WASHINGTON – A financial vestige of US efforts to encourage peace in Northern Ireland has disappeared after a quarter century, leaving disagreements that echo on both sides of the Atlantic and have divided two of the Bay State’s congressmen.
Congress recently eliminated nearly $20 million in an earmark for the International Fund for Ireland. The economic aid had been extended by the United States every year since the 1980s to help smooth the turbulence of the island’s deep conflicts. Once supported by Senator Edward M. Kennedy as an important element of the peace process, the accumulated payments reached a total of $450 million.
The debate over the money continues. Irish officials in Washington this week are asking members of Congress to restore the funds. And the Obama administration is seeking to put the money back into a future budget.
They have an ally in Representative Richard Neal of Springfield. In a statement emailed to the Globe, Neal spokesman William Tranghese said this week that Neal supports a move by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to restore aid to the International Fund for Ireland in the 2012 State Department budget.
"Mr. Neal supports continued funding for the IFI because he feels it is not the time to be sending a message to the people on the island of Ireland that the United States is no longer interested in their journey towards peace and reconciliation,’’ Tranghese said. "He hopes to work with his colleagues on both sides of the aisle to restore our contribution to the fund.’’
Yet the spending cut has its backers, including Representative Stephen Lynch. Steeped in South Boston politics, you would think aid for Northern Ireland would automatically win his support. But Lynch thinks the money could be better spent on scholarships, not on economic aid.
In a letter to House budget leaders, he is calling for $5 million a year, for four years starting in 2012, to be directed to an existing scholarship in the name of George Mitchell, the former US Senate majority leader and envoy who negotiated the lasting Northern Ireland peace in the 1990s. Lynch says using the money for scholarships instead of on aid for the International Fund for Ireland amounts to "building a future relationship based on contemporary realities rather than nostalgia.’’
The Mitchell scholarship is administered by the US-Ireland Alliance, a non-profit foundation that is headed by Trina Vargo, a former foreign policy advisory to Ted Kennedy. Vargo could not be immediately reached by phone this afternoon. But she has said that the US financial assistance to the International Fund for Ireland has created a dependency that Ireland needs to end, according to press accounts.
Writing in the Irish Echo last year, she said: "While the Fund did many good things in those early years, it became one of those taps that was never turned off. While I was still working with Senator Kennedy, he stopped requesting funding for the IFI. That was more than a decade ago. We had simply come to the conclusion that the IFI had served its purpose.’’
About Political Intelligence
Glen Johnson is Politics Editor at boston.com and lead blogger for "Political Intelligence." He moved to Massachusetts in the fourth grade, and has covered local, state, and national politics for over 25 years. E-mail him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.