Trina Vargo set up the US-Ireland Alliance in 1998 because she could clearly see the changes that were becoming apparent. Senator Ted Kennedy worried about the future, when there wouldn’t be people like himself to look after the interests of Irish-Americans in a quickly changing world.
The alliance is, in a way, Vargo’s response to Senator Kennedy’s concerns. Its flagship project is the George J Mitchell Scholarship programme. It is designed to educate people from the US, including Irish-Americans, about modern Ireland and build a contemporary relationship that is more partnership than paternalistic.
Every year, up to 300 young students across the US, compete for one of 12 scholarships, for a year of postgraduate study in Ireland. The recipients must appear to be future leaders, as well as having an excellent academic record. The programme is now one of the most prestigious scholarships in the US. Over the years, scholarship applicants who had the choice of availing of both the Mitchell and the Rhodes– to study in Oxford – have opted for the Mitchell.
A large number of US companies are located in Ireland and trading across the whole of Europe, yet the Mitchells have not been adequately funded either by the US or Ireland. There are a number of reasons for this, including the economic crisis and the pressure which it put on the third-level education sector.
Our universities, have fallen in the international rankings, largely because of the reduced state funds. This cannot be turned around quickly as the education systemis still growing, due to an increase in population. To counteract this, the Mitechell Scholarship could be increased rom 12 students per annum to as many as 100. For the eight universities in the Republic and the two in Northern Ireland, that extra funding would be significant.
American Ireland Fund
Brendan Behan famously proclaimed that the first item on the agenda of any Irish organisation was “the split”. Trina Vargo was soon to encounter that Irish division in the US. When she reached out to promote the US-Ireland Alliance to the American Ireland Fund she assumed that she would be pushing an open door.
The fund was set up in 1976 by Tony O’Reilly and Dan Rooney. Both were based in Pennsylvania and were anxious to divert US dollars going to the IRA via Noraid. Ireland was poor and conservative then and the American Ireland fund simply refused to engage with Trina Vargo.
However, now Ireland is a relatively rich country and many people from the US don’t see the need to make a financial contribution to the Irish project. The high levels of education in Ireland today have increased Irish living standards beyond that of many Irish American industrial communities across the United States. There is an intriguing challenge posed by the author, which she calls, Triage – What Ireland can do about Irish-America. She goes on to state that “Ireland shouldn’t settle for the Irish-America that it knows; it should help create the Irish-America it wants.”
A number of themes in this book are dealt with in intimate detail; including the “non-existent Irish vote”and immigration – in particular, the position of the Irish citizens who were in the US without the necessary immigration papers, the “Irish undocumented”.
Trina Vargo wrote a piece for the Irish Times in November 2007, stating: “If US immigration reform comes, it will be, and should be comprehensive, but these would not be a ‘special deal’ for the Irish immigrants illegally in the US.” She describes how she was treated by a “torrent of attacks by Niall O’Dowd, the US based Irish journalist. When she expressed surprise at the ferocity of the attack, to a friendly Irish journalist, he replied “everything you wrote was completely true, you just shouldn’t have said it.”
The author cites a number of events, which have caused her concern, particularly the ways she felt that she was unfairly treated. But this comes back to personality clashes, jealousy and a rivalry between Irish civil servants and semi-state organisations who have the responsibility to allocate financial support for particular social or cultural activities.
Oscar Wilde Awards
One example that deserves mention is the Irish Film Board. Since 2006 the US-Ireland Alliance has held an annual event in Los Angeles to bring together Irish and Americans in the entertainment fields with the aim of sparking creative collaborations.
This development by the Alliance, known as the Oscar Wilde Awards, soon became one of the hottest events during the Oscars.
The detail of how Trina Vargo tried to attract Irish interest from the Film Board and the government departments does not reflect well on the persons concerned. She has had her own say. It is for others to respond if they wish to.
After many years of working with Vargo, it’s evident that she is deeply committed to advancing the US-Ireland Alliance. Her energy and manner may be off-putting to some, but her achievements have greatly benefited our two countries.
Winston Churchill is quoted as having said the relationship between Britain and the United States is of a people divided by a common language. There is an element of this in the communications between Vargo and many of the native Irish that she has had dealings with. It should not be allowed to get in the way of positive engagement with the US-Ireland Alliance and Ireland.
Ruairi Quinn is a former leader of the Labour Party