The Adrian Flannelly Show
Irish Radio Network USA
9 June 2018
Adrian Flannelly speaks to Niall O’Dowd about his latest book and about Bill Flynn and his influence on the peace process in Northern Ireland. May Bill rest in peace.
Adrian: Now let me welcome a very good friend for now decades, Niall O’Dowd, founder, publisher of Irish Voice newspaper, Irish America magazine, founder of Irish Central website but author of a number of books including his latest, Lincoln and the Irish. This, and yes, you have written a book and indeed it’s heading for the best sellers – it’s Lincoln and the Irish. Can you give us like a taste, a brief synopsis if you will of your book, of Lincoln and the Irish which in fact, if you were listening, if you could hear Johnny McEvoy there singing about Lincoln’s army, it wasn’t all that complimentary in the sense that a lot of Irish did come to the United States and their first job was, indeed, to join Lincoln’s army. Just give us a little run-down.
Niall: Yeah, you know we forget just how many Irish came over during the Civil War – nineteenth thousand Irish a month were disembarking in New York alone – and obviously they came fleeing famine, they weren’t in great shape and one of the first jobs that was offered to them often, when they were getting off the boat, was joining the army and thousands of them took that opportunity, In fact, by the end of the Civil War twenty-five percent of the Union Army was either Irish or German which is not something you hear much about but the fact is that Lincoln needed the Irish, in terms of numbers, because it eventually came down to a war of attrition between him and General Lee and he had more men – that’s what Grant said in the end that he just needed to build his army and keep it bigger than Lee’s and eventually he would grind them down – which is exactly what happened. But the Irish played huge roles in key battles as you know. But one of the wonderful things that I discovered about Lincoln was he was surrounded by Irish in the White House. In fact, so much so and he was so friendly to them that people complained that he had what was called ‘Hibernian cabal’ of people – these were just workers in the White House but Lincoln felt very, very comfortable with them. And there’s quite a history of – when he was raising his children in Illinois all the nannies were from Ireland, he authored a resolution in Congress calling for Ireland to be free so there’s a lot of history that really never got covered about Lincoln and the Irish and hopefully the book manages to uncover a lot of that.
Adrian: And Niall, just on that topic, you know, his wife didn’t exactly share any gra for the Irish. Had that something, at least, to do with the class structure? Were the Irish considered to be of the ‘low rung’ of immigrants at that time?
Niall: Very much. It’s like your wife and Mayo people, you know? She didn’t have much time for them.
Adrian: Well, that hasn’t changed that much but anyway – thanks for bring it up! Alright…
Niall: But no, I mean, you’re right. His wife was obviously mentally disturbed. Today she’d probably be diagnosed with schizophrenia or some mental disease like that. But an awful lot of her servants were from Ireland directly and she worked them very hard and she wasn’t a very nice employer and there’s descriptions where she said: If you had to deal with the Irish like I have to you’d never think anything good about them. And many of the Irish who worked for her always said the same thing: That her husband was a complete gentleman. Her husband actually paid one of the Irish maids extra money because she was the only one who could handle Mary Lincoln when she got into these tempers. So you know, it’s a door to a lot of Irish knowledge. One of her maids was notorious for bringing her boyfriend in through the window and Mary Lincoln caught her and fired her and there was a big to-do about it – so she had quite a history with the Irish. She wasn’t favourably disposed. Lincoln certainly was – which was the big difference between them.
Adrian: Again, Lincoln and the Irish by Niall O’Dowd. It is readily available. What’s the easiest way for those who would like to get the book, Niall?
Niall: Well Barnes and Noble has it in Manhattan and probably the easiest way is amazon dot com.
Adrian: amazon dot com. Niall, this week, a great giant in the Irish community died at age fifty-two, (Ed. Note Correction: ninety-one) a leading advocate for the Northern Ireland peace process – your good self, indeed, were extensively involved in those negotiations leading to that Good Friday Agreement but also – if you could take us to that first meeting when you were trying to get a group of influential people to – rather than bemoan the fact that The Troubles in Ireland were getting worse by the day and a lot of negative press throughout the world with respect to it – what was that first meeting? How did you get to meet Bill Flynn and that discussion which led to his amasing involvement? Bring us to that day.
Niall: Well you know it was a key time in the Irish conflict – nothing was happening, things seemed to be getting worse and yet, there was the possibility of a new American president and a new initiative coming out of the United States and it was my belief and several other people’s that we needed to have a group of people who were very different to what were usually involved in Irish issues – you know, leading business people who had great reputations outside of just their Irish reputation.
