New US peace envoy Gary Hart has spent two days in a series of bilateral meetings with the five main parties in the North and the Dublin and London governments.
In his first interview since arriving in Belfast, Mr Hart confessed to having no predetermined role in the negotiations. In addition to addressing outstanding issues from last year’s Haass talks, the talks aim to tackle welfare reform and Stormont’s structures.
The 77-year-old said he had no timetable to adhere to and would only bring “ideas and proposals” to the talks table.
“We have no plan of action -- I have no bulleted mandate from the secretary (John Kerry) saying do this and do this,” he said. “We are here to help and we have asked the parties how we can help and we get different answers from different political leaders.”
The newly-appointed US envoy said his level of involvement would be dictated by the talks’ participants but he hinted that the White House could become more involved as the process progressed.
The former presidential candidate revealed that after he reported to the US State Department in August, consideration had been given in Washington to tabling a clear set of ‘proposals’, but ultimately that was ruled out as “too ambitious”.
“Now if things stalemated, and I hope they don’t, something like that might be helpful,” he said.
Mr Hart insisted that the north of Ireland was still of great interest to Americans.
“There is only one other place on earth of this size and scale that attracts America’s attention more than Northern Ireland and that’s Israel,” he said.
Mr Hart said the political leaders he had met in his two recent trips to Belfast had all been welcoming but acknowledged they held differing views on what his contribution to the talks process should be.
Sinn Fein’s Jennifer McCann described the party’s meeting with Mr Hart as positive and constructive.
“We held a number of meetings today with the British and Irish governments, the UUP, the Alliance Party and former senator Gary Hart.
“The appointment of Gary Hart as an envoy is an important intervention and brings an important focus to the current discussions.
“It remains our view that the best way to move forward on all of the outstanding issues is through a plenary involving all parties, the two governments and the support of the US administration.”
SDLP leader Alasdair McDonnell said his party had a “good meeting” with Mr Hart and that the new envoy would be a “tremendous source of oxygen and energy”.
BUDGET CUTS AGREED
This week, Sinn Fein also finally held its first substantive meeting with the DUP as part of the latest talks process. The DUP stayed away from the opening session of the talks on October 16 in protest at the involvement of politicians from Dublin. DUP leader Peter Robinson still refuses to allow his party take part in round-table talks.
However, there were signs of progress after a stop-gap Six-County ‘budget’ was agreed between the DUP and Sinn Fein for the next financial year.
The deal agreed between Stormont’s two biggest parties will see reduced spending in line with the demands of the Tory coalition government in London. Details are still vague, but cuts will be implemented in all areas except health and enterprise, trade and investment. There have also been suggestions in the media that a deal may also been reached on cuts to social welfare, previously a major point of disagreement.
Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness said “tough decisions” had been taken to preserve the Stormont institutions. “These are difficult decisions -- nobody is under any illusions about the challenges that we face,” he said.
The smaller parties at Stormont were critical of the budget move. The SDLP said the cuts were “unacceptable”, while the UUP pointed to a “lack of transparency” in the figures. The RNU was also scathing of the announcement, which they said marked “another capitulation” by Stormont in regards to cuts “manufactured by the bureaucrats in Westminster”. The republican group were particularly scathing of Sinn Fein’s apparent U-turn on “Tory cuts”.
“After weeks of the one-directional nationalist party gallivanting around the streets screaming ‘Stop Tory Cuts’ at everyone they came across, here we have a situation where the party that claimed to be the only group fighting Tory cuts are in fact leading the way in making sure they become a reality,” they said.