Tuesday, 23 February 2010
George Mitchell Scholarship Fund (Amendment) Bill 2010: Second Stage (Resumed)
We are happy to support this Bill. It is worth reflecting on it, however, because it has huge potential for Ireland in its relations with the United States.
It was established by the US-Ireland Alliance to honour Senator George Mitchell's contribution to the peace process and the tradition that was started by the Kennedy family, particularly the late Ted Kennedy. It is now in its tenth year, with 117 graduates to date. The alliance initiated a new language in our relationship with the US. It is built on a relationship of equality and mutual benefit instead of being based on emigration, the "auld sod" and feeling sorry for Ireland. From that point of view it is welcome because it shows we have matured as a nation and that we can stand among the giants of the world.
It would be remiss not to recognise the pivotal contribution George Mitchell made to the peace process and I commend the Government for the establishment of the initial endowment of £2 million. It recognised the hand of friendship and the reciprocal nature of the involvement of the US in bringing about peace in Northern Ireland. In the last two weeks the Hillsborough agreement has been achieved and we can see the importance of such stability in Northern Ireland to underpin jobs, investment, health care and education.
Our relationship with the US must be based on partnership and centred on education, the arts and business. This scholarship has more potential than just jobs emanating from pure business. We must also look at the wider possibilities to maximise its full potential. The George Mitchell Scholarship Fund is an ideal way to engage and maximise this partnership.
It is interesting how quickly the fund gained notoriety. It was competing head to head with the Rhodes and Marshall scholarships within three years. We all know Bill Clinton, former President of the United States, was a Rhodes scholar, which shows how interested Americans are in Ireland. Having studied and worked there as a teacher myself, I know there is always a fascination with Ireland. In the past it may have been based on our history of emigration. It is time to develop a more mature approach in our thinking about our country and what it has to offer. That which I have outlined shows how Mitchell scholarships have developed a good reputation in a short period.
I wish to deal with some of the more thorny issues relating to the Bill, the first of which is costings. In the context of oversight, we must be cautious and safeguard our investment and ensure it is spent wisely. The fund is managed by the US-Ireland Alliance. This system has been in operation since 1999. At this juncture, the Government is increasing the level of the fund. This means that it will have increased substantially, from IR£2 million in 1999 to €20 million now, to ensure the sustainability of the scholarship programme. It will also ensure the latter will not run into financial difficulty again. The increase will be broken down into annual payments of €4 million and will be on the basis that matching funding will be provided, through the US-Ireland Alliance, by private donors.
In the early years of the last decade the Government invested $2.7 million in the fund. As a result of a blip in the stock market in 2002, the value of this donation fell to $1.6 million and the fund quickly became unviable. I wish to ask a number of questions I would like the Minister of State to address.
The careful management of the money contained in the fund is extremely important. In that context, why was money from the fund invested in risky areas? In that context, we must bear in mind the volatility of the stock market and the eventual goal of this endowment which, essentially, is a benevolent fund. We are not asking that it make large amounts of money and I do not believe, therefore, that it should be invested in equities because they can fall as well as rise in value. Perhaps we should consider obtaining deposit returns in respect of the fund.
The competence of the fund managers must be queried. This is an endowment which must both last and grow over a period. We must ensure, therefore, that the fund is managed carefully.
The Government did not reinvest until the fund, following the losses incurred in the economic crash, was built up again. Its next instalment of funding was made just prior to the current economic downturn. As a result, the level of the fund has again decreased. The US-Ireland Alliance states it has not received funding from the Government for many years. We must monitor the position in this regard because what is happening amounts to hypocrisy of the ethos behind the programme.
In the Dáil the Minister of State indicated that the Mitchell scholarship programme tied in well with the objectives of the strategic review of Ireland-US relations and that we had to work proactively to maintain the US authorities' interest in and links with Ireland. A lackadaisical approach to funding will not work towards strengthening relations between our two countries. A proactive approach is required and the US-Ireland Alliance recommends that an endowment level substantial enough to withstand the turbulence of the economic market must be created.
The aim of the Bill is to create an amended legal framework that can achieve, with the necessary safeguards and oversight, the long-term viability of the fund. This is essential, particularly in view of the substantial increase in funding envisaged in the Bill. In 2008 alone $27,740 was spent on investment adviser fees. While I accept that this may represent a normal 1.5% fee, investment advisers must be given clear guidelines on the financial goals of the fund in order that for which the latter is intended will be achieved.
The Government included a provision of €2 million in the Estimates for 2010 for the fund. This is dependent on matching funds - the level of which now stands at €1.5 million - being made available by the US-Ireland Alliance. In the event that the alliance is not in a position to provide such matching funds, it follows that the Government will not make its contribution. Is this a wise course of action, particularly in the light of the incredible benefits that arise in the context of good US-Irish relations in many fields and the spin-off the programme can give to Ireland if its potential is maximised?
