More than 100 students from Northern Ireland and the border counties of the Republic will gain free placements at United States business schools under a scheme launched last month at the Washington Investment conference.
The Northern Ireland churches' initiative follows a pilot scheme in which 19 students are attending 11 Presbyterian colleges. It is expected that 130 one-year placements will be offered in the coming academic year and 150 the following year by 60 universities and colleges affiliated to Catholic, Methodist and Presbyterian churches.
Funding for most students will be provided by the Training and Employment Agency in Northern Ireland, which will administer the scheme. This will allow students entering the second year of business courses at Northern Ireland colleges and universities to spend a year in the US. Talks are in progress to ensure that the courses abroad can be used as credits for Northern Ireland awards.
The International Fund for Ireland is financing a dozen students from the Regional Technical Colleges in Letterkenny, Sligo and Dundalk to join the programme.
The universities and colleges, including Notre Dame, Assumption, La Roche and Alaska Pacific have agreed to waive fees of sums ranging from $8,000 to $14,000.
President Bill Clinton has given the plan his personal, but not financial, support. "Bringing students from Northern Ireland to study business subjects at US colleges and universities is an innovative and exciting way of providing these young people with international experience and business knowledge that will be invaluable to them throughout their working lives. It will bring lasting benefits to Northern Ireland's whole economy," he told the organisers in a letter.
The Business Education Initiative has been promoted by the Inter-Church Committee on Northern Ireland and the press conference was attended by the Roman Catholic Primate, Cardinal Cahal Daly and John Dunlop, former Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland.
"The churches in Northern Ireland are sometimes accused of being part of the problem. It is sometimes not sufficiently appreciated how hard the churches have worked, separately and together, for peace and justice and reconciliation in Northern Ireland.
"In this task the Irish churches have at all times had strong support from our sister churches in the US. One important fruit of this inter-church and transatlantic co-operation has been the Business Education Initiative," said Dr Daly.
Dr Dunlop said that the plan was to promote closer inter-church co-operation at college faculty level and to enable Catholic and Protestant students from Ireland to work together and bring home the most advanced business training.
"All this helps in a most important way to consolidate peace and to ensure a peaceful future for the people of Ireland across all political and religious frontiers," he added.
Julian Crozier, chief executive of the Training and Employment Agency, said the scheme would give Northern Ireland companies a pool of internationally minded young people to draw on.
"Winning overseas customers is what Northern Ireland needs to create the jobs and conditions that will help to cement the peace process. This initiative will undoubtedly help us to achieve this goal."