The good billionaire: Chuck Feeney (1931-2023)

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The good billionaire: Chuck Feeney (1931-2023)

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With Israel at war with Hamas – again – there is another path to peace forged almost 25 years ago by a philanthropist who funded the Irish peace process.

One of the world’s quietest, least-known peacemakers died last week. His name was Charles, or Chuck, Feeney. With his working-class, Irish-American savvy and a world-class education at Cornell University, he made billions and gave it all away. No man or woman has ever done that while still alive.

The Irish model for Middle East peace

As honorable as that is, what Feeney should be most remembered for is helping save Ireland from itself. Three decades ago, Feeney used a large chunk of his fortune to fund a process that led to the end the sectarian violence in Northern Ireland. He would then go on to spend billions more to educate a new generation of Irish students to make sure they had the skills needed to succeed in a digital, knowledged-powered global economy. Feeney’s vision of peace through reconciliation, education, and shared economic prosperity is worth remembering as the bloody standoff between Israel and Hamas continues.

Erin go bragh

It all started in the early 1990s when Feeney grew disgusted at the senseless sectarian violence that wracked the land his parents had come from. By then, the blood-soaked contest between the Irish Republican Army (I.R.A.) and Britain had ground to a stalemate. Everyone was looking for a more constructive way forward. But Gerry Adams, leader of the movement’s political wing, Sinn Féin, could not convince the more militant leaders of the I.R.A. that he could deliver a lasting peace.

The peace visa

Key to getting that support, Adams realized, was winning over America. But that required a change in how America had previously viewed the “terrorist” Adams. And that required convincing a promising young Irish American running for president, Bill Clinton.

Where some saw violence, Feeney saw hope.

Feeney was recruited by a group of highly successful, wealthy Irish Americans known as the Connolly House Group, which included the late CEO of Mutual America, Bill Flynn, former Congressman Bruce Morrison, and Irish Voice founder Niall O’Dowd. All were trying to “influence the next president of the United States and try and bring them in as an important player in the peace process,” remembers O’Dowd. Clinton was sympathetic.

But what one says on the campaign trail is often different than what happens in the White House. Once president, the group used secret back channels of diplomacy and communication to move the peace process forward.

The key was getting Adams to America, and that meant holding Clinton to his promise of a visa. To do that, Feeney organized a conference after the election and invited all the political leaders from Ireland, including Adams, to the United States.

A campaign promise is kept

Adams got the visa – and more. Part of the deal was that Sinn Féin would also get an office in Washington. Feeney funded that as well.

It was a ballsy move by Feeney, risking the ire of the British Government and the U.S. State Department, and many others who believed the IRA was a terrorist organization. But where some saw violence, Feeney saw hope. The publicity-shy businessman intervened at a time when “most people would not talk to Sinn Fein about peace and ceasefire,” the former Congressman Morrison told the Irish Examiner. “He stepped up and provided funds for their shift to politics,” which would eventually lead to the landmark Good Friday Agreement. “Feeney was one of the few who was indispensable. He was the glue and the resources in the places it was needed, in places most others feared to tread,” he remembers.

Credit where credit is due

Looking back on Feeney’s efforts, Adams now says the peace process in Northern Ireland “wouldn’t have happened without him. We would have kept battling on, but it wouldn’t have happened.” Feeney, says Adams, “took risks for peace that very few people did.”

Building Irish peace from the ground up

Delivering peace is one thing. Creating lasting prosperity is quite another. This would become one of Feeney’s driving passions. But peace, says one admirer, “was not cheap.”

So, in 1997, he sold his share of DFS Group Ltd., the duty-free shopping colossus consisting of hundreds of stores in airports and cities around the world. Over time, this and other investments would allow Feeney to give away more than $8 billion by himself or through to his non-profit foundation, .

But peace and prosperity in Ireland was his driving passion. Feeney would contribute $1.3 billion to projects in Ireland and another $570 million to Northern Ireland, usual transformative grants to colleges and universities but also to countless unnamed social projects in gritty cities like Belfast.

Delivering peace is one thing. Creating lasting prosperity is quite another. This would become one of Feeney’s driving passions. But peace, says one admirer, “was not cheap.”

He would go on and help found the University of Limerick and provide transformational gifts to Dublin’s Trinity College, Dublin City University and Queen University in Belfast, and millions more to colleges and universities across the region. “At its simplest, the University of Limerick campus, over 18,000 students and 2,000 staff would not have been possible were it not for Chuck Feeney’s generosity,” said University of Limerick President Professor Kerstin Mey last week.

Basking in goodness

In his later years, when in Ireland, Feeney loved nothing more than sitting down in the middle of Limerick University, watching young students dashing past. None had any idea that the elderly gentleman sitting quietly in a blue button-down shirt and a worn London Fog raincoat was the elusive billionaire responsible for founding the university, transforming Limerick, and helping Ireland and its northern neighbor move into a new century at peace with itself.

Nor did they know that earlier in the day, he would have gotten up at dawn and walked through the quiet campus collecting litter.

No to names

They didn’t know him because there is no building named after Feeney at Limerick. Or in Dublin or Belfast. Or at Cornell University, where his donations have given him the nickname of Cornell’s “third founder.”

A wee packet of custard creams

Bragging or promoting oneself was practically a sin to Feeney. He was “down to earth, concerned about the world, and deeply interested in Ireland,” says Adams. “Often, we’d meet for tea in a Belfast kitchen house. He would fumble in his pocket, smile, and produce a wee packet of custard creams liberated from his hotel room.”

There is a reason Feeney had the kind of life-changing impact that Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, or Waren Buffet can only dream of achieving. Money to Feeney was only a means, never an end.

Years earlier, Bill Gates invited Feeney to speak at his Giving Pledge event where, along with Ted Turner and Warren Buffet.

Gates committed to donating $1 billion. Feeney told them that they weren’t doing enough.

To understand philanthropy, he said, “You have to give it all away. Then you’ll understand. Don’t do a lap of honor giving away a billion when you have $100 billion”.

Improving humanity

‘Feeney died in peace in his modest two-bedroom apartment that he rented with his wife in San Francisco. We don’t know what his final thoughts were. But we do know that he had given his $8 billion fortune and personally devoted himself to his lifelong dream “to improve the human condition.”

It is something to think about as Isreal and Palestine lurch to what is sure to be yet another bloody and inconclusive war – just as what was happening in Northern Ireland a generation ago. For Feeney, talk was not cheap. He gave away a fortune to beat an Irish sword into an Irish plowshare. And so far, it has worked.

Featured photo: At Sinn Féin headquarters in Belfast, December 17, 1997, (left to right) chairman of Mutual of America Bill Flynn, Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams, Chuck Feeney, Congressman Bruce Morrison, and Irish American Labor Coalition leader Bill Lenahan. Credit: Crispin Rowel

Written by

Peter McKillop

Peter McKillop is the founder of Climate & Capital Media, a mission-driven information platform exploring the business and finance of climate change.