When speaking in the Dáil, the Minister for State noted that the strategic review of Irish-US relations launched in 2009 had highlighted that 10 million Americans under the age of 18 years were interested in Ireland, despite the fact that they were not of Irish descent. That is extremely interesting. How was this information established and from what sources did the young people to whom I refer develop an interest in Ireland? There is no doubt that some or many of these young people might have an opportunity to study in Ireland. If they do, they will come to recognise the US contribution to Ireland and its evolving history. More importantly, they will develop networks, based on their experiences here, that will be of use in their future careers. It must be remembered that the money from the fund will be spent in Ireland. This is, therefore, an issue on which the Government cannot lose.
Has an evaluation been carried out of the experiences of the 117 people who have engaged in studies in this country as a result of being awarded Mitchell scholarships? Has information been obtained on what they proceeded to do on completion of their studies and whether they have retained links with Ireland? If they have retained such links, what is the nature thereof? This is a matter in which I am particularly interested.
The Minister of State has indicated that the Government intends to establish Ireland as a centre of excellence for international education. I completely concur with this intention. I raised a number of matters on the Adjournment in the past year in which I highlighted the major potential but which was not being exploited. The Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform appears to be placing barriers in the way of international students who wish to come here to pursue courses.
I am extremely concerned about the fact that Enterprise Ireland is to be given responsibility for promoting and marketing Irish education. Is that a wise move? Will the Minister of State, please, clarify what will be the role of Enterprise Ireland in promoting Irish education abroad? Does it possess the necessary expertise and is it best placed to engage in such promotion? I have my doubts in that regard. Will the Minister of State indicate what is the link between education and enterprise in order that we can be confident that the potential might be maximised?
Education is a global business. The job of marketing Irish education should reflect every aspect of life and include the arts and culture, as well as business. Pure business is sometimes seen as the only means of attracting or creating employment. A group which is doing great work in this area is the Western Development Commission which is examining the potential of the arts and culture in what are known as the creative industries. Has the George Mitchell scholarship fund, through the US-Ireland Alliance, linked with the Western Development Commission to explore its definitions of education, culture and creativity and how focusing on these areas can lead to the creation of jobs?
The scholarship fund is of long-term significance and can give rise to many possibilities. Higher education is a global business. I had an extremely positive experience while studying in the United Stated and developed many links - based both on friendship and education - with that country. Studying in another country gives rise to memories and experiences one will never forget. Mitchell scholarships allow us to offer young US citizens the means to study here and ultimately become Irish ambassadors abroad. What a great return this gives us on our investment. The scholarships can help to make Ireland an iconic brand at a time when we are striving to build on the country's good name abroad. This must be a policy objective in the coming years.
As well as focusing on business development and attracting economics graduates from the United States, we must also explore the huge potential offered by culture and the arts. Deputies Deenihan and Quinn referred to this matter during the debate on the Bill in the Dáil. As Deputy Quinn stated, we need only consider the recent nominations for Academy Awards received by graduates from Ballyfermot College as an example of what can be achieved.
Let us work to our strengths, while also expanding our understanding of these strengths. Much more could be done to exploit the potential of the scholarship fund. However, we need a plan to achieve it. I compliment the work of Trina Vargo and I encourage her to expand further the boundaries of this plan.
I will finish with a number of questions for the Minister of State. I was going to ask whether the scholarships continued to be awarded when the Irish Government was not contributing but I understand they did. However, I did not like that the Irish Government was not contributing at that point. How many additional scholars will come to Ireland through the additional funding? What percentage of the money committed by the Irish Government goes to administration? This is always a concern.
Has the Department of Education and Science been in consultation with the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform about the extraordinary number of international students prevented from studying here, which is well documented, and about resolving the issue of barriers, which is even more important? If we want to pursue the idea of promoting Ireland as a centre for international educational excellence we need to resolve the issue of these barriers.
Will the Department of Education and Science put a means in place to attract and facilitate US universities and colleges that want to spend money in this country? I understand from listening to Deputy John Deasy's contribution in the Dáil that there are extraordinary difficulties and barriers in some cases where a US college or university does not have links with an Irish college. We should always look to be more open while being vigilant. I look forward to hearing the response of the Minister of State.
I am very interested in contributing to this debate. I am more fascinated because of where I came from this morning, which was the British Irish Interparliamentary Assembly meeting in Cavan. The speakers there included the Governor of the Central Bank, the Taoiseach, Fachtna Murphy of the Garda Síochána, Matt Baggott of the PSNI and Declan Kelly, US special economic envoy to the North. It shows how central east-west North-South is and also the vital US influence. Today, I spoke to Declan Kelly about issues such as the future of education, opportunities for job creation in the education sector and the chance to have a university in the north-west region which would straddle the Border and create new opportunities for students where other campuses have reached capacity. This conversation was separate from the Bill before the House.
I have received e-mails which state how dare the Irish Government invest €20 million in this when we are so stuck for money in other areas. It is like arguing that money should not be invested in hospitals because the roads are bad. One can never do the right thing by some people. I believe that an investment fund which ensures the brightest and best of the US student cohort has an opportunity to come here can pay dividends. We cannot merely provide the fund, select students, have them come here and then let them disappear. I agree with Senator Healy Eames that there must be a fair level of follow-up to establish what they got out of it and what we can get out of it afterwards. Anybody investing in something wants to ensure their investment has a return. Sometimes that can sound very harsh when one is speaking about people but we have to evaluate it as we go along. I do not agree the endowment people would necessarily be looking for a bad investment. Anybody in the job of providing the best advice on investments will do their best. Doctors differ and patients die and unfortunately, in the economic climate we are in, economists are caught in the same way with their knowledge or lack of knowledge.
