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Assessing the prospects for an emerging Ireland: Irish American Partnership takes to road to check on opportunities and difficulties

By Joe Leary, special to the BIR, October 4, 2012

Above, one of many sessions involving members of the Irish American Partnership and Irish officials that took place during the Partnership's mission to Ireland in August.Above, one of many sessions involving members of the Irish American Partnership and Irish officials that took place during the Partnership's mission to Ireland in August.
A group of 14 Irish American Partnership members, including several Bostonians, traveled to Ireland recently to learn for themselves about the difficulties and opportunities facing the Irish people in these difficult economic times. In an extraordinary tour, the visitors made 21 stops and talked with some 60 Irish leaders, North and South, over four and one half days. 
Sunny, ideal Irish weather was the order of the day throughout the trip; transportation was by a luxurious bus; and Irish hospitality was in evidence everywhere.

Politicians, educators, community leaders, schools and officials from both governments honored the Americans at every stop. John Murray of New Jersey, chairman of the Irish American Partnership, and his fellow members – eight from the Boston area, three from Ireland, and one each from Washington DC, New Jersey, and Virginia – received detailed and valuable information that is not usually available to the average visitor.

This was a strenuous, hard-working trip for the members, who were on a mission to assess the value of Partnership funding in Ireland and the extent of additional funding in the years ahead.

Partnership Directors Liam Connellan of Dublin, Charles Donahue of Boston, Tom Nicholson of Virginia, and Partnership Executive Director Mary Sugrue McAleer assisted Chairman Murray in delivering $55,000 in grants to Irish schools and training centers.

Other mission participants were Gil Sullivan, Sean Moynihan, Mary Henderson, John Holian, and Josephine Shields of Boston; Monique Miller, of Washington DC; and Niall PowerSmith of Dublin.

The visitors used the opportunity to focus on three areas:
The first was on the work of the Partnership in supporting Irish education with visits to four Universities, a high-tech training organization in Dublin, and three schools in Belfast. 

The second was an interface with both governments in several meetings to discuss the Partnership’s focus on education and to learn more about current conditions.

And the third was the opportunity for more social engagements with government personnel and universities.

In the meantime, we had the good fortune to squeeze in visits to the highly successful new Titanic Museum and the regeneration of the Crumlin Jail in Belfast and to enjoy a night at the Abbey theatre in Dublin.

Our first day began on the campus of the University of Dublin’s Michael Smurfit School of Business. Brief rain drops and a smiling Dean Ciaran O hOgartaigh greeted us at the door. The professional presentations following the traditional coffee service reminded us that the Smurfit Business School is one of the finest in the world, producing highly trained future leaders for Ireland’s business community.

The Partnership is funding multiple-year scholarship programs at Smurfit and Chairman Murray and Executive Director McAleer presented a grant of $18,000 on behalf of Partnership donors after which we met and listened to the first scholarship winner describe her assigned project: “Ireland as a Catalyst for United States Investment in the European Common Market.”

St. Patrick’s Teaching College in Drumcondra, Dublin, was next. The Partnership has been working with St. Patrick’s for over eight years developing extensive research and training science programs for rural Western Ireland primary schools. Professor Dr. Paula Kilfeather and her assistant, Greg Smith, have managed the various programs on behalf of the school and the Partnership. Science teaching is a central focus of Partnership programs in the belief that a highly trained workforce is a vital component of Ireland’s future success.

One of Ireland’s most ingenious and praised programs is the “Fastrack to IT” (FIT) in Glasnevin Dublin, which is supported by the Partnership. Finding and training underutilized talents for various high-tech jobs is the program’s specialty, with a concentration on turning the unemployed and underemployed into full-time high technology employees. Run by President Peter Davitt, FIT is expanding into the North, specifically Belfast. The Partnership presented a grant of $10,000 for the program after which we were privileged to hear an emotional talk by a Denny Vitty of East Belfast describing the extreme need and value of the FIT program to the young people of Northern Ireland.

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The trip to Belfast was an experience for all of us. The new four-lane highway has cut the time to Dublin to two hours, from the four hours of just a few years ago. We were provided with song sheets, courtesy of Charlie Donahue, and kept ourselves awake by singing part of the way during a pleasant ride in the Irish countryside. In that vein, we were told that it is now faster to travel to the North by automobile than by train. Infrastructure such as these roads that were built during Ireland’s and Europe’s better days will serve Ireland well over the next years.