And if you were in New York, as you well know, Adrian, at the time, Bill Flynn just stood out. He was this tall, very handsome, charismatic character who ran Mutual of America, one of the largest insurance companies, had a deep love and understanding of his Irish heritage – his father was from Co. Down – his mother from Mayo, and anyone who came to town – he got involved with the Peace People, he got involved with various groups – but I met him when he was hosting, actually, the Northern Ireland Secretary at a lunch at 21 Club and I said to him: Bill, you know I think all this is great but I think we need to do an awful lot more and go directly at this issue and maybe set up a group that would try and act as a go-between between Sinn Féin and the Irish in America and the White House because President Clinton, or he was then Candidate Clinton, was going to be elected. And Bill just looked at me and said: We have to talk. I mean that was the kind of man he was. He was running a very big business, he had shareholders, he had people who were working with him on various different projects – he was very active in human rights, not just the Irish issue, but once the opportunity came – I think mainly because of his love for his father and his love for Ireland – he just said right out, Adrian, that he wants to help any way that he could – and Boy! Did he help.
Adrian: Talk about your own involvement – okay, you met Bill Flynn – and I’m delighted to hear you were hanging out in the 21 Club, you know – very impressive…
Niall: (laughs) Adrian, I used to leave Makem’s at four in the morning with you and go straight to 21 Club.
Adrian: But the order of your group in terms of – Bill Flynn came first, you had Bruce Morrison, you had Chuck Feeney – you had a number of people that needed to get together. Was that a difficult process? Did Flynn take the lead in that in terms of getting the ball rolling?
Niall: Bill took the lead in very many ways and I think you’ll remember, Adrian, around the time when we had decided that we thought a visa for Gerry Adams was the way to go forward and to involve America in Northern Ireland for the first time in over two hundred years. Two full page ads were taken out in the New York Times – paid for by Bill Flynn out of his own pocket, about forty thousand dollars each – and those two full page ads were incredibly influential because they said: America: It’s time to do something about Northern Ireland and it basically said ‘when Irish eyes are crying’ – why don’t we get involved at a different level than we have been. And that sent a very powerful message and after that I remember so many Irish-Americans calling, I remember talking about it on your show – that this is what we needed – a challenge and a message and a galvanising that – Look, something is happening. This isn’t the same old story where they could dismiss us all as mad IRA activists and not at all interested in peace and Bill played a massive role in that by those New York Times ads but alsohe began to host people from Northern Ireland. He had an organisation called the National Committee on American Foreign Policy ,which was a very influential group – and Bill was the chairman, of course – and he decided to use his chairmanship to bring over speakers from Ireland and again, bringing new and important people to the table at every opportunity. So he was a guy who just – you know, Adrian, the best way was an American businessman – just smart, quick to act, made decisions quickly, didn’t mess around and charmed everybody who met him because he was this very charming, Irish kind of guy with a big smile and old-fashioned ways but a very, very good guy to sit down and talk to and he was very persuasive with people so it was impossible not to like him and impossible not to admire him either.
Adrian: I think, Niall, if we go back to that period of time when, as you rightly point out, Irish-American activity was very much associated with one side. It had to do, you know, with encouraging and you know, funding, a group of people in Northern Ireland, the IRA, and that appeared to be the theme of the day was, you know, ‘Blow the Brits Out of Ireland!’, you know, ‘A Nation Once Again!’ – all of that…
Niall: Not that your family had anything to do with that, right, like Paul O’Dwyer and Frank Durkan. (both laugh)
Adrian: I know and indeed I remember traveling with my Uncle Paul (O’Dwyer) up to The North and I assumed that we would be meeting our own Nationalist people and actually on Day Two we had met with and Paul had met with the groups and listening to what they had to say, very reminiscent, indeed, of the approach that Bill Flynn took.
Niall: Yes! In fact, you’re absolutely right and one of my great regrets was that Paul wasn’t physically well enough to play a major role in our group but certainly, you’re right – he did reach across the aisle, he was the earliest one. He had relationships with John, I can’t remember his last name but one of the key Unionists who was involved with the UDA (Ulster Defence Association) and -John McMaster – Gary McMaster – I can’t remember his full name but you know, he was a great trail blazer, Paul, and people like Bill, Chuck Feeney – they were different, Adrian, they were the kind of people who weren’t inv0lved at that level that we just talked about where they were waving flags and shouting ‘Up the IRA!’ – they were very different types of people. And from my point of view, where you came into this was, we had proven something very big with immigration – that we could move the American Congress on the issue of immigration because of the work that you and so many did on the Morrison and Donnelly visas and giving a hope and an opportunity to our undocumented. And I think that it was out of that experience that, certainly I believed, that if we could bring that same level of lobbying and insight and work and hard work and detail to the Irish question and how America was treating the Irish question that we could be successful. But it all stemmed from the power and the organisation, which you played a huge role in, of getting the Morrison and Donnelly visas, that (inaudible) said could be done.
