US tycoon who’s paying to make our MLAs smarter
Money from a US billionaire is being lined up to produce cleverer Stormont politicians.
A £1m training programme to develop “political leadership” skills among Assembly Members is being devised, with talks at an advanced stage to secure finance from the States.
The funding would come from Atlantic Philanthropies, a charitable foundation set up by Irish-American tycoon Chuck Feeney.
Mr Feeney controversially provided funding for a Sinn Fein office in the United States in the past.
Details of the Assembly training scheme are still wrapped in secrecy as funding has yet to be confirmed.
But it is understood that aims include developing greater expertise among MLAs on key Government and Parliamentary issues.
The Atlantic Philanthropies foundation was created through Mr Feeney's massive personal wealth and has issued grants to different parts of the world, including Northern Ireland.
According to Stormont sources, in the region of £1m could be provided for the MLA programme, which would run over a number of years. There would be no cost to the public purse.
It is believed overall goals include producing better informed elected Stormont representatives, with training to assist them in their work of overseeing legislation and the work of Government departments.
Sources say it is hoped to develop future ministers and Assembly committee chairs.
It is thought the scheme could cover such areas as social and economic policy issues, Government accounts, media relations and public speaking.
The programme can also be expected to involve visits to parliaments outside Northern Ireland.
An Assembly spokesperson said: “The Assembly is in ongoing discussions with Atlantic Philanthropies.”
Published minutes from the cross-party Assembly Commission state that its members have agreed “in principle” with the plan.
Atlantic Philanthropies is active in a number of parts of the world including Australia, Bermuda, South Africa, the US and Vietnam.
According to an article published on its website, Mr Feeney provided a total of $720,000 to fund a Sinn Fein office in Washington over a three-year period. The online article also states that Mr Feeney “privately funded loyalists looking for a way out of the violence”.
It is not unknown for parliaments in other countries to provide “capacity training” for members. However, the planned Northern Ireland Assembly programme is believed to be unique due to the source of funding.
Billionaire benefactor who gave it all away
He amassed his personal wealth through a string of duty-free shopping outlets, selling cigarettes, alcohol and luxury goods.
Then, in the 1980s, he started giving it away, with no publicity involved.
Almost all of his wealth was donated to his charitable foundation.
By the end of last year Atlantic Philanthropies had issued grants totalling more than $5 billion (£3.2bn).
A newspaper profile in 2009 stated: “He wears a $15 watch, eats in diners and doesn't own a car. He refuses to be interviewed or photographed.”
Summing up his modest lifestyle and small scale personal spending, Mr Feeney once remarked: “You can only wear one pair of shoes at a time.”
Mr Feeney was born in the Great Depression in New Jersey. One of his grandparents was from Co Fermanagh.
He was part of a group of Irish-American businessmen who played a key role behind the scenes in the run-up to the IRA ceasefire in 1994.