The Bodley Head, 2008, 338 pp., £20
On May 8, 2007, an Irish miracle occurred. With Prime Ministers Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern beaming alongside, Ian Paisley, the leader of the staunchly pro-British Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), and Martin McGuinness, a leader of the Irish Republican Sinn Fein, took their oaths of office to lead a devolved Northern Ireland Assembly. The end of the “Troubles”, a day few had ever thought they would see, had finally arrived.
Bygones: Ian Paisley (l) and Martin McGuinness in Belfast, May 2007
One person who not only envisioned this result but was also a key actor propelling it was Jonathan Powell. Powell was Tony Blair’s Chief of Staff on paper, but in reality he was his alter ego—a trusted confidant and chief negotiator for ten years on the Northern Ireland peace process. Now, less than a year out of office, Powell has written Great Hatred, Little Room, his account of this high-stakes roller coaster ride, his main aim being to account for how the Blair government was able to solve a problem that had bedeviled previous Prime Ministers, and why it succeeded when it did.
One reason for success was clearly the sheer amount of energy, time and dogged persistence that Powell personally devoted to keeping the process afloat. Powell’s book introduces us to an extensive series of private one-on-one encounters and secret meetings, crises flaring and crises doused, with Powell always hurrying about to patch up or paper over the latest row or misunderstanding. Powell rummages over all the issues, from disputes over the new Northern Ireland police force to the use of rubber bullets for crowd control to the proper place of the Irish language to the more central concerns about the British Army’s demilitarization and the decommissioning of the IRA’s once formidable arsenal. At times his account verges on the “one damn thing after another” school of history. Indeed, it sometimes seems more like stenography than history at all.
For all of his voluminous insider knowledge, Great Hatred, Little Room contains little new information, other than the fact that the Democratic Unionist Party had established a back-channel with Sinn Fein in 2004, a time when the DUP publicly declared Sinn Fein to be its mortal enemy. Even this is something less than a genuine revelation: I had been told the same information at the time (when I served as the President’s Special Envoy to the peace process from December 2003 to February 2007), and the back-channel was widely suspected by many in Northern Ireland and elsewhere. Powell also provides little insight into the many compelling personalities involved in the drama, especially the real hero of the story, Tony Blair himself. More information on Blair’s thinking and motives regarding the Troubles will apparently have to await publication of his own memoirs.
The great strength of Powell’s book instead is the bright light it shines on how the British government approached the peace process. Indeed, one wonders whether Powell fully understands how revelatory his account really is.
Powell is clear up front that he and Blair did not feel encumbered by any “historical baggage” on Northern Ireland. He observes that “we were a younger generation and the war was not our war”, a rather breathtaking statement from an official of The Crown, whose citizens, police and soldiers had been and were being terrorized and murdered by Irish Republicans. This post-nationalist “New Labour” sensibility must also have made for some interesting family reunions. Powell’s older brother, Charles, was Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s Private Secretary when the IRA targeted her for assassination at the 1984 annual Tory conference in Brighton, and he later served Prime Minister John Major in the same capacity when the IRA mortared No. 10 Downing Street on February 7, 1991.
By the time Blair and Jonathan Powell arrived at No. 10 in 1997, the British government had already made the decision to meet with the IRA and Sinn Fein, secretly in the 1970s and thereafter more openly. But if the question of whether to engage had been answered, how to engage remained at issue. For Powell, the answer was perpetually and unconditionally. He defends the “importance of maintaining contact . . . talking should not be seen as a reward to be held out or withdrawn. Without contact there is no way of making the first steps towards peace.”
Powell’s body of work over the next decade thus renders more than a little hypocritical his criticism of the Major government’s decision to resume contacts with the IRA after its bombing of Canary Wharf in 1996. Powell writes that Major sent exactly the wrong message to the IRA: “The government response should have been that they would never deal with the IRA again until they had put violence aside for good. . . . [It] helped convince them to continue with their dual strategy of violence and politics together.” Aside from Powell’s refusal to serve champagne to Sinn Fein officials visiting Chequers right after the IRA’s brazen, midday kidnapping and attempted murder of a former comrade from the center of Belfast, it is difficult to distinguish his approach from his predecessor’s. One searches in vain for any guiding moral principle here, or any willingness at all to sanction (or even properly define) unacceptable behavior.