I commend the work of the US-Ireland Alliance which, in conjunction with the Irish Government, established the George Mitchell scholarship programme. The work done by the organisation is essential to strengthening existing relations between the United States and Ireland, both North and South, and continuing to sustain that relationship for the future. The US-Ireland Alliance founded the scholarship to educate future US leaders about the island of Ireland and to provide them with an understanding about, an interest in and, most importantly, an affinity with the island from which 38 million people in the United States claim descent. I was fascinated by the concept that in a strategic review so many people under the age of 18 stated they had a relationship with Ireland and I want to return to this point.
George Mitchell once stated:
Wherever you go in life, you'll be part of a society... Be active in that society. Do something in and with your life.
Senator Mitchell's words embody the nature of his character. Throughout his career he brought about great changes. He has taken significant actions throughout his career, which have made great changes to the island of Ireland. Having met him and having attended the George Mitchell conference in Belfast a couple of years ago where the guest speaker was Desmond Tutu, I can state he has the capacity to draw the best of people around him. He must also have the patience of a saint when one considers the number of negotiations he chaired through the very difficult days of the 1990s.
George Mitchell was active in the Northern Ireland peace process from 1995 as the United States special envoy for Northern Ireland. He first led a commission that established the principles on non-violence to which all parties in Northern Ireland had to adhere and subsequently chaired the all-party peace negotiations, which led to the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. George Mitchell's personal intervention with the parties was crucial to the success of the talks. What has been established is crucial to ensuring that we continue to have intervention at US Irish level. Senator Mitchell won admiration from across the political divide in the North for his work to boost the peace process. He received almost unanimous praise for his skill and patience in chairing the talks.
This Bill and the increased allocation of funding further emphasise the Government's appreciation for the key role Senator Mitchell played in the Northern Ireland peace process. The George Mitchell scholarship is designed to introduce and connect generations of future US leaders to the island of Ireland, while recognising and fostering intellectual achievement, leadership and a commitment to public service and community. The scholarship actively promotes the spirit of community between and among the scholars and the communities in which they live and study and between the scholars and the island of Ireland long after the programme had ended. I have also participated in some of the Harvard leadership programmes and even though it might be for only a week or ten days on a couple of occasions, studying somewhere else or engaging with another college and other professors and academics is very stimulating.
The programme endeavours to connect the next generation of US leadership with the island of Ireland. It allows students with both a high standard of academic achievement and a deep sense of civic pride to further their education and deepen their understanding of Ireland and the world. Senator Mitchell's life and career represent a profound commitment to public service and to community, integrity, leadership, justice and fairness. Those taking part in the scholarship programme embody all of those characteristics and have the potential to lead lives that see and bring about great change.
As other speakers mentioned, since its establishment 117 students have come to Ireland under the programme. Approximately 300 applications for the scholarship are made each year with 70 US universities being visited by representatives from the US-Ireland Alliance detailing what the scholarship and studying in Ireland can offer. The fact that 300 applicants apply for one of 12 scholarships each year clearly advocates the value and significance of the scholarship. The Mitchell scholarship has already established itself as one of the most selective fellowships available. What do we do to ensure the other 288 people pursue coming here anyway, without the facility of the scholarship? Have we assessed increasing the number of people participating?
As outlined by the Minister of State, Deputy Seán Haughey, in the Dáil last Thursday, from a strategic point of view this programme achieves significant economic and social outcomes. Sceptics will question that but people come here to study and experience the country. Scholarship students are encouraged to travel throughout the island of Ireland to gain knowledge and experience. Their family members often come to visit them, thereby bringing money to the Exchequer through their expenditure in hotels and restaurants. This money is particularly beneficial to rural areas, which welcome visits by tourists of every nationality.
Graduates of the programme are close friends of Ireland and build upon their positive experience to develop a strong affinity for our country and become advocates and agents for good relationships among future generations. The scholarship develops and preserves our links with the US. Many of those who participate on programmes go on to occupy positions of significant influence in business, politics and other areas. Creating links with these scholars will greatly benefit Ireland in the future.
In terms of the time spent in our universities and centres of higher education, Mitchell scholars add greatly to the day-to-day activity of classes and offer opportunities for exchanging new ideas and different ways of thinking. In addition to the direct financial benefits, these scholars bring great benefits to our knowledge economy and links with America. It is imperative that we work to sustain our strong relationship with America. The George Mitchell scholarship allows for the fruition and sustained growth of such a relationship. Scholars who complete the programme become ambassadors for this country.
I ask the Minister of State to consider the involvement of institutes of technology in the programme. As it stands, Mitchell scholars may study or conduct research at universities and institutes of higher learning in both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, not including institutes of technology.
