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April 16, 2008

Jonathan Powell overplays Tony Blair's part in bringing peace to Northern Ireland - and underplays the part of world events, argues Richard D. North: Great Hatred, Little Room: Making Peace in Northern Ireland - Jonathan Powell

Posted by Richard D. North

Great Hatred, Little Room: Making Peace in Northern Ireland
by Jonathan Powell
London: Bodley Head, 2008
Hardback, £20

This book describes how

we were finally able to bring about peace in Northern Ireland,
writes Jonathan Powell in this fascinating but rather nerdy book. All kinds of evolving factors contributed to the success, he adds,
but perhaps the most important change of all was in the attitude of the British government…. This process began with John Major… but Northern Ireland had to wait for Tony Blair…..
In one or two passages such as this, Mr Powell rather spoils the effect of what is otherwise a pretty decent if wonkish piece of story-telling.

Why did Jonathan Powel write it? One is bound to speculate that this is the one bit of Mr Blair's legacy in which Blairish characteristics seem to have produced a really good result. Mr Powell on the welfare state or anything else more domestic would have given us an account of the failure of Sofa Government. The run-up to the second Iraq war would have been something else again. One can't help feeling the sofa-kings thought they’d get this one in first.

This may have been a deliberately boring book. It is certainly a very detailed account of the negotiations, with every twist and turn laid out. Roughly speaking, all the main northern Irish protagonists could claim that there were hard men behind them, both emboldening them and holding them back. In the resulting painful dance it is never clear the degree to which the people doing the negotiating really were that different from the non-negotiables behind them. The Sinn Féin/IRA and the IRA/Real IRA relationships were by far the most obscure.

The negotiator's manual
There are some fascinating insights. One is that the loyalists had everything to lose whilst the republicans had everything to win. As Mr Powell puts it:

The Unionists could only lose once, whilst the Nationalists could afford to lose often, so long as they won once.
Indeed, one might argue that whilst the IRA knew it had lost the war already, it wanted to make sure it won the peace, sometime. The Unionists had won the war already, but were absolutely bound to lose ground in the peace. No wonder they were sluggish.

The trouble is, the unionists really did have to budge over. There are some very good pages of history-telling in this book. In one pair of sections, Jonathan Powell tells the whole centuries-old story through Catholic eyes and then again through Protestant eyes. The Catholics have had every reason to be deeply resentful.

Mr Powell is from the Anglo-Irish ascendancy himself, but not very interested in all that. He likes but doesn't live history. He's a cyclist. He impresses himself when he gets up early to catch flights. He's got a decent line in gallows humour. He’s pretty patient, but not as hyper-patient as Mr Blair. He's tactless as well as very discreet when he remembers to be, which is mostly and especially in these pages. For a favour of life at the heart of Blair's Downing Street, one still can't beat Peter Stothard's 30 Days.

Even allowing that the book is more a negotiator's manual than a contemporary history, we still ought to criticise Mr Powell for his work of hagiography. He gives a good deal of credence to the idea that in New Labour, the war-weary Adams and McGuinness, on one side, and (very latterly) an ageing and changed Ian Paisley, on the other, met a new generation of London politicians. So a deal could be struck. Along the way, John Hume and David Trimble had been the right moderates. About half way, 9/11 - according to Jonathan Powell - might well have had a psychological effect. But we still get Blair and Powell as the big difference.

The changing world changed the IRA
There is very little analysis of any of the other enormous changes that had gone on. Indeed, perhaps because of the book's general manner, but also perhaps because of the modern cosmopolitanism - the metro-elitism - of Powell and Blair, northern Ireland and its people are accorded mostly comic and occasionally tragic status.

Actually, surely the politics of the global village were at work? The Berlin Wall had come down and with it the whole symbolism of the left had changed. That must have mattered to Adams and McGuinness and the other ultra-lefties (as Powell says Blair always described them). The ANC had taken over in South Africa and were impressing the world by their (rather deceptive) magnanimity.

It is tempting to think that the sectarian wickedness in the former Yugoslavia might not merely have upstaged Sinn Féin/IRA, but may even have shamed them. The EU had been a boon to southern Ireland and that must have reminded everyone that whether as part of a united Ireland or of the United Kingdom, Ulster could board gravy trains.

Besides, there was general devolution in the UK. The whole nationality thing was taking a hit. All in all, surely it must have mattered just how provincial the province's squabble had become - how petty, parochial and anachronistic.

All this must have occurred first to the not-very political, not-very sectarian majority in Ulster. Large numbers of ordinary people had simply decided they would much rather seem to forgive and try to forget. They'd got bored with the burden of history and having its hand on their shoulder.

Besides, as Powell does note, the IRA had realised that they couldn't win. Indeed, it isn't enough said how spectacularly they failed, and it certainly isn't stressed by Powell. The terrorists (or historically-legitimate army, whatever) involved themselves in forty years of wicked killings and provoked a horrendous backlash against many of their own people and they still didn't get Irish unity, let alone republicanism. All they got was a power-sharing system they could have had, say, twenty years earlier.

It may yet not work, and there are still nasty sectarian habits, but the point is that it could have happened much earlier. For all I know, Adams and McGuinness may have felt that they'd better wrap the whole thing up before their beloved movement was exposed as having degenerated into an inferior Mafia. Indeed, some of the gangsterism had produced rewards which couldn't be enjoyed without peace. We presumably won't know this stuff from the Sinn Féin/IRA side. They were inveterate dissemblers, for sure. As Mr Powell notes: Adams once said that you could always tell when Jonathan was lying and a colleague of Jonathan's rueful response was, "Unlike you, Gerry".

One of the factors in the Blairite's success may have been the degree to which they seduced Sinn Féin/IRA. Mr Powell shows us Adams and McGuinness playing with the Blair children in the garden of Number 10 in 1999. Jonathan Powell quickly put a stop to that, but apparently only out of fear of a photograph being taken. Perhaps, indeed, it was the other way round. Who was seducing whom?

Anyway, Powell repeatedly stresses how important it was to have channels of communication and to keep using them even when things seemed hopeless. Moral outrage was almost always useless. Oddly, he says this and suggests that the understanding was special to the Blair negotiating style (and here's my criticism) even while he elsewhere notes that nearly all British governments had opened up such channels and used them when it would have shocked public opinion to do so. So whilst it is true and important that Blair and Powell were persistent, pragmatic, patient, polite and proactive - it isn't enough stated here that they were also very lucky. The moment came when northern Ireland was ready for peace and they were well-equipped to oil its wheels. Thank goodness.

Richard D. North is the author of Mr Blair's Messiah Politics: Or what happened when Bambi tried to save the world (Social Affairs Unit, 2006) and its 2007 digital update Mr Blair's Messiah Politics: A story of inspired government, 1997-2007.

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A minor detail: Jonathan Powell is not from the 'Anglo-Irish Ascendancy' in the normally used sense of the term. His mother's (and my grandmother's) family, the Moylans (Queen's Co. - Laois) and other irish ancestors, the Fitzgeralds (originally Co.Cork), were Roman Catholic in background and mainly remained so in practice, and although, like far more Irish Catholics than it is fashionable to admit, they were quite well off, well educated, and were generally 'establishment' people (many were and are lawyers of one sort or another) they were not part of the overwhelmingly Protestant/Church of Ireland landowning 'Ascendancy', and indeed held no significant landed estates (at least in the last two centuries or so).

Posted by: Charles Bennett at September 8, 2008 10:57 PM
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