Liz O'Donnell: Mitchell -- a genius of compromise, who mastered impossible for peace
Published 17/12/2013 | 02:30
Senator George Mitchell was in Dublin last week to accept three awards. The first was the Business & Finance Award for outstanding contribution to Ireland, an event that drew over 1,000 people to the Convention Centre. The second was when President Higgins awarded him the Distinguished Services medal, the highest civilian honour. The third was the conferring of an honorary Doctor of Philosophy (DPhil honoris causa), the highest award that can be bestowed by DCU.
All three events were memorable in that, perhaps for the first time, large numbers of Irish people actually saw and met the veteran senator who has done so much for our country. These awards were in recognition of his outstanding efforts in the Northern Irish peace process culminating in the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.
Having worked under his chairmanship, I remain in awe of his unique political and judicial skills. A stellar career as a lawyer, judge, Attorney General and US senator for Maine equipped him perfectly for the unenviable task of brokering agreement to end the protracted conflict in Northern Ireland.
In his address, DCU Chancellor Dr Martin McAleese said: "You met us at our most entrenched and yet sold the awesome possibilities of compromise. In short, you helped make possible what many believed was impossible, against all the odds and the force of history itself you delivered an agreement, which paved the way to a lasting peace."
Dr McAleese warned against complacency about our peace-building; "the gravitational pull of the past is weakening, but not gone". Sadly, his cautions were manifest by a bomb exploding in Belfast over the weekend.
Accepting the award with trademark grace and humility, Mr Mitchell publicly acknowledged the sacrifice of his wife Heather, whom he had to leave for long periods in the five years of his work in Northern Ireland, when they were newlyweds expecting their first child. The senator is a compelling public speaker, with the pace and humour of America at its best.
The child of poor, uneducated immigrants, ethnically Irish through his father, he rose to be leader of the US Senate and via the curve of history responded to President Clinton's request to serve as US envoy and chair the historic talks at Stormont.
Addressing students gathered from schools and colleges north and south, Mr Mitchell urged them to pursue excellence in their careers, mindful of their responsibility to the community and to a cause beyond that of self-interest and money.
Given such accolades bestowed on the senator, I was surprised and frankly mortified to learn that the scholarship established in his honour faces a funding crisis to ensure its continuation. The Mitchell scholarship programme, whereby 12 of the brightest post-graduate American students come to study in Irish universities north and south for an academic year, was set up after the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.
From the beginning, it has been substantially funded by the US Government with a small contribution of less than $100,000 (€72,000) from the Northern Irish Executive. The annual running cost is about $600,000.
For the past few years, the State Department has been lobbied hard by Congress to continue the funding but it is an ongoing struggle for Trina Vargo of the US Ireland Alliance, which administers the programme.
The scholarship has rapidly grown in prestige; in the last two years, of seven students who were offered Rhodes and Mitchell scholarship interviews, six of the seven plumped for the Mitchell.
Rhodes, based in Oxford, has been in existence for 100 years and is highly regarded. Yet the Mitchell is attracting 400 applications each year for the small number of places.
In 2010, the Oireachtas passed legislation to allocate matching funding up to €20m if an endowment could be found but that has proved a tall order.
Meanwhile, as yet another funding scare looms in 2014, Secretary of State John Kerry's special representative for global partnerships has been charged with helping US Ireland Alliance to identify individual companies or individuals who could contribute to the endowment. The hope is that the State Department will foot the bill until a philanthropist or company can be found.
Mitchell scholars are high achievers in business and public service in the US, constituting an enduring influential network between our two countries, all the while honouring Mr Mitchell's unparalleled public service.
As Ireland exits the bailout, there is a sense of an ending and of new beginnings. Would it not be an enlightened move for the Irish Government to secure the endowment if a corporate philanthropist is not found?
While acknowledging competing domestic demands, it would be unseemly to allow the Mitchell scholarship to run out of road.