There are 13 institutes of technology in Ireland. The degrees they award are integrated with the highest levels of the National Qualification Authority of Ireland, which in turn is aligned to the Bologna framework. They are to the forefront in ensuring that Ireland's modern economy has the requisite array of leading edge skills demanded by our knowledge based industries. The institutes provide programmes that reflect current and emerging fields and promote self-management, critical analysis, decision making and entrepreneurship. For example, Letterkenny Institute of Technology has established incubation units for new businesses. They foster graduates who are ready to undertake responsibilities and challenges in business, industry, the professions, public services and society.
I asked Declan Kelly why he is so positive about the potential for American investment in the North, which is a competitive region with a skilled workforce. As someone who lives north of the North, it was my understanding that people tried to leave the North when they reached a certain age. They went to college anywhere but in the North and even those who stayed left for good once they received their qualifications. Mr. Kelly advised me that the statistics are changing because graduates are now staying at home. He was about to leave for a meeting in Queens University Belfast, at which his key message was going to be that the students of that university are the entrepreneurs of the future. He believed that if they moved elsewhere they would do a disservice to their own areas because now is the time to stay at home to drive the local economy. He estimated that 66,000 businesses in the North employ fewer than 20 employees. That indicates a strong entrepreneurial spirit. He also noted that creating a job in the North costs £20, compared to £320 somewhere else. It is important that we maintain our links with America because people like Declan Kelly and George Mitchell were sent from the highest levels of the American Government to drive the agenda and their success is our success. George Mitchell's efforts on the Good Friday Agreement have benefited all of us.
I remind those who would begrudge the money invested in the Mitchell scholarship fund that it is one part of a jigsaw. I agree with the idea of following through by learning what we are doing well. We should not simply clap ourselves on the back for this scholarship because we constantly have to seek better outcomes and modernise to meet the needs of our economy and international relations. I endorse the Bill and wish the students who come to engage with Ireland well.
I welcome the Minister of State for this positive debate. The absence of discord is noticeable. Every contributor has spoken in support of the Bill, which represents a most positive development. I salute a great friend of Ireland, Trina Vargo, who is known to many of us in this House. She has worked tirelessly and honestly for the cause of Ireland. I have always been struck by her ability to call it as she sees it. We have learned a great deal from her trenchant contributions and I greatly value what she has done for Irish life. She was the senior foreign policy adviser to the late Ted Kennedy. I have great reverence for Mr. Kennedy, as I do for US Senator George Mitchell, in whose name these scholarships were founded.
Today is an appropriate day for this debate because we are all shocked by the news that a tiny splinter group, which is unrepresentative of the Irish people in every way, arrogantly and impertinently chose to attack the population of Newry. I deplore that attack.
It is by educational means, such as this scholarship, that we will continue to secure significant friendships in the United States of America. This is especially important in light of the changing political demographics in that country as the great generation of senior Irish-American politicians moves to one side so that their position at the centre of American life can be taken over by people from a variety of backgrounds.
This Bill amends the George Mitchell Scholarship Fund Act 1998, which was introduced after the formation of the US-Ireland Alliance by Trina Vargo. In introducing the Bill in December 1998, the then Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Martin, stated: "It is a great pleasure to introduce a Bill that marks an historic development in relations between the two traditions on this island and between Ireland and the United States." He went on to speak about George Mitchell and drew the inevitable comparison with the Rhodes scholarship to Oxford University. It is significant that a number of bright individuals in the American academic system chose to apply for the Mitchell scholarship over the Rhodes scholarship. However, even at the end of the ten year period over which the Irish Government will contribute €20 million, Mitchell will remain the junior scholarship to Rhodes in financial, although not intellectual, terms because the latter is funded by an investment of $200 million. That gives an idea of the scale of the disparity in investment and the extraordinary value we get from the fund in this country.
It is appropriate that the scholarship is named after Senator Mitchell, not just for his work in the peace process but also because of his background. His mother was an immigrant from the Lebanon, while his father was an immigrant from Ireland. They were both almost unlettered people, certainly people of no social status, but it is thanks to their hard work and the opportunities that the United States afforded to such people that Senator Mitchell was able to proudly say he had made it to being majority leader in the United States Senate from that background. That is the America we all respect, admire and love. Some of us have had differences with American foreign policy, but that is the America that has given greatness to the world.
Currently, the tenth class of Mitchell scholars are studying in universities. They receive approximately $12,000 a year. Their tuition fees, flights and accommodation are supplied free of charge and the bursary covers living expenses. They do not have to be Irish-American. The selection committee is just looking for academic excellence. It is a mark of the esteem in which this scholarship is held by the Governments of this country and the United States that they co-operate on it and that one of the leading members of the committee is His Excellency, the United States ambassador to Ireland.
The scholarship has a very high reputation, not just in Ireland but also in the United States of America. The fund was initially granted seed money of €2.7 million in 1998 by the Government. That was met with gratitude by the US-Ireland Alliance. The money was invested professionally but then the fund was hit by the technology crash that affected all of the sophisticated industries in Silicon Valley. We were affected by it in this country also. I do not think there is a suggestion of maladministration or bad governance. It was simply a fact of life. Ms Vargo and her colleagues worked hard to restore the fund to its original level again because the Government prudently put a brake on the disbursement of funds until the initial capital was restored. Ms Vargo managed to do this just at the point when we were hit by the latest global financial difficulty. For that reason, I commend the Government on its vision in committing itself directly straightaway to the provision of €2 million and €20 million in the next ten years. It is vital for this country that we have friends well placed in a powerful country such as the United States, especially those who are not part of our own tribal group but people of intelligence and perception who will understand the situation we are facing and assist us in dealing with it.
