Gary Hart was a prescient voice on Northern Ireland

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As we approach the 19th anniversary of President Clinton’s first visit to Northern Ireland, another American representative is heading to Belfast in the hope of encouraging the local politicians to behave like mature and rational human beings.

There must be bewilderment in Washington DC as to how the optimism kindled during those heady days of presidential visits has dissolved into bitter disappointment.

Diplomats must be struggling to answer questions.

Why it is, yet again, necessary to be sponsoring a peace envoy to Northern Ireland?

Wasn’t Northern Ireland supposed to be fixed?

Don’t the Stormont elite jet around the world picking up prizes and lecturing others on the miracle of the “peace process”?

What the heck happened to all that money sent across the Atlantic?

This time round the American government is despatching the seasoned politician, strategist, fixer and philosopher Gary Hart.

It could get interesting as the former senator will be unlike any American envoy that the local political class has previously encountered.

I had the privilege of working with Gary Hart for a couple of days in 1996, when he was in Northern Ireland to deliver a speech.

His demeanour was a far cry from most of the American officials that were streaming through the Province at the time.

He dressed down and liked to move about unnoticed. He spent most of his time in “receive” mode, he asked unusual questions, wandered about observing his surroundings in detail and he spent long periods of time analysing what he saw and heard.

When he switched to “transmit”, what he said was revolutionary.

At that time it was the norm for visiting Americans to scatter pity and flattery over the natives and make promises of assistance parcels of other people’s money.

There was a perceptible shock when Gary Hart diverted from this script.

Rather than play to the culture of victimhood, he highlighted the many advantages that Northern Ireland possessed including access to the global connections of two traditions including the British Commonwealth and the Irish diaspora; our membership of the EU and the general groundswell of international goodwill.

He pointed out that few places on earth benefited from having so many open doors in front of them.

He then said that it was up to local leaders to exploit these advantages and warned that our moment in the sun was time limited and that if we did not act then the world would lose interest and Northern Ireland would become a forgotten corner of an island, off a bigger island, off a continent.

Gary Hart told Northern Ireland’s nascent political elite something that they did not want to hear, that they would have to take responsibility and do some work for themselves.

They chose to ignore his warning and time has proved Gary Hart to have been one of the more prescient voices from that period of local history.

Returning here, he will no doubt be told, repeatedly, how much Northern Ireland has changed.

Of course the place has changed in many respects, but pretty much everywhere in the developed world looks different to what it did 19 years ago.

The only exceptional and positive thing that has been achieved has been the reduction in the level of terrorist criminality.

While squadrons of spin merchants and press photographers are deployed to give the impression that all is rosy in the economic garden, the Northern Ireland economy has underperformed during the entire period of the peace process.

Economic activity here remains well below the level where it should be.

Countless opportunities have been missed, and the rest of the world has moved on.

While Northern Ireland’s economy stagnated, the Republic of Ireland built, boomed, crashed and recovered again.

Stormont wallowed in complacency and the Kafkaesque notion that the absence of a dynamic private sector economy was the best protection against economic downturn.

While representatives from the world’s emerging nations put in unseen hard graft to build their countries’ economies and societies, Northern Ireland’s political superstars staged numerous self-serving photo-opportunities, pigged out on junkets and begged Americans for ever more hand outs.

While our politicians squandered our advantages, India and China grew into economic superpowers, moved up the value chain and started outsourcing the grunt work back to us.

Eastern Europe built an infrastructure that now makes the region the favoured location for future large scale investment coming into Europe, while in Northern Ireland the largesse of the world’s taxpayers disappeared without trace into the nebulous and insatiable “peace process”.

Nearly two decades on, what will Gary Hart make of the phalanx of well-remunerated politicians, complete with their fleet of chauffeur driven cars, who prefer to pick petty fights over flags rather than flying the flag for Northern Ireland?

A class seemingly protected from the sort of accusations of corruption, criminality and cover ups that would ensure the resignation of principled politicians anywhere else, and with such a juvenile need for attention that dog and pony show “talks” need to be staged before they will begin to consider doing the jobs they are paid to do.

How will Gary Hart respond to people who demand a guaranteed role in government but are prepared to undermine that government rather than reform economy destroying and unaffordable welfare dependency?

How will he begin to analyse a place where massive levels of organised crime are undermining social and economic development, while the politicians actively prevent the operation of an effective national crime fighting agency?

It will be a pity if Gary Hart has mellowed with age and takes the easy path of pandering to the political classes, because Northern Ireland desperately needs a good strong and shocking dose of the sort of reality that he previously prescribed.