Jonathan Powell: The Lessons of Northern Ireland

Following the launch of his new book ‘Talking to Terrorists,” former Chief of Staff to Prime Minister, Tony Blair, Jonathan Powell, writes exclusively for Slugger about the lessions he learned from his time working on the Northern Ireland peace process

The Northern Ireland negotiations were the most difficult and frustrating challenge I faced in my life, but also, at least in retrospect, my most important and satisfying achievement. Since leaving government I have set up an NGO, Inter Mediate, to see if I can apply some of the lessons I learned there to conflicts elsewhere in the world.

There is of course no Northern Ireland model that can just be picked up and applied elsewhere. All conflicts are different, their causes are different and their solutions will be different. But I find when I bring delegations to Belfast to meet the different parties they do learn something that helps them resolve their conflicts back at home. At the very least they can learn from the mistakes we made.

I have now looked at armed conflicts over the last thirty years and their peace processes – those that succeeded like South Africa and El Salvador and those that failed like Sri Lanka and Colombia. It turns out there are common patterns to what works and what does not. Here are five lessons derived from Northern Ireland but backed up by experience elsewhere.

The first is that if the armed group has real political support there is no military solution to the conflict. Some revisionists now argue that talking got in the way of a military solution in Northern Ireland and that if the politicians had just stood back and left it to the security forces they could have defeated the IRA. That is a delusion in Northern Ireland as elsewhere. The French and Spanish security forces may well have succeeded in arresting successive ETA leaderships but they never succeed in finishing them off. It was negotiating that resulted in an end to the armed conflict in Spain in 2011 not fighting.

The second is that democratic governments find it hard to be seen to be talking to terrorists who are killing innocent civilians and therefore tend to start the contacts secretly. In Northern Ireland British intelligence established a link to the IRA through Brendan Duddy in the early 1970s which remained in place throughout the Troubles and was used for the correspondence between John Major and Martin McGuinness that led to the 1994 IRA ceasefire. In South Africa it was the NIS that made the first contacts with Nelson Mandela in jail and later opened talks with the ANC in exile in Switzerland.

The third is that governments initially resist the introduction of a third party into the talks but having such an independent referee makes it much easier to reach a settlement. The British government long opposed foreign interference in Northern Ireland but eventually accepted US Senator George Mitchell as chair of the talks. Without his patience and good humour we would not have secured the Good Friday Agreement. In El Salvador repeated bilateral attempts to resolve the bloody civil war between the FMLN guerrillas and the government failed and it was only when the UN special representative Alvaro de Soto came on the scene that it was possible to reach agreement.

The fourth is that it is not always the right time for negotiations to succeed. Certain conditions need to be in place. The first is a mutually hurting stalemate – both sides need to understand that they cannot win militarily. In El Salvador success only became possible in 1990 when the guerrillas launched ‘the final offensive’ on the capital San Salvador. They were not able to capture the whole city, let alone hang on to it, but they humiliated the army sufficiently that both sides realised they could not win by military means. The second condition is leadership. Tony Blair suggests in his autobiography that I accused him of having a ‘Messiah complex’. In fact it was Mo Mowlam who said Tony thought he was ‘ Jesus’, which is not the same thing. But if Tony had not had the conviction that Northern Ireland could be solved and that he could do it, it would not have been resolved.

The last is that you have to escape the zero sum game if you want a lasting peace, which Gerry Adams and Ian Paisley finally came to understand in 2005. The classic example was Nelson Mandela who realised that he had to carry white South Africans with him not just his own constituency. When I said this in Spain about the conflict with ETA, the right wing Spanish press were appalled. They said the government had to be the winner and ETA had to be the losers. But if you insist on this there can be no enduring settlement – there can be no winners and no losers.

Above all we shouldn’t expect to get to peace in one go. Seamus Mallon described the Good Friday Agreement as ‘Sunningdale for slow learners’. Peace here was built on a series of failures as it is elsewhere. And even when you get to an agreement there is much to do. Peace building is every bit as hard as peace making, and that is what Northern Ireland is going through now.

Jonathan Powell’s Talking to Terrorists How to End Armed Conflicts is published by Bodley Head. He will be speaking at the Belfast Festival at Queen’s University on Saturday 18 October.

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  • terence patrick hewett
  • Michael Henry

    If it were not for the two 1 tonne bombs in England -( London / Manchester )-Blair and his hangers on working for the Government would not have panicked as much to try and sort it out- Wonder if Powell tells that story to his delegations- how they would laugh –


    It’s all very well suggesting that helping Sinn Fein rise was the best check against PIRA violence the state ever devised, but this was not a cost-free exercise.