When the Bill was being discussed in the other House, I noted the concern expressed in the contributions of some Labour Party Members. They were worried that certain geographical sections of the country appeared to be excluded such as the north east because of the way in which the receiving universities had been scheduled. I ask the Minister of State to indicate whether these concerns were addressed. I hope Waterford Institute of Technology, for example, and other such institutions will also be included.
I am struck by the fact that among the very generous benefactors is Bernard McNamara, a building developer who has come in for a lot of stick. I thought he made an extraordinarily dignified presentation with courage and integrity when he spoke on radio. It is a mark of the man that he should have contributed generously to the scheme.
I very much welcome the Bill and pay tribute to the work of the Government. I had discussions with the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe, and we exchanged some views. I am pleased to say that, with other colleagues, we managed to advance its cause. It is something that is very positive in the annals of the relationship between the United States of Ireland - I beg the Leas-Chathaoirleach's pardon - the United States of America and Ireland. We have a little longer to wait before this will be the United States of Ireland, something I am sure my good colleague, Senator Quinn, would also welcome.
I thank Senator Norris for being willing to share his time with me.
I have been interested in and enthused by the George Mitchell scholarship fund ever since it was created in 1998. When that Bill had passed through the Dáil, I realised that in the small print it was indicated that the money was only to be used for studying in this country, the Twenty-six Counties. At the time I brought the matter to the attention of the Minister who told me that he would check with the Attorney General. On Committee Stage he said he could not do anything about the matter, that the money could not be used in the North. I thought that was outrageous.
How could we bring a team from America and then tell them they could not cross the Border or they would not be covered? I am pleased to say the Minister accepted my amendment on Report Stage and the Bill achieved what it set out to do.
I have been enthusiastic about the success of the fund. I have met the students who come here practically every year and have been impressed by their commitment and what they are attempting to do. My question is whether there are alternatives to providing €20 million now. I read a transcript of the debate last week in the Dáil and was disappointed at the lack of discussion or proper examination of the Bill. We can all extol the virtues of the Irish-American relationship and congratulate ourselves on our efforts but the fact is that the situation has changed. I do not think we have €20 million now. I accept that the money is to be spent over five years and that we promised in 2007 to fund the programme. We have since had Mr. Colm McCarthy's an bord snip. We have also had a budget and cutbacks. We have endured a huge amount of pain in many areas, including education, and there are much more pressing and worthwhile causes, on which the money could be spent. I, therefore, question whether at this stage we are wise to spend €20 million on this programme, although it was correct to invest in it when the fund was created.
One would get the impression from both the Government side and Fine Gael that cutting the funding would almost lead to disintegration and cause a collapse in Irish-American relations. That is a fallacy. The Government has some important questions to answer about the George Mitchell scholarship fund at this stage. That is a reversal of my position when the fund was created and in more recent years. The Government has put abroad the message that somehow Irish influence in the United States is waning and that we need to support schemes such as the George Mitchell scholarship fund if we are to maintain that relationship. The US-Ireland Alliance is enthusiastic about the fund. It has an obvious reason for perpetuating the message that there is a danger that Ireland's relationship with the United States is waning. It is simply not true. There is a brand new generation of Irish-American politicians such as Governor Martin O'Malley of Maryland who many believe will be a future presidential candidate. There are also Congressman Joe Crowley, a possible future Speaker, and Congressman Mike Pence, a Republican and also a possible future Speaker who will ensure there will always be an Irish power base on Capitol Hill. One only has to look at organisations such as the Irish-American Democrats and the Irish-American Republicans to see that they are thriving. I am a little concerned, therefore, at the suggestion that we have to do this or otherwise we will lose the strong link we have with the Americans, especially politicians there.
Given what I have outlined, I wonder whether we should reconsider taking this step. We could do so on a cross-party basis, involving the Independents as well as Fine Gael, the Labour Party, Sinn Féin and the Green Party, as well as those Members of Fianna Fáil who must have serious reservations about spending €20 million now when there are cutbacks in so many areas, including education. I accept that represents a sum of €4 million a year over five years. Perhaps we should reconsider the Bill or delay its implementation. That would be a logical conclusion, as I remain to be convinced that we should give away a massive amount of money in the current circumstances because we do not have it at present. Given our economic circumstances, it will be difficult to explain this Bill. In business, one examines results and the bottom line and I am sceptical about whether the fund has delivered the tangible results promised at the beginning. If even it was a good, worthwhile programme, which must be questionable, Ireland can make better use of €20 million over five years than giving it to students at a time of widespread education cutbacks, including for those with special needs, which we will debate tomorrow.
Circumstances have changed over the past two years. There were initiatives we could afford and I was happy to support them but when I consider the amount of pain we have had to take and the number of cutbacks that have been undertaken, I must question, in particular, following cutbacks affecting those most in need, including in the education sector, whether it is wise to spend €20 million on inviting Americans who will have a powerful voice in years to come to study here and whether this is the best use that can be achieved with this money. How easy will this be to explain to children with special needs whom we will discuss tomorrow?
