US Secretary of State John Kerry has appointed former senator and presidential hopeful, Gary Hart, as his “personal representative” on Northern Ireland, as multi-party talks continue on finding lasting agreement over cultural flashpoints like parading and flags, as well as reconciling how to deal with the bloody legacy of “the Troubles.”
The subject matter for the talks is certainly bespoke, but serious too. For instance, the row over Belfast City Council’s decision in December 2012 to only fly the Union flag on designated days (as every other town hall in the rest of the UK already does) led to serious rioting, with 100 police officers injured and death threats issued against moderate politicians in the Alliance Party who voted for the change.
This new round of talks picks up from the negotiations begun by former US diplomats Richard Haas and Meghan O’Sullivan on the same issues, which petered out last Christmas without agreement between the parties.
This fresh initiative, led by Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers, will also try and fine-tune the workings of the devolved executive, with strains now apparent between the Democratic Unionists and Sinn Fein about Westminster-imposed welfare cuts that the republicans refuse to countenance.
Hart’s is an interesting appointment. Since he dropped out of the 1988 presidential race, after infamous revelations about an affair, he has reinvented himself as a doyen of the US foreign policy community. In a telling remark, The New York Times quoted him saying that only half of him wanted to be president. ”The other half wants to go write novels in Ireland.”
A personal friend of Kerry’s, Hart’s appointment signifies US buy-in from the very top. Kerry described Hart yesterday as “a problem-solver, a brilliant analyst, and someone capable of thinking at once tactically, strategically, and practically.”
The US (under both Democrats and Republicans) has played a powerful galvanising role in Northern Ireland’s political process from the very beginning, with former Senator, George Mitchell, chairing the talks that led to 1998’s Good Friday Agreement.
With the US mid-term elections just a fortnight away, it certainly does the Democrats no harm to show 45m Irish-Americans that they are doing everything to pursue progress in Northern Ireland.