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$cholar spat: US Ireland Alliance defends Mitchell program

The Mitchell Scholarship program and its sponsoring organization, the US-Ireland Alliance, was this week defending the pledge of Ireland’s political parties, and the government, to support the transatlantic academic link with public money that would match whatever the alliance can raise in the U.S.

The Mitchell Scholarships annually bring twelve outstanding U.S. university students to study in Irish universities, both in the North and Republic.

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But with hard times and cutbacks in education and special needs budgets in Ireland, harsh criticism has greeted the Irish government’s commitment to match Alliance fundraising up to a possible maximum of €20 million. Some TDs are questioning outright the Irish end of the funding effort.

Mayo TD, Michael Ring, told the Pat Kenny radio show on RTE that the 20 million could build four schools in his county.

“Somebody’s priorities are very wrong to be giving away €20 million of Irish money when we can’t afford it,” the Fine Gael TD said, even while adding that he was not criticizing former senator George Mitchell, in whose name the scholarships are awarded.

The Sunday Tribune, meanwhile, focused on the Alliance’s corporate entertaining, including its pre-Oscar night party in Los Angeles which this attracted stars of the caliber of Tom Cruise.

“An increasing number of Irish politicians are now raising concerns about the US-Ireland Alliance and particularly the George Mitchell Scholarship Fund with which it is involved,” the Tribune stated in its report.

And the paper drew comment from Dublin Socialist MEP Joe Higgins who said: “There were no searching questions as to how the money would be disbursed and how 12 students a year could cost €4 million.

“Against the background of major cuts in educational funding, I would suggest that this whole funding needs to be very closely scrutinized. I think funding of it should simply be ended,” said Higgins.

Trina Vargo, who heads the US-Ireland Alliance, reacted by pointing to the Irish government’s recent passage of funding for the Mitchell Scholarship program.

“Both houses of the Oireachtas supported this bill by unanimous consent. Fine Gael, the party to which Mr. Ring is a member, supports the funding and the party’s education platform cites the Mitchell Scholarship program as the template for how a Fine Gael government would extend this program to other countries,” Vargo said.

And she added: The Irish government made a commitment to match up to €20 million as we seek to establish an endowment for the Mitchell Scholarship program. The key words are endowment and match.

“That means the Alliance has to raise money first. At present, we have nearly $1.8 million for this endowment and that is the only amount the Irish government must match at present.”

She said the Irish government did not have to pay more than four million euros in a given year to the fund.

“In the very unlikely event that we would raise 20 million euros in a year, the Irish government would be able to pay that over five years.

“We are raising an endowment. An endowment is a prudent way to plan for the future for the program,” she said.

The Alliance is raising in the money in the U.S. from private sources and is currently attempting to secure some measure of its hoped for endowment from the U.S. Congress.