Belfast Telegraph

Gary Hart: I'm confident of talks success... but London will have to bend on welfare reform

By Liam Clarke

Northern Ireland needs a Westminster welfare bailout, according to the US special envoy.

In the first major interview since he was appointed, former Senator Gary Hart also told the Belfast Telegraph he was in discussions about a possible visit to Northern Ireland by a delegation of powerful US politicians for a "milestone" St Patrick's Day.

Despite a poisoned atmosphere and air of gloom surrounding the current political talks at Stormont, Mr Hart remains upbeat, declaring that failure is not an option.

While the negotiations were originally conceived to resolve controversial issues such as parades, flags and dealing with the past, Mr Hart said the first priority now was to cover the budget and sort out welfare reform.

Stormont is currently being fined by the Treasury for failing to reform its benefits system, with the bill set to rise to hundreds of millions of pounds if ministers here cannot reach agreement.

The Treasury has already agreed to advance the Executive £100m to see it through to the end of the financial year, and the Government is going to be asked for more money when it meets the local parties.

Mr Hart appeared to sympathise with the view that Northern Ireland was a special case that deserved extra help - although Westminster has so far ruled this out.

"A formula can be found that helps the UK Government meet at least part of its budgetary mandate, but also does not do that at the expense of the neediest in Northern Ireland - and there are many needy people in Northern Ireland," he said.

"That is not a political judgment, it is a humanitarian judgment," he stated.

With 12 years' experience on the US Senate budget committee, Mr Hart has specialist knowledge in the field.

He does not rule out offering his advice and refuses to countenance failure in the negotiations.

"The talks are going to succeed and we in the United States are going to do everything we can to ensure that they succeed and that they continue to be successful throughout 2015 and beyond," he said.

"There is not going to be failure- and it doesn't do anybody any good to speculate as to 'what if'."

His positive tone stands in contrast to comments made by Secretary of State Theresa Villiers. In a terse statement yesterday, she said: "The chances of clinching a final deal look slim."

Mr Hart said he expected to hold a series of meetings with community, political and business leaders on Monday and Tuesday.

"I intend to be around the Stormont talks on Wednesday and Thursday and talking to people on a bilateral basis and lending every encouragement I can, and possibly some ideas that might be helpful," he added.

If there is progress between now and the end of the year it seems likely there will be a lull in discussions until after the general election in May.

"Everyone accepts that the first four or five months of negotiations are not going to be very intense negotiations, but there are other things that can take place - including American visits at various times," he said. "We will try to keep positive momentum going to the degree that the American government can do so.

"I am in talks with some friends of mine in the Congress. They are in both parties, Democratic and Republican, in both houses, Senate and House, about a possible Congressional visit," he stated.

"St Patrick's Day in March will probably see some activity. We have three or four months to plan for that, and that could be a milestone as well."

Hart on...

PROSPECTS OF SUCCESS IN THE TALKS

“I think the talks are going to succeed and we in the United States are going to do everything we can to ensure that they succeed and that they continue to be successful throughout 2015 and beyond.”

THE LOCAL PARTIES

“I have talked to the leadership, not just of the two major parties, but of the other parties as well. They seem to be men and women of goodwill and good intentions.”

WELFARE REFORM

“When you are talking about welfare payments you’re talking about people’s lives and their ability to house and clothe themselves and feed themselves and their children. In this case it is the UK budget versus the real needs of people in Northern Ireland.”

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