

FLYNN: Moral suasion.

HEFFNER: You mean just moral suasion?


HEFFNER: What other kind of suasion …

FLYNN: Well, there’s economic suasion. To maintain Northern Ireland in any kind … It’s in dire economic mete. There are no jobs. The unemployment rates are incredibly high. And this leads to all kinds of difficulty in education and housing, et cetera. And so the British government has been forced to spend many billions of pounds in the North of Ireland to keep that economy up and keep people on the dole, so to speak. And this, sooner or later, is going to have to come to an end. Britain can hardly afford that. Now, I can tell you that the National Committee on American Foreign Policy, our concern as Americans in this, is that Great Britain has continually diverted by attention to a problem that ought not to be a problem, and there are real problems facing the world and facing Europe. And Moslem fundamentalism, for example, an overwhelming fear that this could become a major, major threat to peace in the world. And for our ally, Great Britain, to be preoccupied with and spending abnormal amounts of money in the North of Ireland is simply absurd. So there’s more than moral suasion; there’s economic persuasion, there’s all kinds of things that could be done if the British government wanted to get tough.

HEFFNER: But you’ve described a situation that makes it nigh onto impossible for the British government to get tough …


HEFFNER: … politically speaking.

FLYNN: This is correct. Nevertheless, I believe that Major is the caliber of man who is prepared to take his risk. He’s taken heavy risk thus far. But those who would bend to that today would say, “If peace is to come in Northern Ireland, it would come after the next election.” And the next election will occur in the spring of 1997. So that the pessimist would say, “If there’s any chance of peace, it will be 1997.” Well, that’s not too long to wait if that’s what it takes.

HEFFNER: And if the Conservative Party fails?

FLYNN: Then we’re faced with the Labor Party. And the curious thing is that the Irish people never received very much from the Labor Party.

HEFFNER: I’m aware of that.

FLYNN: Yes. And so it’s a great question as to what would happen. But they speak well, I believe that they could be counted on to continue the initiative of the Conservative Party in the North of Ireland. But that remains to be seen.

HEFFNER: What’s America’s stake and its role?

FLYNN: Well, the greatest stake America has is attempting to create peace in the Western World at least. And to say this diversion of energies in the North of Ireland is simply absurd. The European community is upset about it, the British people themselves are upset about it. The Republican, the people of the Republic, the Irish Republic, are upset about it. It’s a diversion. It’s something that should be taken care of. Too much time and attention and money is being put into a place where one and a half million people, one and a half million people who have more in common than they have in difference. We have more difference in one city block of New York than they have on the entire island. We’ve had to learn how to live with our differences. It’s in our Constitution. It’s in our Bill of Rights. Our success or failure as a country has to do with our ability to live with our differences. The North of Ireland hasn’t learned that. It’s a European disease.

HEFFNER: Do you think we’re going to continue to play the kind of role that President Clinton has? A more positive role than we had in previous years?

FLYNN: I believe so. I believe that any American government … we have to give a lot of credit to President Clinton. By the way, I want to make very clear that when I go to Ireland and the people with whom I go, I go as chairman of the National Committee on American Foreign Policy. And while we make sure the American government is aware of exactly what we do, I would be very careful about using the name of the president to either tell us to go or what have you, because I’m taking his name in vain. I can’t do that, and I won’t do that. Nevertheless, he has played a dominant role, taken a real initiative for peace in the North of Ireland. And no one of Irish heritage can ever forget that. He’s the first American president to do that. Whatever else one would agree with or disagree with about him – and there’s a lot to agree with and a lot to disagree with – nevertheless, that initiative stands to his credit. And it’s my hope that he and any government, should he lose the election, would continue that initiative.

HEFFNER: Senator Mitchell has played a major role here. Is he still doing so? Will he continue to do so?

FLYNN: Yes, he is. As a matter of fact, he’s our great hope. I have a very high regard for Senator George Mitchell. He’s a really first-class, wonderful man. I’ve always said if he knew how to smile on television he’d be president of the United States. He’s perfectly marvelous to be with, but whenever he’d be on television he comes across as very tough, very hard, a very hard man, which he is not at all. But he’s a man of great principle. Now, he’s invested quite a bit of his life in this issue in the North of Ireland. It’s almost too much to ask that he’s going to continue to spend this kind of time on that one issue. He has a lot more to do in this life than simply work with the North of Ireland. It’s my hope that the parties will take full advantage of his good office and of his good judgment and of his good sense and his ability to get people to learn to live with their differences.

