Out like Flynn

PROFILE: Former Sinn Féin vice president, trade union leader and businessman Phil Flynn was charged last week with possession of a pen-gun. Despite being at a low point in his career, having recently resigned from a number of public positions this year, close associates still believe he will bounce back. By John Byrne

For much of his adult life, public figures have slated Phil Flynn. But it never bothered him. In 1984, when Flynn was running for the executive of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU), Fine Gael's Paddy Cooney made a televised attack on him. He declared Flynn unsuitable for the job because of his republican connections, and urged voters to reject him.

Flynn was easily elected, however. He sent a note to Paddy Cooney afterwards.

"Dear Paddy, Elected on the first count. Thanks for your help and assistance. Hope to meet you soon."

Since being questioned by gardaí during their investigation into IRA money laundering in February this year, an unprecedented number of people have been queuing to disassociate themselves from Phil Flynn – perhaps more than at any other time in his career.

The chairman of the Policing Board in the North, Desmond Rea, secured an apology from the Sunday Independent merely for saying that Rea sat beside Flynn on the board of a property company. Andrew Parker-Bowles, former husband of Prince Charles' wife and Flynn's business associate, issued a statement saying that he was "not a close friend" of Flynn, immediately after the Garda inquiry. And Bertie Ahern was accused of "betraying his own country" for using Flynn as a special adviser.

The association with money laundering, although unproven, has cost him dearly. The timing was not good, coming at the height of his business career, and long after he stopped having any formal role in the republican movement.

He resigned from a number of key directorships, including as chairman of Bank of Scotland (Ireland) and as chairman of the Government committee on decentralisation. He also resigned as a director of the VHI, and from the board of construction giant Harcourt Developments.

Yet, he seems confident that this is but a temporary blip. "I have no involvement, good, bad or indifferent, in money-laundering, full stop, for the republican movement or for anybody else. And if I'm proven wrong, I'll run up and down the street naked for you.

"This will sort itself out and when it does you'll see me back."


The republican roots

As a talented, dynamic and respected troubleshooter in industrial disputes and the world of business, Phil Flynn has succeeded despite his republican background. "I'm an unrepentant republican – I always have been and I suppose at this stage in my life, I always will be. I make no apologies for that to anybody," he said earlier this year.

The eldest of five children, he was born to a Fine Gael father and a nationalist mother in Dundalk in 1940. He joined Sinn Féin at 14, and lent support to the border campaign of the 1950s and early 1960s.

He was involved in the negotiations surrounding the kidnapping of Dutch industrialist Teide Herrema by the IRA in 1975. (Paddy Cooney, who evidently still does not like Flynn much, recently wrote to the Irish Times to say that "Mr Flynn sought to interfere" in the Herrema incident "but was rebuffed".)

He was arrested in Liverpool and held for three days under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, was tried and acquitted by the Special Criminal Court on a charge of IRA membership, and has at various times been barred entry to the United States.

He was on the Ard Comhairle of Sinn Féin during the late 1970s and early 1980s when it was little more than a mouthpiece for the IRA. He served as vice president of the organisation until 1984. He was close to Daithi O'Conaill, a leading IRA figure who left the Provisional movement with Ruairi Ó' Brádaigh to form Republican Sinn Féin/the Continuity IRA in the early 1980s.

In 1987 he resigned from Sinn Féin but he has kept in contact with republican figures since then. "Friendship to me is important. I have them and I keep them and it really doesn't matter to me how that's perceived," he said in a recent newspaper interview. He remained on very good terms with Daithi O' Conaill until his death in 1990. He is friendly with Gerry Adams, and carried out consultancy work for Sinn Féin last year.

"I did an examination of Sinn Féin's head office and the organisation's effectiveness. I started last October and went about it like any other assignment, but I didn't get paid for it." Brian Keenan, a senior IRA figure, recently stayed in Flynn's house while in Dublin receiving treatment for cancer. Flynn reportedly paid for part of Keenan's treatment, who is very ill.