Adrian: Okay. It was something that, obviously, we collaborated with him and you had the barrel of ink at the time. It was indeed something which many people still acknowledge as being a turning point on immigration. Bill Flynn, in particular, did his influence as a very successful businessman, did that, indeed, was that a tipping point for those in Northern Ireland that this wasn’t one more – ‘Ra-‘Ra, you know, breast-thumping, you know, situation where people thought: You know – one more Yank coming to Ireland telling us what we ought to do. What role did actually his business acumen play?
Niall: Well, I think the biggest role was just Bill’s ability to listen. I always found that fascinating because in meetings where we would have guys like Gary McMichael, the UDA guy were we talking about earlier, and people who were – David Ervine, you know, Gusty Spence – hard-line Loyalists – Bill would convene a meeting with them and you’d sit in that meeting and you’d want to interrupt and say things just because they were saying things obviously that were very much from their point of view but Bill had this ability to absolutely sit there and let them talk through then engage them in a certain way that was very charming and very open but at end of the day they’d walk out of that room knowing that Bill Flynn was going to do his best for the issues that were important to them. And in many cases the issues that were important for them were respect, were being acknowledged and what Bill would do,and later Tom Moran, who was a great comrade of Bill’s on this stuff early on, they would bring these Loyalists over to America and they’d put them in a room front of prestigious people in Manhattan and they would get the opportunity to tell their story. And really, what I found when I went to The North and I think what anyone found in these conflict resolution areas is, people want respect more that anything else and Bill Flynn gave that respect in spades to everybody he met, heard about – did his best to help them and just got this reputation, rightfully so, as a guy you could deal with and trust and so, as you say, so many Irish-Americans would arrive over ‘beating the drum’ but Bill would never do that. He’d come in and he’d say: Okay, what can we talk about? What can we agree on? What do we disagree on? He just had an ability to turn a room around. You’d walk into a room with very suspicious people wondering: Who are these Yanks? and by the end of the day Bill would have them eating out of his hand.
Adrian: Yeah, again I remember, you know at the meetings again, where the Unionist representatives would be there and I suppose, us being Irish born, were waiting to see, you know, at what point was somebody going to walk out?
Adrian: …at what point was somebody going to start hissing and whatever? It was very dignified – and it wasn’t a debate – it was, indeed, here’s the other side and of course this would have been before there was any talk of Gerry Adams coming – there was a respectful approach to all of it. But can you tell us…
Niall: …Yeah, he was kind of a throwback to an earlier era – gentlemanly, very gentlemanly is the word I’d use about him. I never heard him raise his voice and there were times I would get very hot under the collar after debating something with, say, David Trimble who – personally I just couldn’t stand the guy – but Bill never, ever lost his cool – he always stayed in the moment. He was always able to pick the best of the conversation and work on that and I remember in the later days when we were very close to the ceasefire (and those of us who had spent years working on it were deeply concerned whether it would happen or not) Bill just had this strange, inner confidence – which was proven right of course – that everything was going to work. And you know, he just had an ability that you rarely see where a guy’s able to bring people together, make the right decisions, give everyone their sense of respect and equality and at the same time deliver, on a huge level, something that had never been delivered before from Irish-America. So you know, you meet giants in your life and Bill was one of them, Adrian, I think we both agree on that.
Adrian: I do want to ask you though about the issue of and the significance and importance of getting Gerry Adams to come to America. We have to, just for background: In Ireland for a great period of time there was a Section 31 rule on radio and on television in Ireland that not only could members of Sinn Féin appear or be interviewed but that’s just to let our listeners know about the taboo subject of The North. So whereas we sometimes think that the whole island of Ireland, every last one, was indeed in favour of a peace agreement – that wasn’t even in the cards at that time – and I think, you know, sometimes it is to, you know, the shame of the Irish and then of Ireland as a whole, but for those of us who would visit Ireland and bring up the subject of The North, that in itself would ruffle a lot of feathers and indeed it was perceived that: It’s very easy for you to come three thousand miles over there and advise us about what we’re doing. The main fear at the time was – now that we’re again very nervous about the hard border returning because of Brexit – but at that time Ireland, southern Ireland figured that: It was terrible what was happening up there – but keep it up – keep it up in The North – and that was it. I mention that by way of pointing out the significance of the American involvement in Northern Ireland, and again, lopsided to a point until the Bill Flynns – and there were others, obviously, as well, Chuck Feeney, Joe Jameson was another one, Bill Lenihan…
Adrian: …these are people who realised that maybe the American interest in Northern Ireland and the support for Northern Ireland was in fact, if anything, was making things worse there.
