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The High Horse

by Daire O’Criodain

The Clare People

26 June 2012

I studied French for my degree and, following graduation, I was lucky enough to be offered a one year post as an “Assistant” in a French secondary school.  Sponsored by the French Government, the arrangement obliged me to teach English for a few hours a week for which I got paid a salary more than ample to allow me to enjoy the immersion in French life.

If that experience didn’t create my lifelong “grá” for most things French, it certainly cemented it.  Recently, I heard Ruairi Quinn describe how a similar scholarship to Greece shortly after his graduation as an architect engendered his long term affection for that country.   And does anyone think that Bill Clinton’s special personal relationship with Britain, and indirectly, his contribution to the Anglo-Irish peace process, owes nothing to his time there as a Rhodes Scholar?

The George J. Mitchell Scholarship programme was established by the US-Ireland Alliance in honour of the Senator whose painstaking and patient mediation was central to the successful conclusion of the Good Friday Agreement.  The programme offers one year scholarships to up to 12 American students annually to pursue post graduate studies in Ireland, North or South.  Applicants are selected on the basis of scholarship, leadership and a sustained commitment to community and public service.  Thus far, nearly 150 students have passed through the programme.

The benefits to Ireland are manifold.

First, it has created a conveyor belt of “heavyweight” Americans with a knowledge of and commitment to Ireland.  Because the programme itself is young, its oldest graduates are only in their early 30s, but most are already established in senior positions beyond their years in politics, public administration, not for profit organisations and business.

Second, the scholarships are generous enough to enable the student to enjoy rather than simply endure their time here.  There is a structured programme of activities that bring each year’s group to all parts of the country.  For example, most Mitchell Scholars have stood at the top of the Cliffs of Moher.

Third, our third level institutions benefit, not only from the annual injection of a rich stream of academic talent but also from the heightened profile the programme creates for them in the US.  That profile has resulted in a number of students being drawn to come here as paying students.

The Irish government has put its money where its mouth is in support of the programme, but in a sensible way.  2010 Oireachtas legislation commits the Irish government to match contributions from other sources towards an endowment that would fund the programme in perpetuity.  The government has so far contributed $2 million towards building an endowment targeted eventually to reach $40 million, so the government’s maximum potential liability is $20 million. 

Times are tough and money is tight, but this is a long term but small scale investment, not exuberant folly.  Representing it as  funding already “well heeled” young Americans enjoy a year swanning around Ireland before getting down to serious work is cheap caricature.

Reaching the $40 million is a long term project.  For the time being, the running costs of the programme are covered principally by the US State Department, supported by US private sector contributions and some official funding from Northern Ireland.

The State Department has abruptly announced that it is discontinuing its annual funding of $485,000 from 2014. If that stands, it is unlikely that a class of Scholars will be selected for the 2013-2014 academic year.

Ireland and Europe do not enjoy the same priority in official US thinking now.  But, although the scholars’ destination country is the primary beneficiary of this programme, their country of origin benefits hugely too.  Every year, up to 12 of its potential leadership figures are “rounded” not only by further education but also the experience of living in a foreign country. 

The State Department’s decision seems remarkably shortsighted.   Hopefully it will be reconsidered.