Mitchell grants in doubt as US withdraws funds


SCHOLARSHIP:DOUBTS HAVE emerged about the future of one of the most praised initiatives to come out of the Belfast Agreement following a decision by the US state department to withdraw funding from the George Mitchell scholarship programme.

The programme, a byproduct of the peace process, attracted applications from thousands of students across the United States to study for an academic year in Ireland and Northern Ireland.

As many as a dozen Mitchell scholars have been selected each year.

Mr Mitchell, a former US senator, was the key mediating figure in brokering the agreement, which was signed in Belfast on Good Friday, April 10th, 1998.

However, the state department has withdrawn its annual funding to the US-Ireland Alliance that oversees the programme.

The funding is currently $485,000.

The programme will run for the coming academic year but, as of now, the alliance has said it will be unable to send students to Ireland in the autumn of 2013.

Officials from the state department told the alliance that the money was being withdrawn because of general budgetary cutbacks and also because Europe was no longer a priority.

The board of the alliance has written a long letter to the heads of appropriation committees on Capitol Hill asking them to appeal to secretary of state Hillary Clinton to reverse the decision.

In the letter they have argued that the programme is “about much more than the island of Ireland – it prepares America’s future leaders in areas that are state department priorities”.

The alliance has been gathering funds for an endowment in recent years, with the money raised being matched by the Irish Government.

It accepted that the money from the state department was a relatively small amount but argued it was “necessary for the uninterrupted functioning of the programme”.

The alliance cannot be fully self-financed until it comes close to its overall endowment target of $40 million. Mr Mitchell has been involved in fundraising activities over the past year.

The alliance also took issue with the official assessment that Europe was no longer a priority.

“Europe is facing instability that threatens the future of the euro and the prospects for the global economy, so it hardly qualifies as a place the US can ignore,” it stated.

Last night, the alliance’s president, Trina Vargo, said it was disappointing that the state department had made that decision.

“We have been raising this on Capitol Hill and we hope that the secretary of state reverses the decision,” said Ms Vargo.

“We do not want to disappoint students who want to go to Ireland and Northern Ireland the following year,” she added.

She expressed confidence about the long-term viability of the programme.