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US-Ireland Alliance President meets with members of the Irish Parliament

Dublin, Ireland

25 September 2012

 

US-Ireland Alliance president Trina Vargo met with Members of the Joint Foreign Affairs Committee of the Oireachtas this afternoon.  In attendance were Chairman Pat Breen (FG), Vice Chairman Bernard Durkan (FG), Eric Byrne (Labour), Senator Michael Mullins (FG) and Senator Mark Daly (FF).  Also in attendance were US-Ireland Alliance Board Members Brian Barrington and Joe O’Malley.

After Ms. Vargo outlined the work of the Alliance (statement attached) Deputy Durkan indicated that he didn’t know where Senator Daly’s questions were coming from. He said that Trina Vargo calls it straight, that she has achieved results and she is absolutely correct in pursuing a US-Ireland alliance in the arts and education.  Among his comments he went on to say that it was regrettable and embarrassing that Trina Vargo should be subjected to questions of a conflict nature by Senator Daly when she is a guest of the Committee.

Deputy Byrne publicly applauded Ms. Vargo and stated that she had outlined a phenomenal success story.  He said that the Mitchell Scholar graduates are unofficial ambassadors of the state.  As part of his comments, he also said he accepted criticisms mentioned in Ms. Vargo’s statement in relation to the Irish Film Board. He found it embarrassing that so much work being done by the Alliance has been done with a staff of only two people.  He went on to say, after Senator Daly’s contributions, that his questions were not of any interest to the Committee and were not of any benefit to the Committee. 

Chairman Breen had intended to allow Senator Daly some latitude but since his questions gave rise to quotations from third parties, those questions were halted. 

The meeting came about as a result of repeated attacks by Senator Daly on Ms. Vargo.  In the hearing Senator Daly raised two principal issues.  The first related to his accusation that Ms. Vargo and the board of the Alliance were not in support of the Irish illegally in the United States. The second related to his accusation that Ms. Vargo and her board sought a discontinuation of funding from the US Congress to the International Fund for Ireland.

Ms. Vargo reiterated what she had written in the Irish Times in 2007, that she supported comprehensive immigration reform but that the legalization of the Irish in the US would only occur when the legislation was achieved for all illegal immigrants.  She also outlined that from her experience, it was misleading to indicate that a special deal could be achieved for the Irish alone and that misinformation did nothing to serve those Irish persons.

On the matter of the International Fund for Ireland, Ms. Vargo noted that in 2009 the annual report of the Fund stated that as of 2010, it would no longer seek international funding.  As that funding from the US Congress was about to end, Ms. Vargo wisely sought to ascertain if further funding for the Mitchell Scholarship program might be achieved in its place.  The board members of Alliance agreed that this was a wise course of action.

 

Remarks before the Irish Oireachtas’ Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs

Trina Vargo, President, US-Ireland Alliance

24 September 2012

 

Mr. Chairman, Members of the Committee.  I welcome this opportunity to tell you about the work of the US-Ireland Alliance.  I am joined by Brian Barrington and Joe O’Malley, members of the US-Ireland Alliance’s Irish board.

Before I tell you what the US-Ireland Alliance is doing, it is important to understand why I created the organization and why I believe it is more needed than ever.  In 1998, I had been working as Senator Kennedy’s foreign policy adviser. I was deeply involved in the Northern Ireland peace process, including obtaining that visa for Gerry Adams to visit the US in 1994, which led to the IRA ceasefire. 

The US-Ireland Alliance was created just after the Good Friday Agreement had been achieved and while Ireland was undergoing a dramatic transformation in the form of the Celtic Tiger.  It was evident to me that dramatic changes were in store for the relationship.

2020 will look dramatically different from 1980 and a radical re-imagining of the relationship is required if it is to continue to remain strong.

Consider the following:

1. As Ireland became wealthier in the 1990s, fewer Irish moved to the US and many returned home. While over 17,000 immigrated to the US in 1994 alone, the number of Irish immigrants in any given year since 1996 has never exceeded 1,600.  In the current climate, the Irish who are emigrating are going to where the jobs are – Australia and Canada.

2.  From a US perspective, Northern Ireland is largely sorted.  And by that I simply mean that it does not require the day-to-day attention of US policymakers.  I am not saying that all Northern Ireland’s problems are resolved.

