In Defense of FAS

FAS is the Irish government agency charged with training and hiring workers for the Irish economy.

Part of their strategy in recent years has been to create opportunities abroad for Irish students to study, as well as hold job fairs to stimulate interest for exiles and others to come back and work in the Irish economy.

There has been a recent slew of allegations against the agency about overspending on their mission, especially on trips to the U.S.

At the heart of it are allegations against Mary Harney, a key minister in the Irish government who was allegedly involved in many of the worst excesses of spending.

At a time of major belt tightening, the story of FAS and government ministers running amok around America created a media firestorm in Ireland.

Director general Rody Molloy resigned last week after the media frenzy. Undoubtedly there was much excess and padding of expense accounts, but on balance, throwing the baby out with the bathwater is not a good idea.

Indeed, Molloy and his staff may have gotten a bum rap.

In my 30 years in America I have seen many kinds of junkets, from government ministers to trade delegations to local representatives. Most accomplished absolutely nothing.

FAS, on the other hand, appeared to achieve quite a lot, or got a great bang for the buck as they say.

A few years back I went to Houston on a FAS sponsored trip for journalists. It was one of the best trips I have taken in America. Our destination was the Space Center there, as well as Rice University to interview Irish students who were developing quite incredible scientific skills at the home of cutting edge technology.

Also on the trip was junior minister Tony Killeen, who had responsibility for science and technology.

While in Houston I met several senior NASA officials, including the head of their space program, all of who impressed on me that the caliber of young students from Ireland was tremendous. FAS had placed them all there.

Speaking to those young Irish people, they were indeed deeply impressive and intent on bringing their scientific skills back home.

The absolute highlight for me was a trip around the actual space shuttle that astronauts trained on, and a visit to their mock up of the international space station.

I remember at the time there was talk of a possible Irish astronaut who could take part in a future space mission, an event that would surely have fired the imagination of a nation.

In addition, I met astronaut Eileen Collins, who had been the first female commander of a shuttle mission. Since then Collins has made herself available on many occasions to Irish causes, and has visited Ireland at the invitation of FAS to teach young school children about the mysteries of space.

There was also the beginning of an Irish colony in Houston at the time. A key figure was Sligo man Professor Denis Headon, a leading figure at Rice University who was intent on creating an organization called Biolink which would link leading scientific figures in America and Ireland.

That organization now exists and plays a valuable role. FAS played a major part in its birth.

I came away from Houston with a real admiration for FAS and what the organization was achieving, seeding leading American universities with Irish students who could bring all that knowledge back to Ireland.

In 2006 FAS ran an employment fair for Americans in New York who wanted to work in Ireland (those were the days.) Over 6,000 attended over two days, and the lines to get in stretched several blocks around the hotel.

The New York Times featured it on the front page. It was one of the greatest advertisements for Ireland Inc. ever. So when you read about the downfall of Molloy both in Irish newspapers and this week's Irish Voice, remember he did the state some service, as did the dedicated employees I met.

Many others have done far less.

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