I welcome the Minister of State and I am glad to have the opportunity to contribute. All speakers are singing the same tune, which is that this is very much a worthwhile Bill that amends the 1998 Act. The original legislation recognised the significant contribution made by former US Senator, George Mitchell, to the Northern Ireland peace process. Many North-South initiatives have been implemented and I am glad this initiative relates to projecting education on an all-Ireland basis. The role of the late Ted Kennedy and his family in projecting this concept onto the Irish front must also be acknowledged.
The Bill provides for the Government to set aside €20 million to provide for the creation of a scholarship to fund US students to pursue a postgraduate year of study or research in Irish universities and institutions, both North and South, which is welcome, including universities in Galway, Maynooth, Belfast, Dublin and the University of Ulster. The Waterford Institute of Technology, which has a significant involvement in research and development in the science and technology fields, was referred to. I am surprised it is not included in the list of Irish institutions. Perhaps it should be because it has a link with a major technological college in Massachusetts and aims to create links with other third level colleges in the US.
I compliment Trina Vargo who took charge of the scholarship fund through the US-Ireland Alliance. The intention was to award 12 Americans aged between 18 and 30 a scholarship annually to pursue a year of study. Other funding was provided by the British Government and through sponsorship and contributions received by the alliance, including from the US Government. It was agreed by our Government in 2007 to amend the legislation to secure the long-term viability of the fund. According to the Minister of State, nothing happened between 2002 and 2007. Why was that the case? Did the enthusiasm for the scholarship programme wane? We kept the concept moving and became visionary about it but the Government had to pursue America for matching funding. I am worried about putting €20 million into a fund for a period of years to keep the programme going but the money should be used fruitfully.
The website of the US-Ireland Alliance states:
We look for persuasive, documented evidence of significant achievement in three areas: scholarship, leadership, and commitment to community and service. All three areas are important. Some applicants have impressive academic credentials but lack a credible record of accomplishment[.]
It also states leadership and community service are significant criteria. We had the George Lee episode in recent weeks.
He had expertise but he did not have the commitment or the people skills. I am worried that students will be selected solely on the basis of their academic performance because many of them do not have organic connectivity with the world around them. It would worry me greatly that the scholarships would be given to academic high achievers because that is not enough. When the original programme was set up, George Mitchell said:
Wherever you go in life, you will be part of society, be it a neighbourhood, be it a community, be it a state or our great nation but you must be active in that society. Do something in and with your life.
The scholarship is about more than academic achievement. Academic achievement will not result in understanding what public service should be all about. Our money should be spent on US students who will provide public service. What will they do after completing their year of study in Ireland? When they return, what will they do with their lifestyles? I want to ensure our money is used for public service, creating links between Ireland and the US in our education institutions and improving our relationship through the courses that can be provided in both jurisdictions for students.
While I welcome the concept of the scholarship and we must honour George Mitchell's contribution, the fund should copperfasten education links between Ireland and the US which will result in a commitment to public service and leadership by both countries. That is what I want the scholarship to be about. I want our money over the next period to be used to ensure the programme has long-term viability. I worry about this and I want the Minister to ensure the body running the programme, whether it is the US-Ireland Alliance or not, will utilise its postgraduate programmes to provide a commitment to public service and leadership in both countries and to strengthen the bond between the two countries.
I am glad to have the opportunity to contribute. I concur with my colleague, Senator Healy Eames, in supporting the Bill. Senator Quinn's contribution was interesting in that he went down a road I had not expected him to travel by questioning the value for money provided by the programme. He also asked whether at a time of economic despair the country can afford to spend €20 million on such a programme. However, the answer must be "Yes". One must consider the broader picture, both from the perspective that €20 million is not a huge sum in the context of the State's entire budget and because we must continue to make certain statements concerning our relationships with the United States and Northern Ireland, as well as regarding our recognition of those who have helped progress in this island over the past decade or so, one such person being George Mitchell. I appreciated Senator Quinn's comments as he questioned the expenditure of €20 million on a day when Members learned of further stress, strife and future difficulties in the education sector. However, every cent and euro that any Department might decide to allocate can be questioned and one always can find alternative ways to spend particular moneys. The question before Members is whether they wish to keep in place this programme, whether they can discern potential future value stemming from it and if so, whether they are willing to put their money where their mouths are. Consequently, I support the Bill.
This is a relatively modest stipend which will be necessary if the programme is to work. Senator Quinn also made the point that as a businessman, he considers the bottom line to ascertain whether it has worked to date. As it has been up and running for a decade or so, it probably is too soon to judge. Who knows what will be the input into Irish-American affairs, business links, commerce and job creation of the young people who have participated in the programme to date or who will do so over the next decade or so? It will take a long time before one can judge the so-called value for money question. The value for money question that I pose and which already has been raised by Senator Healy Eames relates to the management of the fund. It pertains to getting maximum value and so doing in a fashion whereby the initial investment is not put at risk. The entire world has changed, not simply within the past decade but in recent years. At the time of the fund's establishment and during its early years, fund managers generally were perceived as being almost godlike financial figures who could never get an answer wrong. It now appears as though most of them are unable to get an answer right and caution is required. Members must try to ensure the taxpayers' investment is managed cautiously. One recalls the financial and bank advertisements about cautious and aggressive funds and how people who took the cautious route were deemed somehow to be second-class citizens. However, those are the people who today at least are in possession of their own finances. Perhaps this is a matter which can be teased out on Committee Stage but Members must ensure, in so far as is possible, that this money is managed cautiously and conservatively.
