Northern Ireland

Inter-party talks: US envoy Gary Hart begins meetings in Northern Ireland

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Media captionUS senator Gary Hart is on his first visit as the envoy to the new inter-party talks

Former US senator Gary Hart has begun meetings with Northern Ireland politicians.

Mr Hart is on his first visit since being appointed US envoy to inter-party talks.

The Northern Ireland parties are trying to resolve outstanding issues, including budgets, welfare reform, and the legacy of the Troubles.

Sinn Féin MLA Jennifer McCann said Wednesday's meeting with Mr Hart was "positive and constructive".

"US support and involvement has been of crucial importance at various stages in the development of the peace and political processes.

"The appointment of Gary Hart as an envoy is an important intervention and brings an important focus to the current discussions," she added.

SDLP leader Alasdair McDonnell said his party had a "good meeting" with Mr Hart.

"I was very impressed, because Gary Hart brings a tremendous source of oxygen and energy to our talks and lifts them up a gear or two," he added.

He said the SDLP had appealed to Mr Hart "to use his influence to scale up the talks to reach a decisive, honourable settlement".

Following his meeting with Mr Hart, the Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt said the inter-party talks were at a "very early stage", but that the UUP had spent a "pleasant hour" with the former US senator discussing "some of the issues".

Earlier, Mr Hart promised to "listen closely" in his first meetings in the new round of talks.

Speaking ahead of the talks, Mr Hart said no-one underestimated the complexities facing Northern Ireland leaders.

He said many questioned whether the institutions could emerge from the "current political stagnation".

The current talks are aimed at resolving difficulties among the five parties in the Stormont government.

Mr Hart said Northern Ireland had made a "remarkable journey" in the past 20 years.

There had been major political, economic, and social successes, he said.

"The United States provided political, economic and social support throughout this period.

"In co-ordination with Secretary John Kerry, we will determine how the United States can use its good offices to help the parties find a path that will allow compromise and renewed progress.

"Working together, the parties can give Northern Ireland the stable, prosperous, and shared future its people deserve."

Mr Hart was appointed by US Secretary of State John Kerry last week to offer support to the parties.

Like the Haass talks that ended without a deal last December, the negotiators are considering the problems of flags, parades and the legacy of the Troubles.

They are also examining changes to the way the assembly and executive work.

Mr Hart met the SDLP at noon, he then held talks with the Ulster Unionists, before proceeding to discussions with the Alliance Party.

Commitment

Ahead of the meeting, Alliance minister and MLA Stephen Farry said it was time for parties to be honest on the all-party talks.

"Parties must show a commitment to this process and be willing to attend all meetings and discuss every issue on the table," he said.

"The people of Northern Ireland want to see these talks succeed, but that will not happen while politicians continue to put the interests of their party first, ahead of the public."

Mr Hart is speaking to Martin McGuinness in his role as deputy first minister and as a senior member of Sinn Féin. He is due to meet the first minister and DUP leader Peter Robinson on Thursday. Mr Robinson and Mr McGuinness said on Wednesday that they had taken a telephone call from US Vice-President Joe Biden.

Mr Hart is also meeting Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers.

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