3. Despite current economic difficulties, Ireland is a first world country in need of partnerships, not platitudes and charity.   Ireland is not a country to which most Americans feel they need to send remittances.  Ireland’s current difficulties are seen mainly as a situation of Ireland’s own making and does not receive the sort of sympathy engendered by oppression or famine.

4.  In a post-ethnicity America, fewer identify with Ireland compared to past generations.  2010 census figures show 38 million Americans defining their ancestry as “Irish” or “Scotch-Irish”.   In the 1990 census, that figure was 44 million.  The further removed a person is from the generation that emigrated, the less they identify themselves as a hyphenated American.  And most of those 38 million are simply checking a box, but do not have a deep and meaningful connection to Ireland.

5.  Ireland does not enjoy the political influence it once did for a variety of reasons, particularly assimilation and no pressing issue in the relationship.  By assimilation I mean that Irish Americans are now increasingly seen as part of white America.  The Latino population is growing and courted as an ethnic group the way the Irish may have been once but no longer are in any meaningful way.  There are only about 6 million American Jews but they have much more influence due largely to the fact they are galvanized by their concern for the very existence of the state of Israel.  Also, there is a very strong culture of philanthropy within the Jewish community.  AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby in Washington operates on an annual budget of more than the Irish Government will ever contribute to the Mitchell Scholarship program.

Irish politicians and the public are frequently told about the power of the Irish lobby and the Irish vote in America.  This is a myth.  When you think of the names of those Irish Americans who wielded great influence, Senators Kennedy, Dodd, and Moynihan, Speakers Tip O’Neill and Tom Foley, none hold office today and some are no longer with us.  Irish Americans do not vote as a bloc.  They are Republicans and Democrats, Protestants and Catholics.  They are voting on the basis of issues like the US economy, job creation and healthcare – they do not vote on the basis of a candidate’s position on Ireland.

I founded the Alliance because I understood that US policymakers’ interest in Ireland would wane as the peace process moved forward.  And that is what has happened. The recent attempt by the Department of State to eliminate funds for the Mitchell Scholarship program is only further evidence of that.

The Alliance was founded to build a future relationship around education, business and culture.  A new relationship different to that of the past.  But the success of the project depends on a key question: can we interest a next generation of Americans and Irish in a relationship, or is America too post-ethnicity?  We at the Alliance will have to decide eventually if we believe we can achieve critical mass or if there is simply insufficient interest.  The jury is still out on that one, I think.

The work of the US-Ireland Alliance

I want to discuss the ‘return on investment’ so to speak of the US-Ireland Alliance, and I would note that all of this is done with a staff of only myself and one other person.

We approach the relationship through different demographics:

1.  The Mitchell Scholarship introduces future American leaders, before the age of 30, to the island.

2. Our Hollywood event builds ties between the creative industries. 

3.  For years we held a golf tournament here, and we hope to do so again in future.  The purpose of the tournament is to introduce business leaders in both countries to each other.

4.  We have begun work on creating curriculum so that high school students in America can learn about Ireland, with the eventual aim of getting younger people to visit Ireland during their formative years.

 

George J. Mitchell Scholarship program

The Mitchell scholarship program brings real benefits to Ireland.  Ireland wants and needs paying foreign students and the prestige of the Mitchell provides Irish and Northern Ireland universities with attention in the press and on campuses across America that can’t be bought. 

As was noted by Enterprise Ireland in a recent report, international competition is increasing for the students Ireland wants to come here.  These students mean money for this economy.  EI found that each international student spends an average of €11,000 a year in Ireland.  It also noted that postgraduate programs have been making huge strides in last 8 years and that almost ½ of US students studying here are at post-graduate level.  That same report noted that since 2002, Irish Higher Education Institutions have been experiencing growth.   The first class of Mitchell Scholars graduated in 2001 and shortly thereafter Trinity informed me that they saw a significant increase in American graduate applicants which they attributed in large part to the profile we were creating for Irish universities in America.

Each year, 300 Americans between the ages of 18 and 30 apply for twelve postgraduate scholarships to study in Ireland and Northern Ireland. Within three years of its creation, the Mitchell Scholarship program was featured in the New York Times and recognized as one of the most prestigious scholarships a young American could receive. Now in its twelfth year, nearly 150 future American leaders are Mitchell Scholars.

