Sinn Fein donor to end era of giving

August 1, 2003

An Irish-American billionaire noted for his support of Sinn Fein is set to end multimillion-pound donations to higher education institutions in Ireland, their major source of private funds.

Atlantic Philanthropies, a once-anonymous charitable trust set up by Charles Feeney, has given millions of pounds to colleges and universities in both the north and south of Ireland, including Queen's University, Belfast, and Ulster University.

Mr Feeney, whose fortune comes from duty-free airport shops, has also donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to Sinn Fein's Washington office.

But reports from New York say the trust's focus on higher education is to end, with funds to be channelled instead into programmes for disadvantaged children, and reconciliation and human rights in the north and south of Ireland.

Mr Feeney's donations to colleges and universities in Ireland last year totalled €59 million (£41.6 million). This included almost half the funding for a £14.5 million Centre for Molecular Biosciences at UU, due to open this autumn.

Both Queen's and UU have strongly criticised the lack of government resources for academic research in Northern Ireland compared with the rest of the UK.

The Irish Times has quoted John Healy, New York-based chief executive of the trust, as saying that all grants to higher education already approved would be honoured. It aims to dispose completely of Mr Feeney's $3.9 billion (£2.5 billion) endowment to meet his belief in "giving while living".

In 2002, some 17 per cent of Atlantic's grants went to Ireland. About €890,000 went to the Conference of Heads of Irish Universities for strategic planning of tertiary education, and Cork University Foundation won e7.3 million to buy land for student accommodation. Funds going elsewhere included: £300,000 to support Liverpool University's moves towards endowing a chair in Irish studies; £246,000 to Birkbeck College for a long-term study of the benefits of part-time study; and more than £800,000 to Brighton University to develop a partnership with its local community.

Mr Feeney, who has Irish ancestors and is in his seventies, said he would rather give money away than spend it. He has been quoted as saying "You can only wear one pair of shoes at a time".

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