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Bob Dunfey, an unsung American hero of Northern Ireland's journey to reconciliation

Obituary

Published 29/08/2016

Bob Dunfey was at the heart of Democratic politics in US
Bob Dunfey was at the heart of Democratic politics in US

Senator Robert Kennedy said: "The purpose of life is to contribute in some way to making things better".

If true, we can conclude that Bob Dunfey, who has died aged 88 and was a friend of and campaigner for Bobby Kennedy, fulfilled his purpose in life a number of times over.

Bob Dunfey, born in Lowell Massachusetts (MA), was an unsung hero of the Northern Ireland peace process. He was brought up at the heart of Democratic Party politics in MA & and learned early in life that the 'back room' can be as important in politics as the 'front room' - something he applied to his involvement on this side of the Atlantic. His reach was Kerry to Derry and Ballyferriter to Belfast - right into the heart of loyalism and republicanism in the Shankill and the Falls.

Bob returned to build a house in his ancestral home of Ballyferriter. 'Feorann' enabled his American extended family and friends to reignite an active link with the country of their origin, and he himself returned every summer for 35 years. His Irish involvement was sustained through this and the family's leadership in the American Ireland Fund from its founding. Bob's commitment was driven by philanthropy, made possible by the family's former hotel business (Omni Hotels International) and politics. In this he played a key role in Bobby Kennedy's presidential campaign in Maine (Kennedy would call him every Sunday) and it was Bob Dunfey who approached George Mitchell to fill Edmund Muskie's vacated Senate seat in 1980 - leading to Mitchell's ultimate appointment as Senate Majority Leader.

Subsequently, Bob and his brother Jack accompanied Senator Mitchell when he was appointed President Clinton's Economic Advisor on Northern Ireland on his first fact-finding mission. On his first day in the province they brought him to meet community leaders on the Shankill and Falls to hear of the reality of deprivation behind the 'Troubles' headlines. The Shankill visit was to cement a relationship with the Dunfeys which ensured that the voice of what was described as 'working class unionism' was heard in the United States as the 'peace process' developed.

When the Dunfey family bought the famous Boston Parker House Hotel in 1968, they reclaimed it's rich history, founding the Global Citizen's Circle, thus creating 'a space' for progressive political dialogue, reaching from the States to Cuba, Central America, South Africa, the Middle East and embracing Northern Ireland. They recreated this 'space' around the Washington/Boston American Ireland Fund's annual dinners and events, when their tables would include opppnents in the early days of the peace process, allowing for conversations that were not taking place at home.

It is for historians to uncover the depth of Bob and the Dunfeys involvement in peacebuilding here, suffice to say that their connections and friendships included Gerry Adams, John Hume, David Trimble (they accompanied both men to Norway for their Nobel Prize conferment), May Blood, Monica McWilliams, Gary McMichael, Billy Hutchinson, David Ervine (Bob and his wife Jeanette flew in to attend David's funeral), as well as a number of front-line community workers, at a key period of the peace process.

Pascal said: "A man does not show his greatness by being at one extremity, but rather by touching both at once". By this measure, Bob Dunfey was not only a good man but a great one.

After a battle with Parkinson's Disease, Dunfey died on August 23, 2016. He is survived by his wife Jeanette, inseparable on those legion Irish visits, his five children and four of his eleven siblings. A celebration of his life will be held in St John Evangelist Church, Portsmouth NH on September 10 at 11am. His ashes will be returned to Ballyferriter.

BYLINE Jackie Redpath, Shankill Community worker

Senator Robert Kennedy said: "The purpose of life is to contribute in some way to making things better."

If true, we can conclude that Bob Dunfey, a friend and campaigner for Bobby Kennedy, who has died aged 88, fulfilled his purpose in life a number of times over.

Dunfey, born in Lowell, Massachusetts, was an unsung hero of the Northern Ireland peace process. He was brought up at the heart of Democratic Party politics and learned early in life that the 'back room' can be as important in politics as the 'front room' - something he applied to his involvement on this side of the Atlantic. His reach was Kerry to Derry and Ballyferriter to Belfast - right into the heart of loyalism and republicanism in the Shankill and the Falls.

Bob returned to build a house in his ancestral home of Ballyferriter. 'Feorann' enabled his American extended family and friends to reignite an active link with the country of their origin, and he himself returned every summer for 35 years.

His Irish involvement was sustained through this and the family's leadership in the American Ireland Fund from its founding.

Bob's commitment was driven by philanthropy, made possible by the family's former hotel business (Omni Hotels International) and politics.

In this he played a key role in Bobby Kennedy's presidential campaign in Maine. Kennedy would call him every Sunday.

It was Dunfey who approached George Mitchell to fill Edmund Muskie's vacated Senate seat in 1980 - leading to Mitchell's ultimate appointment as Senate majority leader.

Subsequently, Bob and his brother Jack accompanied Senator Mitchell when he was appointed President Clinton's economic adviser on Northern Ireland on his first fact-finding mission.

On his first day in the province they brought him to meet community leaders on the Shankill and Falls to hear of the reality of deprivation behind the Troubles.

The Shankill visit was to cement a relationship with the Dunfeys which ensured that the voice of what was described as "working-class unionism" was heard in the United States as the peace process developed.

When the Dunfey family bought the famous Boston Parker House Hotel in 1968, they reclaimed its rich history, founding the Global Citizen's Circle, thus creating a space for progressive political dialogue, reaching from the States to Cuba, Central America, South Africa, the Middle East and embracing Northern Ireland.

They recreated this space around the Washington/Boston American Ireland Fund's annual dinners and events, when their tables would include opponents in the early days of the peace process, allowing for conversations that were not taking place at home.

It is for historians to uncover the depth of Bob and his family's involvement in peace-building here in Northern Ireland.

Suffice to say that their connections and friendships included Gerry Adams, John Hume, David Trimble (they accompanied both men to Norway for their Nobel Prize conferment), May Blood, Monica McWilliams, Gary McMichael, Billy Hutchinson, David Ervine (Bob and his wife Jeanette flew in to attend David's funeral), as well as a number of front line community workers, at a key period of the peace process.

After a battle with Parkinson's, Dunfey died on August 23. He is survived by Jeanette, his five children and four of his 11 siblings.

A celebration of his life will be held in St John Evangelist Church in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, on September 10 at 11am. His ashes will be returned to Ballyferriter.

Jackie Redpath

Belfast Telegraph

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