Bruton agrees to extend funding for visiting US Mitchell scholars
US-Ireland Alliance founder asks Minister for Education for €34m for endowment
Minister for Education Richard Bruton has approved an extension to the €390,000 annual funding to the Mitchell Scholarship programme which brings US students to Ireland. Photograph: Alan Betson
Minister for Education Richard Bruton has approved in principle a three-year extension to the €390,000 annual funding provided by the Government to the Mitchell Scholarship programme which brings US students to Ireland.
Mr Bruton’s department said that the Minister had approved extending the $485,000 (€390,000) grant but is awaiting sanction from the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform.
The George J Mitchell Scholarship programme has been in operation since 2001 when the first students travelled to Ireland and is run by the US-Ireland Alliance, which is based in Arlington near Washington DC.
Trina Vargo, the alliance’s president and founder who created the programme, wrote to Mr Bruton in November 2017 requesting that the Government contribute €34 million ($42 million) to the programme’s endowment fund that would generate the $600,000 (€483,000) annual running costs to sustain the scholarship in perpetuity.
In her letter to the Minister, the former aide to the late US senator Ted Kennedy argued that the contribution to the endowment is worth it given how much US firms contribute in Ireland and because the alliance was instrumental in the decision of Hollywood director JJ Abrams to film part of the latest Star Wars movies in Ireland.
Pitching her case for the €34 million, Ms Vargo claimed in her letter – released under the Freedom of Information Act – that the decision to film Star Wars in Ireland would bring at least $4 billion, citing Tourism Ireland, and that a €34 million Government contribution amounted to just 0.8 per cent of that sum.
Ms Vargo is close to Abrams, who hosts the Oscar Wilde Awards, the alliance’s annual ceremony celebrating the Irish contribution to film, at his Bad Robot production offices in Santa Monica, California.
She knows Abrams through his wife Katie McGrath; they worked as aides to senator Kennedy. Actor Mark Hamill, who played Luke Skywalker and filmed scenes in Ireland for the last two Stars Wars movies, is being honoured at the March 1st awards ceremony, held the week before the Oscars are presented.
Ms Vargo told Mr Bruton in her letter that US companies in Ireland pay wages, invest capital and contribute taxes totalling €11 billion a year and that the €34 million contribution would amount to 0.3 per cent of this.
The alliance had originally struck an agreement with the Government that it would match up to €20 million any funds raised privately but the 2008 economic crash meant private donors could not meet their pledges.
“While we are talking with several individuals who may be in a position to contribute in a few years, the quickest and most certain way to assure the future of the programme would be for the Irish Government to provide the full endowment,” Ms Vargo told The Irish Times.
She has not yet received a response from Mr Bruton on the €34 million request.
Ms Vargo defended the Government’s $107,000 (€86,000) contribution to her total annual pay package of almost $200,000 (€161,000), saying that her $172,000 (€139,000) salary was determined by an outside compensation expert hired by the alliance’s board of directors.
The large percentage paid from Irish public funds was “simply because that makes it very easy for the department and any auditor to confirm that we spent that money exactly as proposed and agreed,” she said.
In the wake of an external audit last year, the alliance transferred $24,041 (€19,376) back to the Government’s portion of the endowment fund in October over an issue relating to the payment of the annual audit.
The alliance was directed that in future the cost of an annual audit should be paid from both the Government’s portion of the endowment, which stands at close to $5 million (€4 million), and the matching fund from outside contributions, and not just out of Government’s share.