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Gary Hart has a big job to galvanise process

By Noel McAdam

So far it looks as if the Stormont multi-party meetings amount to little more than talks about talks.

Two weeks into a process in which the bar the parties have to clear is higher than ever - not only the welfare reform stalemate and budget black hole, but the legacy issues left unresolved by the Richard Haass process and the reform of Stormont itself - there has still been no full plenary session.

There have been meetings, but little real engagement, and that is no real surprise given the state of relations between the parties and fast-shrinking political will.

The question now must be whether the impending visit of former US senator Gary Hart can make any difference.

His precise role has yet to be discussed with the Stormont parties, with whom he is to meet when he flies in next week.

But senior sources have made clear he is not aiming to become another Richard Haass.

"This is not Haass two. This process has a very different dynamic," one source said.

Wisely, the 77-year-old also appears unlikely to make any public comment ahead of his meetings, which could take place next Wednesday and Thursday.

When nominated as an envoy by US Secretary of State John Kerry earlier this week, it was said Mr Hart will play a "direct, on-the-ground diplomatic role".

So he could be here for a while.

Labour's shadow secretary of state Ivan Lewis said the re-immersion in the cauldron of Northern Ireland politics by the US administration, 10 months after the negotiations led by Dr Haass and Professor Meghan O'Sullivan, showed the parties "need external help to make some progress".

Former SDLP Executive minister Alex Attwood said the involvement of Mr Hart should create a "gear-change".

And Irish Foreign Minister Charlie Flanagan said the window for progress was narrow, while the Northern Ireland Office indicated it will assess the situation early next month.

So, hopefully we should know soon if these talks are going anywhere.

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