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US envoy Gary Hart returns to Northern Ireland

Published 13/10/2015

Former US senator Gary Hart is meeting with Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers at Stormont House
Former US senator Gary Hart is meeting with Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers at Stormont House

The US administration's envoy to Northern Ireland has returned to the region to assess the progress of negotiations aimed at saving powersharing.

Former senator Gary Hart is meeting with Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers at Stormont House in Belfast before scheduled discussions with first Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness and then Democratic Unionist leader Peter Robinson.

Mr Hart, who is acting as Secretary of State John Kerry's personal representative, is also due to meet with an SDLP delegation on Tuesday.

On Wednesday, the veteran politician will hold talks with Alliance party leader David Ford and Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt before travelling to Dublin for a meeting with Irish premier Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Ireland's foreign affairs minister Charlie Flanagan.

A spokesman for the US consulate in Belfast said the former senator would "encourage progress" in the current talks and urge the full implementation of last year's stalled Stormont House political deal.

"Personal Representative Hart's discussions will focus on how the United States can best support constructive engagement in the current negotiations and work with all parties to foster an enduring peace in Northern Ireland," he said.

The current political talks in Belfast involving the five main Stormont parties and the British and Irish governments were called amid a crisis sparked by an IRA-linked murder.

A police assessment that members of the IRA were involved in shooting Kevin McGuigan in August prompted unionists to remove all ministers but one from the coalition Executive, claiming Sinn Fein was inextricably linked to the supposedly defunct republican terror group.

The DUP has since been reinstating and then removing a number of its Executive ministers in an on-going cycle, to prevent the posts being reallocated to other parties.

While the DUP has defended the political manoeuvring as a necessary response to the crisis, critics have denounced the party for leaving departments, in particular health, without leadership.

An independent assessment of paramilitary criminality commissioned by the Government in the wake of the McGuigan murder is due to be published this week. Its contents could have a significant impact on the progress of the talks.

The devolved Assembly has been thrown into disarray following the shooting of the ex-IRA man.

The 53-year-old father of nine was shot dead in Belfast in a suspected revenge attack for the murder of former IRA commander Gerard "Jock" Davison, 47, in May.

Detectives believe some of Mr Davison's associates suspected Mr McGuigan of involvement in his shooting.

Before the McGuigan murder, the future viability of the administration had already been in doubt as a consequence of long-standing budgetary disputes, with the row over the non-implementation of the UK Government's welfare reforms the most vexed.

The fallout from the shooting and the other problems besetting power-sharing are all on the agenda in the negotiations.

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