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Alliance makes its Mitchell pitch to Congress

By Ray O’Hanlon

The US-Ireland Alliance, which has been criticized by some Irish politicians in recent weeks over its financial requirements for the Mitchell Scholarship Program, has made a formal pitch to the U.S. Congress for funding.

The Alliance is hoping to raise $20 million over four years, a sum that the Irish government has pledged to match in order to establish a permanent endowment for the program, named in honor of former senator, George Mitchell.

In a letter to Congresswoman Nita Lowey, chairwoman of the House Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations and Related Programs, US-Ireland Alliance president, Trina Vargo, said she was writing to request $5 million annually, for four years, for the George J. Mitchell Scholarship program.

“This contribution will be matched by the Irish government and would be placed in an endowment to provide for the program in perpetuity,” Vargo wrote in the letter, a copy of which was also sent to the subcommittee’s ranking member, Rep. Kay Granger.

Wrote Vargo: “We appreciate the support given by the Congress to the program over the years. On an annual basis, the program has received $500,000 through ECA at State. It is our understanding that you recently received a letter from Congressman (Joe) Crowley requesting an increased annual amount of $750,000. We welcome and are grateful for this support. As the program funding has never been increased to adjust for inflation, we hope you will grant this request.”

Vargo stated that the Alliance’s further aim was to create an endowment so that the Mitchell scholarship program could flourish in perpetuity.

“Once fully endowed, we will be able to stop requesting annual congressional funding for the program,” Vargo wrote.

Vargo noted in her letter that U.S. contributions to the International Fund for Ireland were coming to an end. The U.S. input is due to sunset this year although there have been calls for its extension.

“While it is for you to determine if an offset is needed, and if so, what that offset would be, we note that the United States’ annual contribution to the International Fund for Ireland (IFI) is coming to an end,” stated Vargo in the letter to Lowey and Granger.

“The IFI was established in the 1980s as result of the Anglo-Irish Agreement and U.S. contributions to it were to be provided for five years. They have instead continued for 24 years and American citizens have contributed more than $450 million to it. In the two most recent annual reports of the IFI, its chairman, Denis Rooney, wrote that the Fund will not be seeking any further international contributions after the end of 2010.

“As the Fund had been receiving between $15 million and $20 million a year, we submit that providing the US-Ireland Alliance with $5 million a year, for four years, nets the Treasury between $40 and $60 million and endowment support would stop altogether in four years.

“For those who would wish to see the United States contribute to a future relationship with the island of Ireland, this provides a way to do so, while at the same time providing graduate education for future American leaders.”

In a separate development, the Mitchell program has had its support from the Northern Ireland government significantly increased.

Sir Reg Empey, the North’s Minister for Employment and Learning, announced that Northern Ireland would double its annual commitment to the program.

Trina Vargo, in welcoming the announcement said: “We are very grateful to Sir Reg, the department and the Northern Ireland government for its support. This partnership of Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland and the U.S. Congress is evidence of how we can all work together to strengthen the ties between our countries by introducing future American leaders to the island.”

Empey, in turn, said he was delighted to continue to support the Mitchell program and spoke of the profile the it gives to Northern Ireland universities in the U.S.

“More than 100 Scholars have benefited from the scholarship program, with many students studying at the University of Ulster and Queen’s University Belfast. The scholarship continues to emphasize and recognize the importance of higher education, both in Northern Ireland and in the United States, and continues to strengthen U.S. - Northern Ireland cooperation and partnerships,” Empey said.

As a result of the increase, Northern Ireland, which had been contributing $42,000 a year, will now contribute $84,000 a year to the Mitchell program.

The North move follows the recent legislation passed by the Dáil and Seanad in Dublin to provide up to €20 million in matching funds for the Mitchells.

While the U.S. State Department provides annual funding, congressional support for the Mitchells is overseen by Reps. Peter King and Joe Crowley in the House of Representatives. Senator Chris Dodd organizes Democratic support in the Senate which had been led by the late Senator Ted Kennedy. Senator Olympia Snowe, a Republican from Senator Mitchell’s home state of Maine, also helps spur Senate support.

The tenth class of Mitchell Scholars is currently studying at Irish universities. President Mary McAleese will present the graduating class with their class rings in June at Farmleigh House in Dublin.

Said the Alliance in a statement: “Hundreds of U.S. universities and thousands of students are exposed every year to universities on the island of Ireland because of the Mitchell Scholarship program. Approximately 300 Americans apply every year for this competitive scholarship, and many who do not win the Mitchell have decided to study on the island as paying students.”