Saturday 15 December 2018

We must not allow the US-Irish ties that bind weaken

Senator George Mitchell and Trina Vargo.
Senator George Mitchell and Trina Vargo.

Trina Vargo

WHEN I created the US-Ireland Alliance in 1998, it was with a very big underlying question – do we care about a modern and evolving relationship between the United States and the island of Ireland, or will the relationship be relegated to shamrocks, leprechauns and St Patrick's Day parades?

The George J Mitchell Scholarship, one of the most prestigious scholarships in America, is under threat because, while everyone loves it, no one wants to pay for it. That should give pause.

The Mitchell Scholarship, which sends the top American graduate students to universities in Ireland and Northern Ireland, has done more to enhance the profile of these universities than any other scholarship programme. The universities know this and have been great partners. They have many paying American students as a result of the attention given to 'Mitchell' in the US.

The Rhodes Scholarship has existed for a century and is well known for sending future American leaders like Bill Clinton to Oxford. Despite the fact that Oxford is much more highly ranked than any university in Ireland, and even though the Mitchell Scholarship programme is only 14 years old, of the seven individuals lucky enough to be offered both a Rhodes and Mitchell interview in the last two years, six of the seven opted for the Mitchell.

The US-Ireland Alliance has always had two financial objectives for the scholarship – to raise a $40m (€29m) endowment to fund the programme forever, like the Rhodes; and fund the programme annually in the meantime. For more than a decade, the US Department of State has provided nearly $500,000 of the Mitchell's $600,000 annual cash budget.

The Northern Ireland Executive contributes less than $100,000 a year to the programme. The Oireachtas passed legislation providing that Ireland will match endowment donations but the Irish Government does not provide any annual support.

Why is the Mitchell Scholarship under financial pressure? For one thing, as the Obama Administration reorients itself away from Europe, the State Department – under Secretary Hillary Clinton – decided to eliminate funding for the Mitchell.

The money from the existing grants runs out this year.

Without further funding from the State Department, if we don't raise funds elsewhere, we will have to support the Mitchell programme by spending from the endowment. While our agreement with the Irish Government allows for that, we would rather not put ourselves even further away from our $40m endowment goal.

While we continue to make the argument to Secretary John Kerry as to why the Mitchell Scholarship is a good investment for America, if there is interest in keeping one of America's most prestigious scholarships tied to this island, these key players could allow that to happen.

The Mitchell programme benefits the island of Ireland more than it benefits the United States. The Irish Government and the Northern Ireland Executive could fund the annual budget as the US Government has to date. Over the years, US taxpayers have given this island more than $500m in the form of contributions to the International Fund for Ireland. In this context, $600,000 a year for the Mitchell is a bargain.

While many US multinationals in Ireland create real jobs, most are primarily interested in saving billions of dollars by not paying taxes in the United States. Since US companies are reaping enormous windfalls from being in Ireland, they could contribute to strengthening the broader relationship between our countries.

A strong relationship between the US and Ireland is in the best interest of Irish and Northern Ireland companies. Many of these companies note that they got their foot in the door in the US because of Americans' good feelings about the Irish.

As the number of Irish people moving to the US has declined, those who benefit from this relationship need to contribute to programmes that help sustain those ties.

Most high net worth individuals in Ireland aren't that philanthropic. That's not my view – a McKinsey report said so. The Mitchell Scholarship is named after the man who brought peace to Northern Ireland, yet not a single person or company in Northern Ireland is contributing to this programme. Not one.

In order to ensure a future relationship, we need to educate Americans about the island, and we need to build relationships based on partnerships, not handouts. We're looking for philanthropists who are interested in a different relationship. Supporting the Mitchell is also about legacy. Most people couldn't tell you how Rhodes, Carnegie or Mellon made their money.

They know those names because of their philanthropy. In 100 years, more people will associate Bill Gates with his philanthropy than with Microsoft. An American financier Steven Schwarzman recently raised $300m to establish a scholarship for future leaders to study in China. One of his stated objectives was to create a scholarship that has the prestige of the Rhodes. The US-Ireland Alliance already has that scholarship and we're sending our scholars to the island of Ireland. Is there a philanthropist who has the commitment to Ireland that Schwarzman has to China?

TRINA VARGO IS FOUNDER AND PRESIDENT OF THE US-IRELAND ALLIANCE

Irish Independent

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