Powell is nothing if not enthusiastic about “maintaining contact.” One marvels at the time he devoted to meeting with Sinn Fein’s leaders. No detail was too small to merit attention from Powell and, more often than not, the Prime Minister himself. Britain’s Belfast-based ministers were routinely excluded from key negotiations and decisions, which only reinforced the tendency of Sinn Fein and the other parties to appeal directly to No. 10.
Credit where credit is due, however: Placing any violent ethno-nationalist conflict on a peaceful, democratic track—let alone addressing the deep scars of a damaged society—is a monumental task, and the British government deserves the highest praise for shepherding this process to a successful conclusion. But Powell’s history only hints at the costs of the miscalculations the British government made in dealing with the paramilitaries. His narrative is littered with deadlines set and subsequently ignored, with no adverse consequences to the responsible party. We read of high-minded statements of principle that criminality and paramilitary activities will simply not be tolerated, but then they are in effect tolerated. We read of Powell explaining that such activities undermine confidence in the Unionist community. And we read of Powell repeatedly lecturing Gerry Adams and McGuinness that such criminality simply had to stop. But not to worry too much if it doesn’t.
What is striking about the British approach is not just the relentless concessions, but Britain’s unwillingness to use its leverage to make Sinn Fein deliver on its promises. Most notably, the Good Friday Agreement established a two-year timetable both for the release of all IRA and Loyalist prisoners (including several men serving life for multiple murder convictions) and for the decommissioning of all paramilitary weapons. After two years, the British had indeed freed all the prisoners, but the IRA had yet to dispose of a single weapon. British officials regarded the Agreement’s provisions as binding obligations, while Sinn Fein (and the other parties) understood that the Agreement’s implementation was as much a bargaining process as the initial negotiation itself.
Indeed, one cannot read Great Hatred, Little Room without developing a grudging admiration for the negotiating acumen of both Adams and McGuinness. These were highly intelligent, relentless men not above invoking the specter of IRA violence as a bargaining chip. Senator George Mitchell took their measure almost immediately: They were “natural-born chiselers”, he said, always demanding one more concession.
So why weren’t the British tougher on Sinn Fein and the IRA? How hard could it be to say no, to refuse unilateral concessions, and to apply more pressure to influence their decision-making? It is difficult to know. One likely reason is that Sinn Fein had developed a highly effective negotiating style that exploited the mythic secrecy of Irish Republicanism. Early in the process, Adams claimed that he needed British forbearance lest the “hard men” in the IRA take matters into their own hands, as allegedly happened at Canary Wharf. Similarly, after the Good Friday Agreement, he warned in ominous tones about the risk of a catastrophic split in the IRA if Republicans were pushed too far. Adams, of course, did his best to reinforce this notion, insisting routinely that he needed more time and, especially, more concessions.
It is perhaps too easy for Americans, at a remove of 3,000 miles, to criticize the policy of a British government that had been battling an insurgency for three decades and was gradually weaning it away from violence and down the path of politics. Yet there were indications that No. 10 had more room for maneuver than it realized. In July 2005, the IRA had finally agreed to decommission all its weapons. At the last minute, Adams called No. 10 to demand that some of the weapons not be destroyed so that the IRA could arm itself against possible attacks from dissident members. Unless this was allowed, he threatened, decommissioning would not proceed. The Blair government conceded, but wanted to check with Dublin. Irish Justice Minister Michael McDowell refused to acquiesce in the backsliding, despite enormous pressure. Powell told Adams of the problem, and Adams gave way. Decommissioning took place as planned.
The consensus of the U.S. and Irish governments was that Adams was in control of the movement and had been since the Good Friday Agreement, when two small breakaway groups formed separate dissident movements. Indeed, the Good Friday Agreement itself could be seen as a betrayal of the IRA’s founding credo, yet Adams still managed to sell the deal to the vast majority of his followers. But most clarifying of all is Adams’s own admission, on BBC Radio earlier this year, that invoking the threat of a possible split was “just a necessary part of the conflict resolution process.” In other words, it was ploy and bluff.
Naturally enough, the leverage available to the United States was far less than that possessed by London. We conditioned the type of visas issued to Sinn Fein officials on their party’s support for policing. I identified policing and support for the rule of law as the central issues in the peace process when I assumed my responsibilities in late 2003, because it was the basis for any just and democratic society and because it was the only basis on which Unionists would contemplate sharing power with Sinn Fein.