The much older and better-funded Rhodes and Marshall programs send Americans only to the UK.  The Mitchells study in Ireland and Northern Ireland.

The US-Ireland Alliance staff and Mitchell Scholars have met personally with representatives from 164 universities to promote the Mitchell and study on this island.  Consider how much it would cost your universities to do that themselves.

The Mitchell Scholarship director attends biannual conferences of the National Association of Fellowships Advisors (NAFA).  NAFA is composed of university professionals across the US who are the point of contact for American college students who wish to study abroad.  NAFA traditionally held all their meetings in the US but several years ago, the Mitchell director successfully encouraged them to hold a conference in Ireland.  They found it so successful that they have traveled to Ireland subsequently, contributing to tourism on the island. These professors now encourage students to consider university study in Ireland.

At the NAFA conference in Chicago last year, the Alliance hosted a seminar on the Mitchell Scholarship program and opportunities for study at universities in Ireland and Northern Ireland.  Minister Quinn spoke at that event.  More than 150 representatives from universities across the US attended.  Our event allowed for Irish and Northern Ireland university representatives to speak about their respective institutions.  Mitchell Scholars spoke about their experiences.  We recorded those talks, which are now on our website and serve as an ongoing tool for those who want to learn about studying in Ireland. The universities on this island have been great partners with the Mitchell and great beneficiaries.

The Mitchell is so competitive that only 5% of applicants will receive a scholarship.  That means that many great students cannot win a Mitchell.  We had the idea a few years ago that we could try to steer these applicants, who obviously were already interested in Ireland, to the universities.  We have a box in our application that applicants can check if they will give us permission -- presuming they don’t win a Mitchell -- to provide their contact details to Irish and Northern Ireland universities so they may reach out to them directly. We know that many unsuccessful Mitchell applicants have gone on to study in Ireland and Northern Ireland as paying students.  And they learned about the opportunities first because of the Mitchell.

 

Hollywood

Since 2006, the US-Ireland Alliance has annually gathered in Los Angeles 350 people including actors, directors, writers, animators, producers, musicians, studio executives and financiers for our “Oscar Wilde:  Honoring the Irish in Film” event.

This event has provided many returns:

-- Universal spent $20 million recently making a film in Northern Ireland, which started with an introduction I made for Minister Poots with Universal executives.  $20 million.    Think of it this way: if Ireland and Northern Ireland contributed $200,000 a year to our event, in 10 years you would only have contributed 10% of the value that came from that one introduction.  

-- Jim Brooks, the multi-Academy Award winner we honored at our event, then made a special episode of The Simpsons about Ireland and Fox premiered the episode in Dublin and that contributed over 125,000 euros to the Irish economy.

-- The event garners millions of dollars worth of positive publicity for Ireland and Northern Ireland;  $3 million in press coverage this year alone; three out of the last four years, the event has been mentioned on Entertainment Tonight, a nightly television program, which is seen by something like 20 million US households.

-- Honoree Fiona Shaw first saw Belfast singer/songwriter Duke Special perform at our event.  She then asked him to join her on stage at the National Theater London production of Mother Courage.  Speaking of the Oscar Wilde event, Duke Special said, “The whole direction of my career changed that night.”

-- Irish singers S.J. McArdle and Paddy Casey were heard at our event by an executive at Sony and both got recording contracts. Irish singer Laura Izibor and Irish screenwriter Conor Ryan met their current managers at the event.  This year, with no Irish Government support, we featured Sharon Corr, Colin Devlin, Cathy Davey and Size2Shoes.  All have told us of the value of the event for them and Size2Shoes has gotten several gigs on the back of being heard at our event.

Northern Ireland-born Laura Livingstone works for a special effects company.  She wrote to me after the event saying: “I have been to many networking events by the Irish film commissions, boards & agencies at home, in Cannes and in LA but this event trumped all.”  Her company is currently in talks with several companies she met through our event.

At this year’s event, the guest list included multiple winners of Academy Awards, Emmys, Tonys, BAFTAS and SAG awards.

