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Fostering our Relationship

Note: This article originally appeared in the August 31, 2007 issue of Business & Finance Magazine. The article was written by Sarah Gilmartin.

In 1998, after serving as a foreign policy adviser to Senator Ted Kennedy for 11 years, Trina Vargo created the US-Ireland Alliance, an organisation dedicated to educating Americans about contemporary Ireland and building the relationship between the two countries on that basis. The organisation aims to raise €40m in endowments to insure its GeorgeJ Mitchell Scholarship programme continues its work of promoting educational, political and business links between the two countries. The Irish Government has recently committed to matching up to €20m of this sum.

The national competitive fellowship was established to acknowledge intellectual achievement, leadership and a commitment to public service and community, while aiming to provide a connection for future generations of American leaders to the island of Ireland.

At the inaugural Business & Finance “US-Ireland Business Awards” in New York last month, Garrett Kelleher, executive chairman of Shelbourne Development, was recognised for his outstanding achievement in fostering trade and investment links between the US and Ireland. Kelleher is contributing $1m(€730,000) to the US-Ireland Alliance endowment this year.

“Garrett’s generous commitment of $1m means that we have secured commitments of $6m in private funding in just a couple of months. It is also attractive to donors to know that their contribution leverages an equal amount from the Irish Government,”says Vargo.

“Garrett is Irish but has spent a lot of his working life in Chicago. Work on one of his current projects, the Chicago Spire, means that he is now spending a lot of time in the United States. He believes, as many of us do, that it is vital for these relationships to remain strong and that programmes like ours can greatly assist in making that happen. As an investor in the US markets for over 20 years, he is als overy supportive of the work we are doing to ensure continuity, so that good programmes don’t just last for a few years,”she says.

Vargo left Senator Kennedy’s office in 1998 to start the alliance, which is now recognised internationally as a highly successful organisation. She says she created the organisation due to the rapid changes in Ireland and because she believed there was no US organisation that really understood what was happening or was prepared to address this changing relationship: “I was meeting many people in Ireland who wanted a new relationship with America, one that reflected this new dynamic.”

According to Vargo, there was a large number of Irish-Americans who had never been that involved in the relationship between the US and Ireland as a lot of people were switched off by Irish-American organisations in the belief that they were supporting the IRA or were “anti” something –be it anti-Protestant, anti-women, anti-gay, anti-modern Ireland. “I actually talked to one Irish-American who told me he wanted Ireland to be the way it used to be – the subtext was thatched cottages and pigs in the kitchen! I found it hypocritical that many Irish-Americans who were calling for an inclusive Northern Ireland wanted to so narrowly define what it means to be Irish-American,” she says.

However, she believes Irish philanthropy is on the increase, highlighting that there are others such as Derek Quinlan, Bernard McNamara and Pat Mooney who, along with Kelleher, have all committed $1m to the alliance in the last few months. The motivation, she says, is that many feel they have benefited from the US-Ireland relationship and they genuinely want to contribute something back to it. Irish universities have also been extremely supportive of the scheme, as they recognise the educational advantages and international attention that the Mitchell Scholarship brings to their institutions. Vargo points out that there are many Americans who didn’t win scholarships but, having learned about Irish and Northern Irish universities through the Mitchell application process, ended up on the island as paying students regardless.

“The big issue for the Irish universities is funding,” she says. “If Ireland is to remain competitive, it is crucial that it gets into the top rank of universities. The last ranking I saw had Trinity at 78th place in the world, the highest ranking of any university on the island. A large part of this is achieved with money. Money buys research, better services, libraries and technology. But it isn’t enough just to throw money at something. Universities must be committed to raising academic standards, particularly at the third and fourth levels.

”This commitment should include attracting top-quality professors who are dedicated teachers, raising graduate admissions standards, and becoming more rigorous, both in expectations of students as well as faculty and department chairs:

“In addition to Government support, and I know it is not ‘pc’ to say this, I think fees should be reintroduced. I’m not suggesting the often-exorbitant American fees, but I do think that there are ways to require fees and still insure that, through grants and loans, the economically disadvantaged are not denied the ability to attend university.