Twenty years ago this month, Senator Ted Kennedy was at the forefront of an effort to convince President Clinton to grant Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams a visa, so that he might briefly visit the United States. As leader of the political wing of the Irish Republican Army, Adams had been prohibited from entering. Senator Kennedy had come to believe that the visit was an important part of a process that could bring an end to decades of bloodshed in Northern Ireland. Later that month, despite vociferous opposition from the British Government, as well as many in his own Administration, President Clinton granted the visa and within a year the IRA would declare a cease-fire and the Loyalist paramilitaries would follow.
The visa for Adams was achieved because the right people were in the right places at the right time – the time that the IRA was prepared to end its violent pursuit of a united Ireland. That same year, 1994, also marked the early stage of the Celtic Tiger, a period of economic growth that would last for more than a decade and transform Ireland before crashing ignominiously in 2008.
In 1998, with the signing of the Northern Ireland peace agreement, I left Senator Kennedy’s employ to create the US-Ireland Alliance which includes a scholarship named in honor of Senator George Mitchell, who deftly achieved a necessarily, constructively ambiguous agreement that required navigating a recent, bloody past, an historical enmity, and unrelenting bitterness that made W.B. Yeats’ reference to Ireland as a place of “great hatred, little room” seem like an understatement. Our difficulty in securing stable funding for the Mitchell Scholarship reflects a wider complacency that comes with peace and the taking for granted of old relationships about which most Millennials know little.
A nation-wide competition is held annually to select twelve future American leaders who spend a year of post-graduate study on the island of Ireland. The program has become so popular that several recent applicants have chosen to accept the Mitchell interview rather than interview for the long-established Rhodes Scholarship, which has for a century, sent future leaders like Bill Clinton to Oxford. Unlike the Rhodes that is funded from Cecil Rhodes’ estate, the Mitchell has yet to find a major benefactor or corporation that sees the value in assuring that future generations of American leaders will have a connection to the island.
For more than a decade, the US Government largely funded the Mitchell Scholarship program but for the last two years, the Department of State, beginning under Secretary Hillary Clinton, has sought to eliminate funding altogether, repeatedly telling us that Europe is no longer a priority.
The island of Ireland has changed, as has America’s relationship with it. While Northern Ireland is not without continuing problems, the Troubles are fortunately a thing of the past. While Ireland continues to struggle economically, it is no longer a country to which the vast majority of Irish Americans feel a need to send remittances. Of the Irish emigrants who do leave Ireland now, fewer head for America than did in previous decades and thus a continuous flow of new immigrants cannot be relied on to maintain the relationship. Times have changed so much in twenty years that Gerry Adams now sits in the Irish parliament and Sinn Fein is part of a governing coalition in Northern Ireland.
New York financier Stephen Schwarzman with a number of businesses and individuals who care about the future of the US relationship with China (albeit driven largely by their own business interests) recently created a $300 million scholarship intended to rival the Rhodes. As the Irish would say – fair play to them — there cannot be too many opportunities for young Americans to spend some time abroad. The Mitchell Scholarship already rivals the Rhodes, but do enough companies and individuals care enough about this relationship to help assure its future? The jury is still out.