The Mitchell scholarship programme, established in honor of George Mitchell’s role in the Northern Ireland peace process, is in jeopardy as the United States Government has pulled funding.
The US Embassy confirmed that they would not be providing funding for the project this year or next.
The development comes as the controversial Executive Director of the scholarships Trina Vargo has caused deep issues with Irish Americans over her repeated negative comments about them, often published in the Irish media.
She likened helping the Irish undocumented to “putting lipstick on a pig” and stated Irish in Ireland were” laughing” at the stupidity of their Irish American counterparts.
That prompted law lecturer and prominent Irish American Larry Donnelly now based in Ireland to state “Ms. Vargo simply won’t be moved from her obviously heartfelt view that the undocumented Irish in the US are not worthy of the assistance of the Irish government or of Irish America.”
As a result of those comments there is remarkably little support for the US Ireland Alliance from Irish American groups who in normal circumstances might have been expected to try and save the program. In fact sources say the silence is deafening.
“There is hardly a single group she has not offended said Ciaran Staunton, co-founder of the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform “Someone that arrogant usually needs a reality check and she surely has got it now.”
The programme has 300 applicants each year with US postgraduate students chosen to study at universities north and south of the border.
Hopes that the funding may rest on the fact that Kevin O’Malley will soon take up his Dublin post as United States Ambassador to Ireland. This follows a two year vacancy at the Phoenix Park residency following the departure of Dan Rooney in 2012.
According to the US-Ireland Alliance the scholarship programme in question costs $600,000 to fund per year. Traditionally the United States government provides $485,000 and the Department of Education in Northern Ireland pays the remainders. The funding from the Northern Ireland government remains.
Irish businessman Sean O’Sullivan, best known for his role on the TV show “Dragon’s Den”, has stepped in a donated $300,000. This figure has been matched by the Irish government. These funds will plug the gap for the class of 2015.
Vargo, says she hopes other donors will contribute in the coming years.
She said “Sean stepped in to cover this class. We’re now trying to figure out how to find sources elsewhere to continue it into the future.”
A spokesperson from the US Embassy said “We appreciate the valuable contribution the [programme] has made over the last decade to our people-to-people relationships with Ireland and Northern Ireland.
“We encourage the efforts of the US-Ireland Alliance to secure other sources of funding and to ensure the long-term viability of this valuable exchange.”
The Irish government’s Department of Education said they are committed to supporting the programme in any way they can.
Vargo said she hopes that the Irish government can continue their commitments and they can succeed in building up the endowment fund. She also said she was hopeful that the United States might reinstate their funding.
She said “The question is, when March rolls around, we have to think about whether we have another application process.
“That’s when you have to decide, do you just put everything on hold while you try to raise the money and not service classes and competitions and all of that?
“There’s obviously reputational damage with that. The minute you go around the universities and say, ‘it’s not on this year’, you’ve a big uphill thing to switch the thing back on.”