Mitchell Program Strives for Nonpartisanship

Posted February 13, 2004 at 3:16pm

In a town where politics seems to infect everything, the directors of the George J. Mitchell Scholarship Program are working to achieve the rare combination of a government-funded program that is also nonpartisan.

Named after former Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (D-Maine) and run by the U.S.-Ireland Alliance, the program selects 12 college students interested in post-graduate work and sends them to Ireland for a year. Once there they pursue graduate work at Irish universities and work at internships while writing their dissertations.

Former participants and directors admit the program has attracted primarily left-leaning students, something the Alliance is trying to change.

“I’m sure a lot of people looked at it and saw the name and thought it wasn’t for Republicans. If someone told me there was a Jessie Helms scholarship I would think, ‘I don’t have a chance at it,’” said Trina Vargo, president of the Alliance and former foreign policy adviser to Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.).

Mark Tosso, who participated in the program last year, says it isn’t surprising the program attracts mostly students who favor the political left. “I’d say that a lot of people my age are more geared to the left, but there was a good range of political viewpoints” in the program, he said.

“We aren’t pushing any particular policy on the participants,” added Dell Pendergrast, director of the program. “Our goal is to establish a connection between the next generation of American Leaders and Ireland.”

Vargo echoes this sentiment. “It’s very nonpartisan. We accept Republicans, Democrats, anyone. We want people when they come back to be part of U.S.-Irish relations. If someone [from the program] becomes a Bill Gates and opens companies in Europe, we want them to remember Ireland.” She adds that recipients of the scholarship need not be politically active, citing past participants who had studied engineering and theater.

Because the program wants to stay as apolitical as possible it has begun advertising more to Republican groups. Last year Vargo, along with Susan Davis, who works for the National Assembly of Irish American Republicans and is on the scholarship’s selection committee, sent out letters to young Republican groups around the country asking if any college conservatives met the criteria for the program. The result was more Republican applicants than in past years, and three Republicans accepted into the program.

According to the U.S.-Ireland Alliance, the program’s name has little to do with Mitchell’s political affiliation and everything to do with his impact on the Northern Ireland Peace Process. “We named it after Mitchell because of what he did in Ireland,” she says.

Following his exit from the Senate in 1995, Mitchell became a special adviser to President Bill Clinton on Ireland and chaired an international envoy that presided over the disarmament of paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland, a move that helped lead to eased tensions in the region. Mitchell also was chairman of the peace negotiations in Northern Ireland that led to the historic Good Friday agreement of 1998.

Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), who is on the House International Relations Committee, says the program received support from Republicans in Congress at its inception and that the Bush administration has picked up where the Clinton White House left off in supporting the program. He understands that given the name of the program Republican students might be turned off, but stresses that politics is not the scholarship’s point.

“If they can make it as nonpartisan as possible then that’s great. The purpose of it is to educate students to what’s going on in Ireland,” King says. “To me it’s a worthwhile program because the U.S. had an integral part in the Good Friday Accords.”

Ryan Hanley, who will study at Trinity College in Ireland as part of the program, said, “It should be nonpartisan, they never made [politics] an issue. A scholarship like this [exists] to connect the U.S. government and Americans with Ireland.”

Hanley, a student at Johns Hopkins University, added, “It’s an opportunity to expose Americans to issues that are important to Ireland.”

Included in last month’s omnibus was $500,000 for the Mitchell Scholarship Program. It also received $3 million at its inception from the Irish government and gets annual funding from the British government.

This year’s participants include former interns for Democratic Senators and the treasurer of the Mississippi State College Republicans, making it a safe bet that — for some in this group — politics may not completely stop at the water’s edge.