HEFFNER: I was watching the other day the tape of a program, a news program, commentary program from Ireland. And it made the point that George Mitchell is the official representative of the President of the United States, but that William Flynn is perhaps as well known and gets around as much in Ireland and is continually, back and forth, attempting to reconcile the different interests here. I asked you at the beginning first to express and then to explain your optimism. Let me go back over what has to happen if your optimism is to be well-founded and to be justified. I gather you’re talking first about an election in England. And then you say, if Major survives, you believe he’ll continue to do what he started to do.

FLYNN: Yes. And I think there’s a good chance he’ll continue it even before the election.

HEFFNER: All right. And if the Labor Party wins, you have some optimism there too?

FLYNN: Yes, indeed. But a question mark. But a question mark. It’s not a downgrading of the Labor Party; it’s simply a step into the unknown. What will they do as opposed to what should they be doing.

HEFFNER: Okay. Now I know.

FLYNN: Now there’s one other ingredient that I haven’t brought into this.

HEFFNER: Yeah. There was. There’s a very important ingredient; you’ve got to address yourself to the IRA.

FLYNN: Yes, the IRA, the fighting men on both sides. You’re reading my mind. You’re absolutely right. I never knowingly met a member of the IRA. I meet their political wing, Sinn Fein. The same is true on the Loyalist side. I separate Loyalists and Unionists. They all believe that they’re British. But I find more in common with the Loyalist group. They’re the people who are the political wing of the Loyalist paramilitaries, who are mostly Protestant, and the IRA are mostly Catholic. I’ve come to know these leaders. I’ve entertained them here. We’ve put them on platforms in this very building, at this very university. We sent them to Harvard and to Boston College. They’ve introduced them. We had them into the White House, received by the president. Now, these men are fighting for what they believe. And these are working men, as opposed to Unionist leaders. These are the working men. These are men who have prepared to put their lives on the line. I find more in common between those fighting men than I find between the politicians. And that is a major source of optimism. For example, the Irish Republican Party broke, and, as I say, terrible, terrible error which must be reversed. They must again restore the cessation of military operations of August 31, 1994. But the Loyalist paramilitaries never broke the cease-fire. They never broke it; they held it. And they’ve held the high ground as a result. And I admire them, and I see them, and I thank them, and I encourage them, and I try to give them every help I can to get their view across. These are people who ought to be, who want to make peace. And they believe in a bill of civil rights for the minority and the majority. They believe on cross-fertilization of the political landscape in the North. Far more so than the Unionist leaders. And as a result, they’re rising and rising in the opinion polls, though they still constitute a small minority of the people. So it’s the fighting men that give me a great deal of hope. But with any army I’m sure the range of thinking goes from alpha to omega. I like to think I’m talking about the best of that thinking, not the worst of that thinking.

HEFFNER: But we’re victimized, aren’t we, by the worst …


HEFFNER: … of any thinking that …

FLYNN: That’s correct.

HEFFNER: … kind of military action?

FLYNN: Exactly right. And it’s always Sinn Fein. I don’t want to call anyone a madman, but some people are capable of showing their very, very worst in such a situation. And that’s why it must be stopped.

HEFFNER: You know, I’ve thought all about this (and we just have a couple minutes left), that I don’t know how you’d feel if I used Winston Churchill’s phrase that “It’s always better to jaw jaw than to war war.” It seems to me that you epitomize everything you’ve done, epitomizes that notion, and that what you continue to do is to try, no matter what, to get them to talk, talk, talk.

FLYNN: I agree. That’s exactly right. That is what I do believe in. And that is how you get movement in the hearts and minds of people, by talking and creating bridges of understanding.

HEFFNER: Do you have any sense that the IRA, those people on that end of the IRA who are responsible for the armed activity, that there is any shift, any change?

FLYNN: It’s very difficult to say. The real difficulty is the suspicion that they’ve been led along by the Unionists to consider decommissioning their arms, reducing their fighting capabilities, and that it’s all for nothing, that the Unionists really don’t want to sit around the table and come up with a constructive solution. That’s this mistrust and suspicion. And so I look for a breakthrough here. Whether it will come from President Clinton, or a President Dole, or from a John Major, or from somewhere, someone must come in and give the assurances needed. And, by the way, Mr. Adams, Gerry Adams who is the head of the Sinn Fein Movement, the political wing of the IRA, has stated over and over again that if he can receive assurance that the talks will take place, substantive talks on the substantive issues, they will return to the cease-fire.

HEFFNER: Optimistic note. Bill Flynn, thank you so much for joining me today on The Open Mind. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. And if you’d like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4 in check or money order to: The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150.

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”