Niall: Yeah, you know I think you’re right that there was a view in Ireland that The North was unsolvable. You know there is a book called Biting at the Grave by a writer, Boston Irish-American writer, claiming at the end of the book that: Look, it’s unsolvable, don’t worry about it, we’ll just have to get by – and that was a very general viewpoint. But that’s where the Americans came in because my view was always that if you could get America involved that everything would shift. That the British, the Irish, the IRA, the Loyalists would all have to respond in a very different way to American involvement and that they were, so to speak, outside the box bringing a whole new face and a whole new name and a whole new energy into the situation. And that’s what happened because when Bill Clinton became president and lived up to his promise that he would deliver a visa for Gerry Adams the whole game changed forever and the guy who made that visa possible, probably more than anyone, was Bill Flynn. Because Bill had the organisation, the National Committee. It would have been no good, Adrian, if – Gerry Adams would never have gotten in by speaking to an AOH Division or something like that, it had to be a respectable foreign policy group that would invite him, that he would be able to speak to, not just an Irish-American group but a prestigious American group. And Bill set all that up and you know, those of us who had worked so hard on the issue were really, even ourselves, astonished and surprised by all the things that happened as a result of that visa for Adams including, six months later, as Adams said himself, there would not have been the IRA ceasefire without that Adams visa and that’s where Bill Flynn can definitely take a bow in history and say that he, as much as anyone, made that happen.
Adrian: Right and you know and that brings us back to maybe something that I’d like you to address is: Could and would the peace process, would that have happened were it not for now the new face of the president in Bill Clinton?
Niall: Well, you ask Gerry Adams and he’ll tell you: No. There were three areas: There was the British government, the Irish government – that was one section, there was the northern parties themselves and John Hume and eventually dealing with the Unionists but the third leg of that stool was the United States and Gerry was very clear that without the United States the other two could not have succeeded. So I think from the point of view of what was needed to convince the IRA to take the leap into politics and end the violence was a three-legged stool made up of those three things: the Irish and British governments, Sinn Féin and the SDLP (Social Democratic and Labour Party) and President Clinton intervening and all those things had to happen and that’s why I think I’m so proud of Irish-America at that point. But I can tell you this for a fact, Adrian: None of it could have happened without Bill Flynn. That is a fact.
Adrian: A great man, a giant man, indeed, somebody, Niall, whose passing will indeed will not be – will not go unnoticed. I know that you were again pointing out that Áine Sheridan here can get a little edgy sometimes…
Niall: …She can. And she told me to ask you: Who’s gonna win the Belmont so I’ll bet every other horse.
Adrian: She’s the one who told me: Don’t drag this out. I mean, nothing like the direct approach – Don’t drag this out Niall and his wife, Debbie, are heading for the Belmont Stakes – big deal! Alright?
Niall: Big deal! Yeah! I’ve been at the Belmont Stakes with you I remember – about ninety years ago – and every horse you tipped I think they’re still looking for him. One of them had windshield wipers because he said he was afraid it was going to rain.
Adrian: Yeah, well, I want to tell you something – any horse that I ever backed I must say didn’t get a fair chance because it didn’t get out of the gate and so we’ll never know. Okay, what’s your prediction for the Belmont?
Niall: Oh, I’m hoping to see a Triple Crown, Justify. I always want to witness history, Adrian and it look like he should do it. But you know, we’ve said this before, there’s been fourteen horses who tried for the Triple Crown in the last forty years and only one of them did it so we’ll see.
Adrian: Okay. So today might be the day. Niall, again, God rest Bill Flynn. He has left an amasing legacy and again, through your own introduction, I frankly in hindsight thought it a bit cheeky to walk over to a man having lunch just to say you know, we ought to do something – meaning ‘he’ ought to do something – and he did, so.
Niall: Well, it wasn’t as hard as it sounds – he was half-way there, anyway.
Adrian: Niall, again, thank you.
Niall: Thank you, Adrian. (ends)