Tom Griffin reviews Great Hatred, Little Room: making Peace in Northern Ireland by Jonathan Powell, Bodley Head, ISBN 9781847920324, £20.00 hbk
AS TONY Blair's Chief of Staff, former diplomat Jonathan Powell was a key backroom player in the Northern Ireland peace process for a decade. In this book, he provides a good-humoured and magnanimous account of an epic series of negotiations that began in the run-up to the 1998 Good Friday agreement and lasted into the aftermath of the 2006 St Andrews deal.
For much of the time, Powell's role was seen to be more important than that of the Northern Ireland secretary, and he admits to tensions with Mo Mowlam and Peter Mandelson in particular.
Like Blair himself, Powell has Irish antecedents. In a potted history of Ireland in chapter two, we learn that a great-grandfather had to leave Ireland because he was suspected of being a Fenian, and that Charles Parnell's mistress Kitty O'Shea was a distant relative. Nevertheless, like his boss, Powell came to the issue light on political baggage.
Powell's departmental background may be more significant. The Foreign Office's 'friends' in the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) helped pave the way for the peace process through a back-channel of secret contacts with the IRA that lasted from the early 1970s to the 1990s.
Together with Peter Taylor's documentary, The Secret Peacemaker, Powell's book reveals important new details about this link, not least the role of Derry businessman Brendan Duddy, who set up a crucial meeting between MI6's Michael Oatley and Martin McGuinness in 1991.
This sparked something of a turf-war with Stella Rimington, who insisted that the Security Service (MI5) take control of the back-channel. Powell maintains that all branches of the security forces were firmly behind the political process, although he acknowledges debates with the Army over demilitarisation, and frequent leaks of police intelligence to the unionists.
On occasion he passes over details that might lead one to question that benign picture. He notes the murder of Denis Donaldson, "a Sinn Féin employee who had been caught up in the Stormontgate Affair," but ignores Donaldson's exposure as an informer.
This discretion contrasts with Powell's candour in relation to the political parties. As journalist Liam Clarke has noted, there are major embarrassments for both the DUP and Sinn Féin in this book.
Powell reports secret back-channel contacts between the two in 2004, at a time when the DUP would not publicly sit in the same room as Sinn Féin for negotiations. He also claims that Martin McGuinness told him that the British government need not have conceded the Bloody Sunday Inquiry. On this account, it was the SDLP and the Irish government that were pushing most strongly for investigations into cases like that of Pat Finucane.
Powell accepts the charge that the British government sought to build the process from the extremes rather than from the centre, but one wonders whether his evidence bears this out. Downing Street was the last major player to accept David Trimble's eclipse as the leader of unionism by Ian Paisley.
In his conclusion, Powell rejects Seamus Mallon's famous claim that the Good Friday agreement was "Sunningdale for slow learners," arguing that "there were underlying factors necessary for peace which were not present in the 1970s." This is a sound judgement, albeit not necessarily incompatible with Mallon's thesis.
Much interest has rightly centered on Powell's suggestion that the search for peace can succeed "in the Middle East, in Afghanistan, and even, in the longer term, with Islamic terrorism, if people are prepared to talk."
There is some evidence that the British government has attempted to apply this logic. An MI6 veteran of the Irish contacts, Alistair Crooke, turned up in Jerusalem a few years ago running a back-channel to Hamas.
There were also rumours of an MI6 back-channel to the Taliban several months ago, when two Irishmen were expelled from Afghanistan. It may be significant that the British ambassador there, Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, began his career on the Foreign Office Irish desk.
The value of such contacts has been the subject of a lively debate, which is perhaps best encapsulated by two think-tanks on either side of it, Conflicts Forum and Policy Exchange.
The chairman of the latter, Charles Moore, delivered a stinging critique of Powell in the Telegraph:
"The Northern Ireland experience is now being turned into Britain's greatest policy export since privatisation. It is offered as the world model for conflict resolution.
Problems in the Middle East? Treat Hamas as Tony Blair treated Sinn Fein. Iraq proving a bit awkward? Treat Iran like the Irish Republic - a friendly neighbour who can help broker a deal.
Last week, even dreary Des Browne, our Defence Secretary, caught up with the fashion and told this paper that he would like a chat with the Taliban. Al-Qa'eda next?"
Moore laments the destruction of the moderate parties, but fails to acknowledge that many of the measures he objects to were SDLP demands as much as, or more than, Sinn Féin demands. The moderate alternative he hankers after never existed.
Such criticisms are not new, as Powell shows in a passage on the 1998 Good Friday referendum:
"Tony spoke to Conrad Black to try and get the Daily Telegraph, the only British paper read by unionists and virulently anti-Agreement, to be more moderate, which was only partly successful since what Black used to call "the militant tendency" on the paper stuck obstinately to their attempts to undermine the Agreement."
It is a pity that David Trimble has largely accepted the analysis of those who were undermining him then, in the process under-playing his own achievement.
Those who were wrong about the possibility of an inclusive peace in Northern Ireland are not the best people to judge its significance for other conflicts.
On this key point, Powell is in the right, and that makes this book both timely and significant far beyond Ireland. Further news, opinions and analysis by London Irish journalist Tom Griffin can be found at The Green Ribbon. The above review first appeared on the Our Kingdom website.
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Copyright © 2008 Tom Griffin