Belfast Telegraph

Former US Senator Gary Hart: Northern Ireland - do what is right and not what suits you

By Gary Hart

I've been honoured to represent United States Secretary of State John Kerry on issues related to Northern Ireland. It is well-known that the current talks span a great number of issues from finance to parades, flags, and the past to implementation of previous agreements to restructuring political institutions. Given the wide array of group interests, fashioning any kind of comprehensive resolution of all these subjects, each one more dear to one group than another, is an immense challenge to those seeking negotiated solutions.

As we in America have done for more than two decades, we continue to try to be helpful. The United States Government does not bring a preconceived solution to the table. The citizens of Northern Ireland well know by now that we are an outside presence simply seeking to support these negotiations. Other than a peaceful and prosperous future for all the people of Northern Ireland, we have no agenda of our own.

Her Majesty's Government and the Government of the Republic of Ireland have been very welcoming to a continued US presence. They both understand that we have no political agenda of our own. The ability of the United States Government to add encouragement, ideas, and assistance is dependent on this collective trust among our governments and we will continue to build upon it.

After many years of public service at home and engagement in projects in nations around the world, I find a concern that virtually all human beings share - the love of our children and the hope for a better future for them. This is perhaps the most powerful common human instinct. We can build upon it.

All of us must appreciate this: we do not have to sacrifice the common good and the interests of future generations in order to maintain our identity. My nation, a nation of immigrants, did not demand that immigrant groups give up their cultures and histories in order to become American. But we have promoted the idea that all in America, regardless of their origin, had an interest in achieving a better common future as a nation.

The ghosts of the past must not be allowed to haunt the future of those yet unborn. Despite historic differences, I am struck by the intelligence and goodwill of all the party leaders I have met. Yes, they have their respective party agendas. But there is in each and all of them a desire to move beyond the past. It is not a question of whether; it is a question of how.

We in the United States can seek to encourage private investments, and thus employment opportunities, to Northern Ireland. But our success in that effort will require political stability and a functioning, problem-solving government operated by men and women of goodwill.

As a frequent visitor to Northern Ireland, I am finding citizens organising themselves around a common future, a future that will be better in every way for their children. Pursuing a sense of the common good requires us to place the interests of traditional politics at a distant second.

Northern Ireland's great poet, Seamus Heaney, once described a "republic of conscience" in which there were "no porters, no interpreter, no taxi". In this republic, he wrote, "you carried your own burden and very soon your symptoms of creeping privilege disappeared". And as to public leaders, he said, they "must swear to uphold unwritten law and weep to atone for their presumption to hold office".

This republic is what Vaclav Havel called "a politics above politics". It is the realm where we must do what is right and not what is politically advantageous to us and our group.

As the years have passed - in my case many years - I have come to pay attention to the republic of conscience more than the republic of traditional politics. And in doing so I have found an increasing number of people shedding any notion of power in the form of creeping privilege and putting the common good above the presumptions of political office.

Perhaps if we all keep our eyes on the republic of conscience, a place where politics and power are kept in perspective and we atone for our presumption to hold office, those in Northern Ireland and those of us in America, can escape the worst of our past. A friend of mine once said that each of us is better than the worst thing we have ever done.

Americans must always be cautious in our interventions. We must always keep in mind that we killed hundreds of thousands of our own citizens in a bloody civil war. We are still atoning for our early history of slavery and that has not been easy. But each generation of Americans has produced a few citizens of the republic of conscience who have led us to higher things and who have urged us to keep our eyes on the stars.

So too with Northern Ireland. You have some remarkably capable and visionary leaders in office and in the public square. You have every right to be optimistic, to hope for a better future for your children, to say, in the words of Martin Luther King's memorable speech: "I have a dream today."

The people of America wish for you to achieve that dream and to be with you when it happens. As President Obama put it in his speech in June 2013 at the Waterfront Hall: "And you should know that so long as you are moving forward, America will always stand by you as you do."

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