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TESTIMONY FOR THE HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES

COMMITTEE ON APPROPRIATIONS

SUBCOMMITTEE ON STATE, FOREIGN OPERATIONS, AND RELATED PROGRAMS

 

FY12 REQUEST FOR  THE GEORGE J. MITCHELL SCHOLARSHIP PROGRAM

APRIL 12, 2011

 

SUBMITTED BY TRINA VARGO, PRESIDENT OF THE US-IRELAND ALLIANCE

 

Madam Chairwoman and Members of the Committee, the US-Ireland Alliance is grateful for the opportunity to provide testimony in relation to the request for $5,750,000 for our George J. Mitchell Scholarship program in the State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs appropriations bill for Fiscal Year 2012.

Since FY02, the Congress has provided $500,000 a year to the program through the State Department’s ECA budget.  The current request involves two items:

-- $750,000 which reflects an increase in operating support to allow the program to catch up with inflation as the annual contribution has not been increased since it was first funded nearly ten years ago.  (In addition to each new class of Scholars, we service a growing alumni program of more than 125 Scholars.)

-- and $5 million, an amount which we will request each year for a period of four years.  Last year, the Irish parliament passed legislation whereby the Irish Government will match everything we raise, up to 20 million euros, to permanently endow the George J. Mitchell Scholarship program.  This is the most money the Irish Government has ever committed to an American organization and it reflects Ireland’s commitment to, and support for, this scholarship program and the US-Ireland Alliance. 

We note that the annual Congressional contribution to the International Fund for Ireland (IFI) has been eliminated.  The IFI was established in the 1980’s, at the height of “the Troubles” in Northern Ireland and US contributions were to be provided for five years.  They instead continued for twenty-five years and American citizens have contributed nearly $500 million.   When the Chairman for the IFI declared that, as of 2010, they would no longer seek international contributions, the Alliance initiated this request for endowment funding.

As the IFI had been receiving between $15 and $20 million a year, by providing the Mitchell Scholarship program with $5 million a year, for four years, the Congress would demonstrate its continuing support for the US-Ireland relationship, provide educational opportunities for future American leaders, and save $48 million over the four years.   Most importantly, as the contribution will be matched dollar-for-dollar, it provides an opportunity for ‘burden-sharing’ with the Irish Government. 

The Mitchell Scholarship program is administered by the US-Ireland Alliance, a non-partisan,  501 (c) (3) organization dedicated to educating Americans about the island of Ireland and building a future relationship based on contemporary realities rather than nostalgia.  Our principal activity is the Scholarship program, which was named to honor the former Senator’s leadership in the Northern Ireland peace process.  These nationally competitive scholarships allow Americans to pursue a year of post-graduate study at universities in Ireland and Northern Ireland.  Recipients must demonstrate the highest standards of academic excellence, leadership and service. 

The program quickly rose to prominence and has become one of the most coveted scholarships in the United States.  In cooperation with its many friends and supporters on the island and in the US, the Alliance has created a program with unique opportunities.  Scholars meet with the Irish Prime Minister, President, political leaders in Northern Ireland, and many business and cultural figures from both parts of the island.  These future American leaders return to the U.S. with a wealth of first-hand knowledge and experience, which will benefit the relationship between our countries for years to come. The Mitchell program broadens the horizons of America’s next generation of leaders, deepens the ties linking the United States and the island of Ireland, and prepares the Scholars for national and international leadership. 

Ireland and Northern Ireland have changed dramatically in the past twenty years.   The future of the US-Ireland relationship will center on culture, education and business.  The relationship must be recalibrated to reflect this evolution, and Members can play an important role in ensuring it remains vital for future generations.

The Belfast Agreement of 1998 largely brought an end to violence in Northern Ireland.  While American political leaders should continue to take an interest in Northern Ireland, this issue no longer requires the constant, high-level, daily attention it did in previous years, particularly during the Clinton Administration.   This is to be welcomed as a sign of the success of the peace process, which many Members of Congress helped achieve.

There has also been a significant decline in Irish emigration to the US in recent years.   This was largely because the Irish economy created jobs at home and also because the Irish may move freely to work in other EU countries.  To the extent Irish people are emigrating in the current economic downturn, they are mainly going to Canada and Australia.  The future of the relationship therefore lies in educating Americans about, and interesting them in the island.

The US-Ireland Alliance’s operating costs are less than other similar scholarship programs. We have been extremely efficient at operating this program with an average staff size of two people.  We have an established a record of excellent management, including maintaining the highest ranking from Charity Navigator, America’s largest independent charity evaluator.  The increase for inflation is needed to keep pace with costs of maintaining a competitive national scholarship and managing a growing alumni program as well as sustaining the basic program.   The endowment request presents a unique opportunity to leverage an equal amount of funding from the Irish Government.

In his State of the Union address, President Obama noted the importance of not taking scholarships away from our students.   Secretary Clinton has repeatedly stressed the importance of study abroad, calling it a ‘spring training for this century’ and she has stated ‘we want more American students to have that opportunity.’  And while the Mitchell provides study on the island of Ireland, the subsequent work of the Scholars is global. (Details on where they are now may be found on our website at www2.us-irelandalliance.org)

We are grateful for the Committee’s past and continued support for this program and we hope you will look favorably upon this request.