Bedtime reading over the last week or two seems to have settled upon political matters. Truth be told, my bedside table is littered (well, neatly piled high) with any number of genres of unread books, but the political ones have been the ones to hand as I’ve been settling down for the night.
While A Telling Year: Belfast 1972 filled me in one some of the local events just before I was born, Jonathan Powell’s Great Hatred, Little Room: Making Peace in Northern Ireland focussed on more recent events. Powell was Tony Blair’s Chief of Staff during his long years as Prime Minister, perhaps his closest colleague and responsible for organising and pushing through Blair’s agenda.
As chief negotiator, he spent an incredible amount of time working behind the scenes of the Northern Ireland peace process, and his book provides an insight into the wheeling and dealing that eventually resulted in the current Assembly up at Stormont.
Powell makes clear at the start that he has tried not to post-justify the actions and reactions that he details over the ten or more years. Instead, he has tried to explain the reasons and circumstances that provoked the actions at the time. They fell down more snakes and climbed fewer ladders than the average game of Snakes and Ladders!
The book is both fascinating and tedious.
Political negotiation is a high risk game to play. A lot is at stake, including people’s reputations, and - in Northern Ireland - people’s lives. But the tenacity that drove Blair and Powell to keep going and not give up on the process is amazing. The constant hopping onto a plane to nip across to Belfast or Derry, to meet the political players and resolve crises and inch the process forwards is incredible, and was either unknown or under-reported at the time. While there is a lot of detail included in the book, I was thankful as a reader that sometimes whole months passed in a paragraph. There must have been thousands of meetings over the years.
What emerges is a picture of how the local politicians, political parties, and their constituencies of support believe, behave and react. Blair realised that there was a window of opportunity to capitalise on John Major’s successes and mistakes to work with the personalities leading parties when he came to power.
- David Trimble was not typical of his party or his voters. He was personally willing to step beyond the traditional unionist comfort zone, and while Blair consistently promised to stand by him and offer support when the UUP found it hard to follow him, he eventually fell from power, having effectively sacrificed his own political credibility and success for the good of NI.
- Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness too were personally willing - in their case to stand up and lead the IRA away from guns and violence and to commit to a fully peaceful and political struggle.
But it took a long time. A lot of words. More drafting than the average leader’s speech at party conference! And probably more misunderstanding than agreement.
What jumps out from the extended narrative is the importance of communication and sequencing. You’ve got to keep talking ... even when it’s politically awkward (like the DUP-Sinn Féin back channel) and when the going gets rough (and the Northern Bank gets robbed mid negotiation).
Baby steps build confidence and trust, while moving towards the main objective. And if some of the later baby steps fall apart? Well, at least you’re closer to your objective than when you started. A mathematician might want to say that the process “tends towards” peace!
It’s a fascinating read. I wouldn’t worry if your brain switches off for some passages and skips parts. There’s even the odd anecdote that’ll make you smile - the one about Major storming out of his own office and realising that Paisley was still in it and refusing to budge amused me, along with McGuinness insisting in repairing Powell’s broken watch - whose good work was undone when the Security Services checked the repaired watch for bugs and broke it again!
Powell was frequently wrenched away from family events to jump on a plane to meet up with wobbling politicians. In the midst of the cash for honours affair, Lord Levy, Blair’s chief fundraiser, was arrested.
“Gerry Adams rang to ask if Tony and I would seek political status if we went to prison. He recommended that we not recognise the court. The picture of Tony and me on the blanket helped me temporarily to see the funny side of the peace negotiations.”
A bit like the Breakout programme I posted about yesterday, Powell’s book is written from his perspective of the peace process. It’s detailed and well-observed, but it could never be entirely authorative. There are players who are absent from the narrative - whose actions didn’t cast big enough shadows to be seen out of Powell’s window. While Clonard Monastry became a useful meeting ground, local clergy are largely absent from the story. And there are plenty of folk who have contradicted Powell’s account - David Trimble took issue with Powell’s account in his review in the Guardian.
Powell finishes the main part of his book with an observation about the future.
“Assuming the politicians can get past the hurdle of devolving police and justice, there is no reason why Northern Ireland shouldn’t remain at peace and enjoy even greater prosperity. But the burden of history remains, and before the two sides become truly reconciled they need to find a way to deal with the past.
If a truth and reconciliation process of the sort that helped South africa is not quite right, then it will be necessary to find something similar. The trauma of IRA murders, security-force collusion and loyalist sectarian violence needs to be exorcised. If it is left to the police and the courts and yet more inquiries, there is a danger that everyone will simply be dragged back into the morass from which they are trying to escape. So, if I have one wish, it is that the people of Northern Ireland find an acceptable way to lay the past to rest.”
So as the current Assembly works its way across the potholes and builds replacement bridges for the ones that have been burnt, spare a thought for the efforts being made behind the scenes to get the show back on the road. While Gordon Brown’s team in 10 Downing Street may not be keen to spend as much effort as Blair on Northern Ireland, the NIO, the parties and other influencers and trusted ears will be burning the midnight oil to keep lines of communication open and find a form of sequencing that everyone can accept. Without doubt, it’ll be more complicated and more convoluted than the media will ever know or be able to say.