That’s Tony Blair’s former chief of staff – the recently married Jonathan Powell – on Tony Blair. Powell’s account of The Process will be published soon, and is to be serialised in the Guardian from Monday. Today’s paper has a taster, and a longer interview, pointing to the importance of the “secret back channel between the British government and the IRA”. One part of that back channel, Brendan Duddy – formerly a member of the Policing Board – has been talking to journalist Peter Taylor.. although it’s not clear from the reports whether the other parts of that back channel, Martin McGuinness and a MI5 agent known as ‘Robert’, talked too. Here’s a short news report which may, or may not, be reliable.. Compare and contrast what’s said with previous statements by others.
From the Guardian report
Powell, the most senior member of the Blair circle to survive the prime minister’s full term in office, said that he had realised, after reviewing government papers and his diaries, that a secret back channel between the British government and the IRA, first opened in the 1970s, was one of the key factors that contributed to a peace deal three decades later.
“It’s very difficult for democratic governments to do – talk to a terrorist movement that’s killing your people,” he said. “[But] if I was in government now I would want to have been talking to Hamas, I would be wanting to communicate with the Taliban; and I would want to find a channel to al-Qaida.”
And from the full interview in the Guardian
Powell is unfailingly described by profile writers as “diplomatic”, but one of the most striking things revealed by his book is his capacity for putting his foot in his mouth. When Siobhan O’Hanlon, Gerry Adams’s late assistant, asks for a meeting with Blair during the Good Friday talks, Powell tells her his boss is in a meeting with Bertie Ahern, but “we could get rid of him”. O’Hanlon replies that there is no need and Powell, whose sense of humour frequently falls on the dusty side of dry, chips in that he did not mean “get rid of him in her usual sense”.
“He would say the most outrageous things in meetings,” recalls one former member of the Blair inner circle. Powell does not contest the charge: “Sometimes I say things which are extremely plonkerish at just the wrong moment… which is one of the reasons they kept me away from the press. It would’ve been a complete disaster if I’d have talked to the papers.”
Despite this, Powell was by common consent one of the key elements in the forging of a settlement in Northern Ireland. “Even if they didn’t trust me, they trusted him,” Blair says. “Sometimes Adams and McGuinness would take things from him that they wouldn’t take from me.”
Adams says Powell was effective because he had Blair’s authority – “They were almost Siamese twins” – but was constantly engaged with the Irish problem. “He was in and out of here secretly on numerous occasions… He was someone you could pick up the phone to and he was always available and there were times when I rang when I knew it wasn’t opportune because I could hear children in the background or whatever, but he would always take the call.”
Powell reckons that for 10 years he devoted some time to Northern Ireland “on average every other day or third day”, and flew in and out at least once a month. “Nine-tenths of the battle was paying attention to Northern Ireland. Previous British prime ministers, with the notable and honourable exception of John Major, hadn’t.”
Didn’t Powell ever lose patience with the bickering, the
pig-headedness? Didn’t he ever think, “Sod the lot of them”? “Frequently. Repeatedly.”
Reflecting on his experience of Northern Ireland, Powell says the clearest lesson is that we must always find ways to talk to our enemies. “The conclusion I came to, particularly looking back over my papers, over my diaries, was that one of the crucial things in this work was having a link to the IRA right from the 70s onwards. Although it wasn’t used much for large periods, there was always a way they could communicate.”
It’s a principle he thinks we should be adopting now in the Middle East. What about al-Qaida, I wonder, and he answers without missing a beat: “I would say the analogy with al-Qaida is there’s nothing to say to al-Qaida and they’ve got nothing to say to us at the moment, but at some stage you’re going to have to come to a political solution as well as a security solution… If I was in government now, I would want to have been talking to Hamas, I would be wanting to communicate with the Taliban and I would want to find a channel to al-Qaida. It’s not an easy step to take, and with al-Qaida there’s a practical problem of finding who you want to talk to, how you’d establish a channel. But I would be urging people to make an effort to do that.”
When I later talk to Blair, unbidden, he volunteers that Powell’s “creativity” was sometimes overlooked. “Sometimes he was almost too creative for the political realities.”