Belfast Telegraph

Stormont talks: All our parties need to take Hart

Editor's Viewpoint

At first glance it seems difficult to square the contrasting views of Theresa Villiers and Gary Hart on the inter-party talks. In an unusually downbeat assessment, the Secretary of State said hopes of the politicians agreeing a deal were very slim. Mr Hart, the US special envoy to the talks, is much more optimistic in an interview with this newspaper. He says failure is not an option.

Perhaps both can be correct to an extent. Ms Villiers' focus is on the most contentious issues such as dealing with the legacy of the past, parading, and flags and emblems. It is clear that little progress has been made on any of these and with the parties likely to go into election mode after the New Year the opportunity for any agreement is indeed slim.

But Mr Hart, whose commitment to Northern Ireland can be gauged by the fact that he initially suggested the idea of a US envoy to Northern Ireland during President Clinton's first term of office, is keen to deal in what is practical.

As he prepares to fly back to Northern Ireland next week, he argues that the main priority is sorting out the welfare reform row and getting our budget on an even keel. He has experience of budgetary issues in the US and that could prove invaluable in getting some sort of consensus from the parties as well as persuading Westminster to produce the necessary bankroll.

Of course he comes from a land which has a tremendous can-do culture and that may also help to explain why he won't countenance failure, no matter how gloomy the forecasts. Such an attitude can be infectious and certainly he will have his work cut out to persuade the parties to poke their heads over their respective trenches.

It is encouraging that he wants to have a regular hands-on involvement in the talks and let us hope that US Secretary of State John Kerry, who has much more pressing global concerns, will allow Mr Hart to spend the time he wants here.

There is no doubt Mr Hart is an influential figure in and he can use his powerful US allies for the good of Northern Ireland if he feels that the effort will bear fruit.

It is important therefore to inject some momentum into the talks and his concentration is on what is practical and achievable. Even if the parties could agree on one issue - perhaps Ardoyne or welfare reform - that would be a significant advance.

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