The seat of government in Northern Ireland is located in the Stormont group of buildings in East Belfast. The main building, now painted stone white, is located at the top of a prominent and picturesque hill. A wide road up to the building greets all visitors with a striking view. During World War II, it was a target for German bombers and so was completely painted black, some of which is still showing. Stormont Castle, which is used for administrative offices, is set off to the right.

Once here, we were ushered into a meeting room with six members of the Northern Ireland Assembly (MLA’s) who represented the major political parties. It was a fascinating two-hour session as each of our participants had the opportunity to ask questions mostly concerning the problems facing primary and secondary schools.

There was a surprising consensus regarding the prevalence of illiteracy in the Protestant primary schools, especially among young boys. Unfortunately, it appears that many parents who cannot read or write either don’t seem to care.

The members of the Assembly who spent the two hours with us were Alasdair McDonnell MP, MLA and leader of the SDLP, Sean Rogers MLA SDLP, Mike Nesbitt, MLA Leader of the UUP, Leslie Cree MLA UUP, Jennifer McCann MLA SF, and Sammy Douglas MLA DUP.

Later, the group was treated to a visit with Belfast’s new Lord Mayor, Alderman Gavin Robinson of the DUP, at Belfast’s venerable City Hall. Mayor Robinson is a very impressive young man. He had prepared himself well for our visit; he knew the Partnership’s history and programs, and he presented mementos to each member of the group. He is a leader to pay attention to in the future.

That evening we were guests at Hillsborough Castle, the queen’s residence when she comes to Ireland, for a formal dinner hosted by Northern Ireland Minister and Member of the British Parliament The Right Hon. Hugo Swire. It was a grand evening with guests Baroness May Blood and Sir George Quigley, the Partnership’s Northern Ireland member of the Board of Directors. We were taken on a tour of the gardens and enjoyed entertaining, if sometimes intense, discussions.

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The most important part of our mission to Northern Ireland were our visits to three schools that had received recent grants from the Partnership:

• Colaiste Feirste, a thriving 550-student Irish-speaking secondary school just off the Falls Road, courtesy of Principal Sean Mitchell, who explained the history and growth of the school.
• The Glengormley Integrated Primary School in Newtownabbey, courtesy of Principal Nigel Arnold, who reviewed the rapid expansion of the school and its severe need for more space and qualified teachers. We were also greeted there by our friend Baroness May Blood, with whom we work in providing support for such schools.
• The Tullycarnet Primary School in East Belfast where Principal Eileen Quinn discussed the illiteracy problems in the neighborhood and showed us the use of the electronic “white Bbard” as a teaching tool.

***
Back in Dublin after another short bus trip down from Belfast the next day, we visited Ireland’s Industrial Development Agency (IDA) headquarter offices and received a briefing on IDA’s progress and accomplishments over the years from their head of communications, Emmet Oliver. There is no doubt as to their serious contribution to the Irish economy.

We had lunch at the famed Buswells Hotel  with Jimmy Deenihan TD, Minister for Arts Heritage and the Gaeltacht. Executive Director McAleer presented Deenihan with $7,500 from the Chicago Partnership membership for five schools in North Kerry. After the presentation, Deenihan took us on a tour of the Dail Eireann across the street.

A visit to Trinity College Dublin followed for a review of its Access Scholarship program, which is funded by the Partnership, after which the group attended a reception courtesy of the Department of Foreign Affairs at Iveagh House ,where we were greeted by former Boston Deputy Consul General Deidre Ni Fhalluin and a contingent of old friends going back a number of years. It was a very pleasant reunion. Michael Collins, Ireland’s ambassador to the US, and Niall Burgess, director-general of the department, were our hosts.

***
Our last evening was hosted by Dublin City University (DCU) President Brian MacCraith on the university campus. Before dinner the group met with DCU’s Access program managers and several of the students who had received Partnership Access Scholarships. Executive Director McAleer, Chairman Murray and Director Nicholson presented a grant of $13,000 to President MacCraith for DCU’s special Northern Ireland Access program.

In a most engaging and productive conversation over dinner, Brian MacCraith, John Murray, and Tom Nicholson discussed the many aspects of Irish education and how the Partnership might help in the future.

On Friday morning our last and perhaps most important meeting was held at the Department of Education and Skills with Minister Ruairi Quinn TD. In an open discussion, the Partnership received the minister’s advice and his assurance of the gratefulness of the Irish people and the support of his department.

Make no mistake: Ireland, North and South, is moving forward, dealing with its problems and planning aggressively for its future. The Irish American Partnership’s support, in particular its interest in education, is not only welcome; it can make a vital difference.
Joe Leary is the CEO and president of the Irish American Partnership.

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