Monkey business at Stormont

Gary Hart
Image caption It is understood Mr Hart will use his visit to assess how the United States can assist the parties in Northern Ireland to advance the peace process

The arrival of former Democratic senator Gary Hart in Belfast just as Northern Ireland is about to mark the 20th anniversary of the IRA ceasefire is a bit of a surprise.

Senator Hart has long harboured an interest in Ireland.

Back in the 1980s, he was quoted as saying: "Only half of me wants to be president - the other half wants to go write novels in Ireland."

Since his retirement from US Congress, he has specialised in security matters, and is a long-term friend and ally of current US Secretary of State John Kerry.

He is also associated with the Council on Foreign Relations, the same think tank that gave us Richard Haass.

Listening mission

But whether Senator Hart likes it or not, he will always be best remembered internationally for the scandal that forced his withdrawal from the 1988 US Presidential race, after pictures emerged of him with a glamorous model on board a yacht called "Monkey Business".

So what will Senator Hart makes of the "monkey business" now afoot at Stormont?

The last time the US sent a senior official, Victoria Nuland, to Belfast, she found it impossible to persuade the politicians to gather in the same room.

Ms Nuland welcomed the talks then getting under way on parading, flags and the past.

But it wasn't long until unionists walked out of those discussions in protest against the Parades Commission's determinations in north Belfast.

Senator Hart, we're told, is on a listening mission; which is just as well, because any suggested way forward has its drawbacks:

  • Should more Haass-style talks be reconvened?
  • What would be the point while unionists are still waiting for the Northern Ireland Office's response to their demand for a specific north Belfast parading inquiry?
  • Should such an inquiry proceed? Unionist say yes but nationalists say no.

'Where's the beef?'

The domestic nitty gritty of how Northern Ireland runs its health service or pays its welfare benefits isn't usually an item on any agenda for discussions with US diplomats.

But if Senator Hart ignores the financial tensions between the Stormont Executive parties he will only get half of the picture.

That's because there seems little likelihood of the politicians making progress on security and conflict-related matters, when they are at each others' throats over finance.

If the unionist "graduated response" on parading doesn't destabilise Stormont, then the stand-off over welfare reform might well.

Senator Hart once had to deal with rival Democrat Walter Mondale's challenge about his new ideas for the US presidency.

Mondale famously asked Hart, "Where's the beef?"

If Senator Hart wants to meet a group of politicians who have a beef about everything and everyone they deal with, then he's come to the right place.

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