"It would be just like Phil to put somebody up like that. If you turned up on his doorstep, he'd take you in without thinking about it. He's that kind of character," says one man who has known him since the 1970s.

Flynn is anxious to portray these connections as nothing more than social. And there has been little evidence of republican activism since he left Sinn Féin, aside from this year's money laundering investigation.

The money laundering allegations

Flynn is a non-executive director of Chesterton Finance, a small Cork-based money-lending company. The principal behind the company is Ted Cunningham. In February of this year, gardai found more than £2million sterling in a wheelie bin at Cunningham's house. They suspect this money might have come from the Northern Bank robbery. But there is no evidence to suggest that Chesterton Finance was used to launder this money. It had been vouched for a number of times by PricewaterhouseCoopers, who said it offered excellent interest rates to customers. Outside of Chesterton, there is no evidence that Flynn had any connection with Ted Cunningham.

Flynn has admitted that it was "a bit strange that someone who is chairman of one of the biggest banks in the country [Bank of Scotland] would become involved in a small struggling financial organisation as Chesterton." His enemies will claim that this "strange" involvement is evidence of sinister goings on. But another – and on the basis of the evidence available – more plausible theory states that he got involved with the ailing company as a favour to his brother, who had been instrumental in setting up Chesterton.

Ironically, the only thing that Phil Flynn has been charged with is possession of a "pen gun" without an appropriate license (the only charge arising so far from the much-publicised Garda investigation into republican money laundering). It was found when gardaí searched his offices in February, and is a small, pen-shaped device used to fire either bullets or CS gas. It is typically used for self defence, and is also popular with gadget fans. The one Phil Flynn had came with two tiny CS gas cannisters.


Professional career

Phil Flynn left Sinn Féin to concentrate on his work as a trade union leader. The Fine Gael government of 1984-1987 refused to deal with any Sinn Féin representatives, and as Phil Flynn was a leading union representative at that time, this made things difficult for him. For instance, while he was general secretary of the Irish Local Government and Public Services Union (LGPSU), no government minister would speak to him. The then Labour minister for Health, Barry Desmond, said it was "an act of political hygiene" to have no dealings with him.

But while the political establishment was ostracising Flynn for his republican sympathies, the trade union movement recognised his brilliant negotiation skills. He first got involved in unions in England in the 1960s, while working in London as a health service officer. He moved back to Ireland in the early 1970s and joined the LGPSU. Peers noted his straight-talking persona, his good way with people, and his unwillingness to bear grudges.

He moved quickly through the ranks. Throughout the 1980s he was involved in most of the important partnership talks between government and unions, and it is during this time that he made a number of key political contacts. These included Bertie Ahern, who was opposition spokesman for Labour between 1984 -1987, and minister for Labour from 1987-1991. Charlie Haughey, keen to keep the unions on side when he returned to power in 1987, also had many dealings with Flynn, and was impressed by him. He was elected as president of ICTU in 1991.

So enamoured were political leaders with Flynn's abilities that he was given a number of top jobs by various ministers. In 1996, Ruairi Quinn appointed him as head of the Industrial Credit Corporation (ICC). He led a review commission into the Irish League of Credit Unions which reported in 2002, and was appointed to head the Decentralisation Implementation Group by Charlie McCreevey after the 2003 budget. Bertie Ahern also retained him as a senior troubleshooter for the Government.

He amassed a number of private directorships, including at Harcourt Developments, Pat Doherty's huge international property and construction company, and at recently established Belfast-based newspaper Daily Ireland.

Although now undoubtedly at a low in his career, those who know him think that he will, as he predicts himself, make a recovery. He'll be supported by his second wife, Christine Carney, formerly an anti H-Blocks campaigner.

"Phil is a tough guy, and he's been involved in other controversies before," says one long-term associate. "As long as he believes that he as done nothing wrong, I don't think this will have too much effect on him. He'll still get work because he's so good. It won't be as glamorous as the work he used to get, but it will still be very well paid."p