The Irish taxpayer has bailed out a fund named after the man who brokered the Good Friday Agreement after it lost almost $1m (£640,000) on the stock market.
The George Mitchell Scholarship Fund — designed to bring the “best and the brightest” American students to the Republic — was set up 13 years ago with a €2.54m (£2.17m) grant from the Irish |government.
Its aim was to recruit talented students who were likely to |occupy “positions of influence in the US” in the future and would feel more “goodwill” towards Ireland as a result of studying there.
But the US Ireland Alliance, which runs the fund, admitted the fund has been hit by “market fluctuations” which saw its value drop from $2.76m (£1.75m) to $1.79m (£1.15m), its recently published annual accounts for 2009 said.
In a move which drew little attention, the Irish government brought forward legislation last year to provide up to €20m (£17m) to the George Mitchell Scholarship Fund over the next five years — as long as it secured matching funding from the private sector.
Last October, it paid over the first instalment of almost €1.5m (£1.3m) in return for the scholarship fund raising a similar amount privately.
Independent Senator Fergal Quinn was one of the few who questioned whether the move was worthwhile — given that just 12 American students were being brought over each year.
“The world had changed and the Irish economy had changed this year. Twelve people does seem rather a small number of people for us to be spending that amount of money on,” he said.
The 12 US students here get free tuition and accommodation from the universities they are |attending, north and south. The scholarship fund provides them with a living expenses grant of $11,000 (£7,000) each, while they also get a grant of up to $2,300 (£1,500) to travel around Ireland and Europe during their stay.
The US Ireland Alliance was set up in 1998 by Trina Vargo — the former foreign policy adviser to the late Senator Ted Kennedy —and she defended the fact that just 12 students were benefiting annually.
“It is not the case that €1.5m |is being spent in a year, on |12 scholars,” she said.
The Alliance objective is to raise a $40m (£25m) endowment which can be invested conservatively so that this programme |continues, like the Rhodes Scholarship, forever.”
Ms Vargo said it was “absolutely not” the case that the George Mitchell scholarship fund was needed to maintain the waning Irish influence in the US.