| 14.2°C Belfast

Stormont talks: His heart's in right place, but Gary Hart's presence is futile


US envoy Gary Hart

US envoy Gary Hart

US envoy Gary Hart

The most crestfallen person at Stormont if the all-party talks come to nothing will be Gary Hart. Hopes for the talks have been hit by the double whammy of Gregory Campbell's belligerent insults to Irish speakers and Gerry Adams letting it slip that the point of pushing for parity of treatment is to expose the presumed inability of the Northern state to accommodate equality.

Campbell's "yoghurt" jibe and crude dismissal of Sinn Fein's "wish list" amounted to a declaration that Northern Ireland is a unionist state for unionist people and that any dilution of its unionist character would endanger its existence.

Adams weighed in to complement Campbell's argument with an implicit assertion that the only way to achieve equality is to get rid of the Northern state.

I have suggested elsewhere that Stormont gaeligeori might consider speaking only in Irish when Gregory is in the chamber - perhaps switching to English as he leaves, just to make the point.

That's on the assumption that there will be a chamber left to speak in or a continuing process for Mr Hart to assist.

People under 40, as well as a sizable proportion of older folk, will have scratched their heads at first hearing that the former Colorado Senator was to be President Obama's point-man in the latest round of Northern Ireland discussions. His political career is scarcely remembered in these parts and not remembered in any detail in the US either, except by political obsessives.

What's remembered by millions is that he once took a trip in a boat called Monkey Business.

Some of us recall Hart as a man more given to radical (by US standards) rhetoric than to clear policies that he could be trusted to force through. But as battle commenced in the Democratic primaries in 1987, He was regarded as a harbinger of something fresh and new after eight years of Ronald Reagan.

The Hart campaign crashed and burned after the exposure of an apparent affair. In a significant moment for US politics and the media, a Washington Post journalist asked Hart at a packed Press conference: "Have you ever committed adultery?" No such question had ever been put to well-known philanderers like Franklin Roosevelt or John Kennedy. In his fascinating book, All The Truth Is Out, Matt Bai of the New York Times Magazine argues persuasively that this was the exact moment when US politics came to be focused on the sort of character a candidate was rather than on the political ideas which he or she espoused.

Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts won the Democratic nomination and was hammered out of sight by Reagan's vice-President George H Bush. Any chance of a comeback by Hart disappeared when a picture emerged of him seated on the deck of Monkey Business wearing a Monkey Business T-shirt and with actress Donna Rice on his lap.

Hart retreated to his cabin in the hills of Colorado. He was in the political wilderness, too. But he knew that he had been held in the highest esteem by party professionals and still hankered after a role. He knew a lot about Russia, had lived there for five months at the height of the Cold War, and was a close acquaintance if not a personal friend of Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev. In 1993 he twice sent Bill Clinton memos detailing his thoughts on US-Russia relations in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet empire and offering his services in any capacity. He was rebuffed both times.

In August 1994 Hart wrote again to Clinton. A singled-spaced three-page memo noted that paramilitary ceasefires were believed to be imminent in Northern Ireland and that negotiations would soon follow. Among the initiatives he suggested was that: "After consultation with all parties, you should appoint a 'personal representative' to observe, monitor and report to you on the progress of future peace negotiations, with an emphasis on seeking new formulas to facilitate progress."

He noted that he was a long-standing friend of one of Prime Minister John Major's closest advisers. He clearly had himself in mind as Presidential envoy. Clinton again turned him down. The following year George Mitchell was dispatched to Belfast.

It's taken a long while, then. But Hart must have felt that at last his time had come round again to play an active role in front line politics if not in a global context. It would be ironic indeed if crass interventions by parish politicians in an obscure patch of the world were to put paid to his last chance. It must be with a bitter sense of futility that he now recalls the golden days when he'd seemed set to soar to the highest peaks of political achievement

Belfast Telegraph