I hope continued funding of the scheme will ensure the scholarship programme's continued operation. This issue relates to retaining a strong link between Ireland and the United States. I again listened with interest to Senator Quinn highlighting the point that other strong links exist. While this may be the case, one can no longer expect that Irish-United States relations will continue along the lines which obtained over the past two centuries because of the great competition that now exists for influence, investment and political advantage. As for the so-called 40 million people who declare themselves to be Irish-American of whom one reads, I am sure that when they voted in the presidential election of November 2008, neither Irish-American issues nor the question of which presidential candidate was best for Ireland was at the top of their agenda. Instead, they focused on domestic matters and issues. Many people who wave the Irish-American flag also have links with others such as the Italian, Greek, South American and Hispanic communities. The continent of North America including the United States comprises a highly complex jigsaw with many interwoven links and influence is not as easily obtained or kept today as it may have been 100 years ago. Consequently, we must take every possible advantage and try to strengthen it. On foot of this scholarship programme, over a decade or two a number of young people will have lived, worked and studied in Ireland and will have been influenced to a degree by Irishness, Irish culture and the Irish community. They will take this back with them, which cannot but be of advantage to this country.
Finally, it is important to retain the Mitchell programme as a political monument to Senator Mitchell in recognition of the tremendous work he has done. Members debated the issue of Northern Ireland last week and welcomed the most recent progress. They recognised and welcomed how it has changed as a place and as a political project over the past 20 years. This would not have happened without the input of a significant number of people such as Senator George Mitchell. This programme is a testament to his work and should be kept in place.
I have no additional wisdom to bring to bear except to note the name of George Mitchell resonates with everyone. All decent people in Ireland, North and South, owe him an enormous debt. He was a fantastic man who was greatly involved in the peace process and sometimes people in Ireland are quick to forget those who have been of best use and value to them. I would be loath to be in favour of anything that would cast aspersions on the personality and contribution made by Senator George Mitchell. I believe Senator Norris has referred to his background as the son of immigrant parents. The silver spoon did not feature in his life and it is a great testament to America that he was able to rise to the levels he attained. When he was asked by Bill Clinton to involve himself in the North, he gave it 100%. He undoubtedly must have the patience of Job, as well as the requisite ability, prudence and tenacity. At a crucial stage during the peace process when matters had been dragging on for a long time, he eventually gave both sides a terminal date. As he meant it, it acted as a major wake-up call and he quickly brought people around. As recently as this morning, Members learned of the huge bomb that was planned to cause as much damage as possible in Newry. Consequently, they should not for a minute take for granted that the position in Northern Ireland is close to normality. All the small bits and pieces that have helped to pull together the two sides and to create normal politics are important and this scholarship constitutes one such building block. As such it is important and must be protected and retained and, where possible, enhanced.
The tradition of scholarships goes back to the ancient Greeks and Romans and is an honourable way to honour someone and to create value in society. While I am unsure how long this programme has been in operation, I am sure each participant has gained personally and has been enriched by the experience of coming to study in Ireland. Moreover, I am sure they have brought back to their peers a good account of Ireland. This is a two-way process and long may it continue. Obviously, there is some form of financial spin-off for Ireland in that it increases inward investment from the people who come to stay here, and their families, as a result of the increased involvement the scholarship has created. Naturally, given the times in which we find ourselves, one must seek value for money in everything. I can sympathise with those who ask whether this programme can be afforded at present. Although we probably cannot afford it, nevertheless I believe it must be a priority.
I was disappointed by an e-mail I received before I entered the Chamber. It detained me, which is the reason I am out of breath. It was from a fairly notable Irish American who seemed to be casting aspersions on some of the people involved in the scholarship's administration in the US. This is a red herring, as the important issue is the scholarship's value. I do not have enough information about those who administer it to make a comment, benign or otherwise. The Government will take every step to ensure that, when giving a sum of this enormity, even one that will be phased over a number of years, it will be properly administered and that the right type of people will be able to avail of it. I would like to see people from poor backgrounds in particular getting access to these scholarships. Just as Senator George Mitchell came up the hard way, I would like to see young people from disadvantaged homes and backgrounds getting preference in the selection process.
I have a number of ideas to broaden the scholarship. Clearly, third level institutions constitute the obvious vehicle for utilising the scholarships. Some of the scholars in question have been interns in Leinster House for those of us lucky enough to get them. I have not yet been that fortunate and I am not holding my breath. Perhaps we should consider it separately from the academic element.
I hope to be back. The Cathaoirleach will be familiar with a scheme operating among local authorities, namely, writers in residence whereby a noted writer would spend six months or so in a county town like Tralee. Having a Mitchell scholar in residence around rural counties might be a nice idea, as this would give them broader access away from university towns and cities. There might be a role for them.