More importantly for Ireland, are the economic decision makers in attendance:

studio heads; the founders of numerous software and social media companies, including YouTube; Grammy Award winning music producers and several music supervisors; execs from Disney, Focus Features, Fox, GK Films, HBO Films, Paramount, ABC Television; the Chairman of the Motion Picture Association; the former Chairman of Walt Disney Studios.

More than a dozen film producers were in the room this year – including Steven Spielberg, J.J. Abrams, Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall – the 12 producers were responsible for nearly $2 BILLION in box office in 2010 and 2011 alone.

Regrettably, the event garners no support from the Irish Film Board, Culture Ireland, Enterprise Ireland or Tourism Ireland.  At the last event, there was no Minister or official in the room to encourage investment in film in Ireland.  That is unfortunate. I think that it is a lost opportunity to capitalize on the event’s potential.

When the Irish Film Board did support the event, it did not take full advantage of it.  About two years ago, I introduced the head of the film board to J.J. Abrams.  J.J. is one of the biggest producers in Hollywood.  If I were in the private sector, several people told me I could be paid tens of thousands of dollars to arrange such a meeting.  I simply sought to help Ireland attract film production.  The film board did not follow up with J.J. after the meeting and when I later asked why not, I was told “they know where we are if they want to make a movie here.”

There are also numerous once-off things we’ve done that are too numerous to list but again, have achieved real results.  For example, The Abbey Theatre now has a relationship with the Public Theater in New York, which began with an Alliance introduction for Fiach Mac Conghail with the head of the Public Theater. 

The US-Ireland Alliance hosted the US premiere of Give Me Your Hand, an evening of poetry by Paul Durcan, performed by Dermot Crowley and Dearbhla Molloy.  These Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles events launched a show that went on to a month-long residency at the Irish Repertory in New York City and garnered the performance a Drama Desk Award nomination.

The US-Ireland Alliance Golf Challenge introduces senior American executives to Ireland.  At one golf tournament, we introduced the head of the Irish Pub Company to the VP of Development at DisneyWorld.  A conversation began that resulted in the establishment of the Raglan Road Restaurant at Disney’s Pleasure Island in Orlando, Florida.  The Irish company told us Raglan Road employs 150 people and is one of the top 40 grossing restaurants in the US.  Millions of euros were spent in Ireland on the pub’s development.  The restaurant employs Irish graduates in management positions and Irish musicians.  The company takes its top 20 employees to Ireland for a week each year to learn about Irish culture.  The pub is the third largest seller of Guinness in the US.  And it started with an introduction at our golf tournament. This is a great example of a win/win for the US and Ireland.

I’m very excited about our plans to teach high schools students about Ireland.  We have started the project thanks to the support of individuals – everything from people who give $25 online to artists contributing their work and talents. Again, it is unfortunate that this project has never been supported by the Government because it could be effective in increasing tourism to this island.

In 2008, we held an event in Belfast to mark the 10-year anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement. The Alliance also commissioned a professional poll in Belfast that began an earnest conversation about the need to bring down ‘peace’ walls that continue to institutionalize segregation in Northern Ireland.

I think it was an important and generous decision the Oireachtas made two years ago to match anything we raise for an endowment for the Mitchell Scholarship program which can ensure the future of the Mitchell scholarship program.  It is particularly appreciated at a time of economic difficulty in Ireland.

Where the Alliance is, however, under pressure is staffing.  There are only two of us trying to achieve a lot.   We are receiving no Irish Government funds on an annual basis to help us do anything I have just outlined.  The US Government is understandably questioning this.

I have been repeatedly told by some on Capitol Hill and several in the State Department, “we don’t care about Europe any more.”  They are concerned with Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Syria, Afghanistan and China.  I’ve also been told, “we love the Mitchell Scholarship program, but could you switch to a country that matters more to us?”

I can and have made arguments to the State Department and the Hill as to the benefits of the program for the US and that has helped us prevail temporarily.

Other members of the Committee made clear they found no reason for me to defend myself against Senator Daly’s personal attacks which have run since March.  In any event, the following are my remarks to address Senator Daly’s many false accusations:

Criticisms of the Alliance by Senator Daly

I would have preferred to speak only of the work that the Alliance is doing.  But there are some other matters that I regret I have to address.