Powell does not explain how he thought that political conciliation was possible unless anchored in respect for the rule of law (by both the IRA and Loyalist paramilitaries). Not until very late in the game does he even mention the need for Sinn Fein to endorse policing. Powell writes, “As long as Republicans refused to cooperate with the police their communities would demand that the IRA provide a form of vigilante justice to deal with joy riders and drug dealers.” This is wrong on many levels. Behavior far more wanton and degenerate than joy riding was taking place in these communities. Punishments included “exiling” (out of the neighborhood or out of the country), maiming (knee-capping) and death. By denying proper policing and justice to ordinary Republicans and Nationalists in Catholic communities, Sinn Fein condemned them to a ghettoized existence in which the IRA often assumed the roles of constable, prosecutor and judge rolled into one. It’s not that people refused to cooperate with police; they were being intimidated against doing so.
The most notorious example of this was the brutal murder of Robert McCartney in January 2005 by IRA thugs who then threatened witnesses against going to the police. (To highlight this criminality and use it to move Adams and Sinn Fein, I invited McCartney’s partner and sisters to the White House for St. Patrick’s Day.) Powell gets the date of the murder wrong and then states that he and Blair “didn’t get to meet” McCartney’s family until nine months later.
Powell skates over McDowell’s role in the decommissioning drama and omits entirely the debate over visas for Sinn Fein. It would be inaccurate to claim too large a role for the United States in the peace process, but it seems a bit churlish for Powell to white out America from the process almost entirely. The “Four Horsemen” (Hugh Carey, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Tip O’Neill and Ted Kennedy), drew international attention early on to the discrimination against the Catholic community in education, employment and housing in Northern Ireland, and they balanced their intervention by also denouncing IRA violence. The Clinton Administration energized the peace process by inviting Adams to the White House and then by devoting time and attention at the highest levels in order to sustain political momentum.
The contribution of George Mitchell, whom Powell barely mentions in his chapter on the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, was critical in guiding the political parties to agree on a framework for peacefully resolving the Troubles. My predecessor, Richard Haass, met with Sinn Fein leaders on 9/11 and forcefully explained that terror would no longer be tolerated; just four days later, the IRA agreed to start decommissioning its arsenal. At a St. Patrick’s Day event in 2005, with Adams sitting in the front row, Senator John McCain denounced the IRA as a bunch of “cowards”; back in Belfast three weeks later, Adams called for the IRA to completely decommission its weapons and commit itself to a purely peaceful and political way forward. And over the years, Irish Americans have donated tens of millions of dollars for reconciliation efforts and generously hosted delegations from both traditions when they visited the United States. Acknowledging these and other international contributions (the roles of South Africa and the European Union come to mind) would not have diminished Powell’s own accomplishments.
Powell cautions that Northern Ireland should not be seen as a model for other conflicts. He is partly right. After conceiving of and winning massive public support for the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, the British government took nearly ten years to achieve the stable self-rule signaled by last May’s miracle. The peace process devolved into an exercise in serial concessions and indulgences, first to Sinn Fein and later the DUP. Moderate political voices from both traditions, such as John Hume and David Trimble, were shouted down and marginalized by more polarizing figures. The British government never seemed to ask why any of the Northern Ireland political parties would ever agree on closure when they could always expect to extract more concessions at the next meeting or after the next crisis. As the promise of the Good Friday Agreement gradually receded from view, ongoing paramilitary violence and criminality deepened public cynicism and caused Northern Ireland’s economy to fall further behind the Republic of Ireland’s. Most of my friends in Northern Ireland endured this seemingly interminable process stoically, but I dare say none would recommend the ordeal as a model for other countries.
Nonetheless, Great Hatred, Little Room contains valuable lessons that apply to other conflicts, even if that was not Powell’s explicit intention. It illustrates how messy a peace process can be, with its inevitable errors, miscalculations and squalid compromises. Few protocols or precedents exist to guide policymakers. Morality or high principles may offer no better guide, as negotiators often (and rightly) value pragmatism over all other considerations. Powell’s account candidly reveals that not all grievances, no matter how legitimate, can be honored equally or sometimes at all. It suggests that revulsion at unspeakable depravity must somehow be subordinated to the pursuit of larger goals. It acknowledges that the past must inform the present, but not handicap the future. It demonstrates that building peace is not for the weak-willed or faint of heart.
Fortunately for Northern Ireland, Powell, Blair, Bertie Ahern and many others possessed the determination to confront and overcome these challenges. Had they been more resolute, they might have succeeded a good bit sooner and saved lives by doing so. Still, success speaks for itself, no matter how much it is delayed. So one final lesson, then: Better to have too much patience in such affairs than too little.