Former US Senator Gary Hart meets Northern Ireland parties

Two-time contender for Democratic nomination trying to establish extent of problems

Gary Hart is also meeting with representatives from the UK and Irish governments on his visit across the Atlantic. Photograph: Reuters

Gary Hart is also meeting with representatives from the UK and Irish governments on his visit across the Atlantic. Photograph: Reuters

Thu, Aug 28, 2014, 16:28

A former US senator tasked by Washington to assess the state of the peace process in Northern Ireland has met politicians in Belfast.

Gary Hart, a two-time contender for the Democratic presidential nomination in the 1980s, had scheduled meetings with representatives of the main Stormont parties throughout today.

He has been asked by US secretary of state John Kerry to establish the extent of the current problems at Stormont and whether the US administration can help.

His visit came as a former senior aide to ex-president Bill Clinton, Nancy Soderberg, accused political leaders in Northern Ireland of an “abysmal abdication of leadership” and being “far too stuck in the past”.

Stormont is currently hamstrung by a range of impasses, with the Democratic Unionist and Sinn Fein-led five-party mandatory coalition unable to reach consensus on numerous big ticket issues.

Eight months ago intensive talks chaired by former US diplomat Dr Richard Haass to resolve long-standing disputes around parades, flags and the toxic legacy of the Troubles ended in failure.

In July an effort to reconvene negotiations in earnest, this time chaired by a senior Stormont official, suffered a similar fate after unionists walked out as part of protest action against a partial ban on a contentious Orange Order parade.

It is highly unlikely any further all-party talks will take place before the UK government responds to a demand by unionist and loyalist parties and the Orange Order for a separate commission of inquiry to be set up into the restricted parade in north Belfast.

Mr Hart, who at this stage is not assuming as prominent a role as Dr Haass, is also meeting with representatives from the British and Irish governments on his visit across the Atlantic.

The politician, whose second bid for the Democratic nomination in 1988 ended in scandal after the married politician was pictured on a yacht with a model sitting on his lap, is keeping a low profile in Belfast and has not yet made any public statements about his meetings.

Emerging from his encounter with the US diplomat, Deputy First Martin McGuinness said: “I met with Senator Hart and briefed him on the current serious challenges facing the political process in the North.

“I made it clear that Sinn Féin welcomes continued US engagement in the political process as the US has played a positive role in the development of the Irish peace process.

“It remains our view that we can find a resolution to all the difficulties facing the political process through genuine engagement by all parties and a hands-on proactive approach by the British and Irish governments in any negotiations.”