I believe all organizations should be open to criticism.  But that criticism should be fair and based on facts.  I regret that recent criticisms made by Senator Daly of the Alliance have been neither fair nor based on fact.

I particularly regret that because I have offered to meet with Senator Daly and have sent information in response to his criticisms.  The offer of a meeting was never taken up, and the inaccurate attacks continue. 

I should at this point say something about Niall O’Dowd – since the attacks by Senator Daly are a repetition of attacks that Mr. O’Dowd has been making on the Alliance for several years.  Senator Daly’s attacks have also been covered amply in Mr. O’Dowd’s Irish Central website.

Mr. O’Dowd served on the Advisory Board of the US Ireland Alliance until 2007.  During that time, he was vocal in  his support of the Alliance.

Then in 2007 two things happened.

First, he was cycled off the Advisory Board as members of boards change from time to time to keep the right balance of skills on it.

Second, I published an opinion piece in the Irish Times saying that there would not be a special deal for Irish immigrants illegally in the US.  I pointed out the simple reality that a special deal would not be done for the Irish when millions of Latinos were in the same position.

Since then, the Alliance has faced a barrage of criticism from Mr. O’Dowd.  It is puzzling because during his tenure on the Board, he raised no concerns about the Alliance.  Indeed, he was fulsome in his praise.

As I said, many of the criticisms of the Alliance by Mr. O’Dowd are the same as those being repeated by Senator Daly now. 

Even though the Chairman informed me that the finances of the Mitchell program will not be discussed at this meeting as the Mitchell is not within the Committee’s jurisdiction, let me address the false accusations:

-       As written in Irish Central, Senator Daly stated that my salary needed to be examined because, and I quote,  “part of [it] is paid by the Irish taxpayer  … I am sure the members of the committee would like to know what she does for the money."

First, it is very clear what I do for my salary.  I have just outlined some of it. 

Second, it is completely false to say that ‘part’ of my salary is paid by the Irish taxpayer.’  None of it is.  None of it ever has been.

            Third, no Irish Government funds have been spent on the Mitchell Scholarship program in about a decade. We are prudently raising an endowment and have not been spending any of the money previously contributed by the Irish Government, except for the expense of the audit required annually. 

Fourth, we provide reports to the Minister of Education which are available to all members of the Oireachtas.  The reports confirm that we are not spending the Irish Government’s contributions to the Mitchell program, and, therefore, it is impossible for us to be mis-spending these funds.

I have also regularly made myself available to any member of the Oireachtas to answer questions they may have about the US-Ireland Alliance, including Senator Daly who has not taken up the offer.

Senator Daly’s comments impugn my character and the Alliance.  There is no evidence of any mismanagement of funds because there is none.  The Alliance, in addition to providing the Irish Government with an annual audit, reports quarterly to the U.S. Department of State and annually to the U.S. Internal Revenue Service.  Charity Navigator, an independent body that examines non-profit organizations, gives us its highest rating. 

-       Senator Daly has also suggested that I have refused to appear before this Committee.  Again, that is simply untrue.  I never refused to appear before the Committee.  While the efforts being made to safeguard the US Government’s funding of the Mitchell scholarship program over the summer had to be our priority, but the moment that matter was resolved, I contacted the Chairman to inform him to offer to meet the Committee.  And here I am.

-       Senator Daly has also suggested that I am not working in the interests of the relationship.  I hope that the work that I have outlined shows that this is simply not true.  Where Senator Daly and I differ, is on the issue of certificates of Irishness promoted by the Irish Government. 

What prompted Senator Daly calling for me to appear before the Committee was a blog  I wrote stating that I thought that certificates of Irish heritage were silly.  Senator Daly supports them. I simply believe that there are more pressing issues in the relationship which need to be focused on by the Irish Government.

I am disappointed by these criticisms.  Senator Daly is entitled to his own opinions, but he is not entitled to his own facts.  And I cannot and will not allow the Alliance to be damaged by the spreading of falsehoods.

Ireland’s relationship with the US has benefitted Ireland in the past.  I want to see it benefit Ireland – and the US – into the future.  There is a job of work to be done to achieve that.  And the Alliance is eager to play its part.

Thank you.