Senator Healy Eames is involved in an arts festival in Galway. Perhaps some of the scholars in question could be seconded to festivals such as that, writers' week in Listowel and so on. They would gain practical as well as academic experience. It is a good news story.
Seán Haughey (Minister of State, Department of Education and Science; Minister of State, Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment; Dublin North Central, Fianna Fail)
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I thank Senators for their contributions in this constructive debate. They have rightly raised a number of questions regarding the Bill's aims and objectives and how to proceed. I will endeavour to deal with their questions as best I can.
I was asked how many additional scholars will come to Ireland as a result of this legislation. I want to be clear, in that it is not proposed that any additional scholars will come to Ireland as a result of the funding. Rather, the fund will be used to ensure the viability of the scheme. That it is limited to approximately 12 scholars gives the scholarship additional prestige, which we all agree is important.
I was asked about the percentage of expenditure going towards administration. Information is available in the annual accounts, which are laid before each House of the Oireachtas. The amounts range from a high of $119,681 in 2001 to a low of $4,580 in 2004.
A number of Senators, including Senator Healy Eames, asked about the evaluation of the experiences of the 117 participating students. Ongoing evaluation is conducted by the alliance and virtually all of the information is available on its website. I understand the alliance operates extensive tracking of the Mitchell scholars in this regard.
Senator Healy Eames also queried the funding methodology, namely, whether the Government matching funds raised by the alliance from other sources is the best arrangement. This decision was taken in 2007 and agreed with the alliance. The detailed agreement negotiated since then and this Bill will implement that decision.
Senators Ormonde and Keaveney asked about the institutes of technology and suggested they should be eligible. The Senators will be pleased to know the institutes are eligible under existing legislation, an arrangement that will continue under the current agreement.
A number of Senators raised the question of the internationalisation of education, particularly in respect of the roles of Enterprise Ireland. Given its marketing role, Senator Healy Eames will be aware that the Government decided not to proceed with the establishment of Education Ireland because of concerns about the growth in the number of State bodies. Instead, the Minister for Education and Science produced a new framework for the promotion of Ireland as a centre of international education. As part of this, a high-level group has been established. It comprises representatives from a number of relevant Departments, State bodies and stakeholders. The Minister has asked the group to prepare an action plan by this summer on enhanced performance by Ireland in the international education sector. The action plan will be focused and practical and will address issues such as strategic direction, quality, the needs of students, priority markets, system capacity, branding and marketing issues and Ireland's overall competitiveness in this area.
Senator Healy Eames also mentioned the barriers erected by the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform to international students coming to Ireland. That the high-level group has a representative from that Department is important, as is the Department of Education and Science's representation on a Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform group examining issues relating to student immigration. These aspects should help to address problems of which we are all aware.
Clarification was sought concerning another matter. To date, the Government has made one payment of £20 million.
Seán Haughey (Minister of State, Department of Education and Science; Minister of State, Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment; Dublin North Central, Fianna Fail)
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Questions were asked about investment advice fees. According to our information, the alliance secured the best advice available regarding its investment of Government funds. An examination carried out by the Department some years ago showed that the returns received were as good as those achieved by a number of pension funds. It must be acknowledged that the reduction in the fund's nominal value was due to the poor investment climate that affected funds generally. All of us would accept this as being the case.
Senator Quinn put the cat among the pigeons, if I may say so, and questioned the wisdom of providing in the legislation for €20 million over five years, given the current fiscal constraints. I recognise his concern in this regard. However, in the present climate it is likely the expenditure will be spread over a longer period then five years. Our commitment is to match the funding to be raised by the US-Ireland Alliance, up to a limit of €20 million and subject to a cap of €4 million in any one year. I emphasise that this is a strategic investment and that there will be a direct financial benefit to the Irish economy. In addition, we expect that the scholars' period of study in Ireland will create an enduring legacy of goodwill towards Ireland and be of significant benefit in the future.
Ms Trina Vargo has indicated on a number of occasions that the Mitchell scholarship scheme has heightened the profile of Irish higher education in the United States. This has, in turn, attracted US students, who might otherwise have chosen another destination, to come to study in Ireland. There have been instances of students who failed to secure a Mitchell scholarship but still decided to come to Ireland to study at their own expense. That is significant.
Senator Norris mentioned the geographical imbalance between the North and South of Ireland. All third level institutions, both universities and ITs, in the Republic and in Northern Ireland are included. There is also the aspect of the students' choice of what college they wish to attend. It is the students who decide which college they wish to attend. Other Senators also made reference to that question.
We have had a good discussion. I welcome the broad support for the Bill. I associate myself with the remarks of a number of Senators with regard to the changing nature of the relationship between Ireland and the United States. Senator Healy-Eames opened her contribution in that vein. We all recognise that the nature of the relationship has changed. That has been clearly set out in the document, Ireland and America: Challenges and Opportunities in a New Context, which was published in 2009.
I also wish to be associated with the words of encouragement and support for Ms Trina Vargo and Senator George Mitchell and for the role played by the late Senator Edward Kennedy in relations between the United States and Ireland.