    Justifying the need to accommodate opponents and enemies was a debate for 10 years ago. Surely the analysis now required must focus on the specific consequences of how this accommodation was pursued and secured – and could have been done differently.

    Yes, Powell and co brought Adams in. But Adams used and prolonged that process to push others out.

    Powell still seems either nonchalant about the consequences of facilitating that dynamic or, worse, entirely unaware that his process had this avoidable outcome.

    Powell, in short, is preaching to state actors. But militant groups are listening too. Do you think that militants in other conflicts look at the rise of SF and demise of the SDLP under Powell and Blair and conclude that they need to be more accommodating? No. They conclude that they must brutally close down internal challenges while winning evidence/concessions unavailable to moderate groups. This isn’t a recipe for peace-building, its a formula for creating an environment where hardliners are more effective – and seen, by the electorate, to be effective.

  • tmitch57

    I wrote a book about the lessons of the Northern Ireland experience for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I had several lessons that Powell seems to have missed. The most important is one related to Powell’s Lesson Three: Dual mediation with two governments who are on good terms with each other, with each representing one of the parties to the conflict, co-sponsoring the peace process is a very effective way of dealing with internal or regional conflicts. London and Dublin together set the parameters for the peace process and adjusted them over time in response to what they jointly perceived were the needs of the process. This was more important than having a third-country mediator, although George Mitchell was a nice touch. Another lesson is that minor parties can disrupt the peace process quite easily through violence as in the assassination of Billy Wright by the INLA in December 1997. A similar effect was achieved twice in the Middle East with first the massacre by Kahane disciple IDF Captain Goldberg (?) in Hebron in early 1994 and then the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin by a religious Zionist fanatic in November 1995.

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    What’s the name of yer book Mitch? Is it on Amazon?

  • tmitch57

    It is “When Peace Fails: Lessons from Belfast for the Middle East,” and surprisingly enough it is on UK Amazon and there are used copies you can buy.

  • Brian Walker

    Jonathan Powell’s prescriptions fairly enough concentrate on
    negotiating. But there are other interesting questions.

    In such situations do you recognise a clash between winning peace with anti-state factions and upholding principles of democratic values or do you act purely pragmatically? Unlike almost all his other examples, Northern Ireland was throughout a democracy even if partly in suspense, ( Basque separatism
    dating back to the Franco era and far beyond).

    The terms offered by the state are important. How long do you drag out the process before calling time? Was Sinn Fein cut too much slack over the
    delay in arms decommissioning? Was decommissioning a real or phantom issue?

    It is too easy to dismiss the state’s military role which he barely discusses. What part does the military, security policy (call it what you will) play in bringing terrorists to the conference table? It is striking that so far there has been little exploration of how security policy was coordinated with a conscious peace policy involving talks. Hardly at all is my answer. Was this a serious
    omission? (Yes of course).

    What were the lessons of Sunningdale? Did Powell study them?
    The two governments were still too far apart, further apart sadly than were the
    powersharing partners in 1973- Spring 74. Utterly counterfactual though the question is, might a co-ordinated security policy against the paramilitaries in defence of the powersharing government just established, have eventually succeeded? Is the main lesson here then , that governments who are in part proxies for contending sides need to come together before the issues can be settled- and that force should by no means be ruled out provided it is jointly carried out? (There was an element of this in the border campaign of 1956 -62).

  • Am Ghobsmacht


    I’ll seek her out. Always willing to read the work of other sluggers especially as I see you as a very balanced contributor to this site.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    Brian raises some great points. The book by John Bew, Martyn Frampton and Inigo Gurruchaga, ‘Talking to Terrorists’ – which looks at NI and the Basque situations – has a much more astute analysis than Powell’s, I think. Sluggerites are recommended to read it if they haven’t already, I think it’s the best detailed refutation of the Powell line. A few key points, drawing and this and making my own observations:

    – As Thomas Hennessey has put it, “It was true that the IRA were not defeated militarily; but the British only needed a draw to win.” The Powell approach, as with much discussion of the peace process, is based on a fallacy: that there was a ‘stalemate’ in a ‘war’. The Army has talked in these terms itself, but then that is Army language – it’s not necessarily the best description of the Troubles. A better description is that it was primarily, for most of the Troubles, a policing operation, albeit one that needed Army numbers and muscle in support of the police and one that used sophisticated espionage and anti-terrorist methods. The realistic object as such was not ‘military victory’, but containment and degradation of the capability of the terror networks in order to save lives. The terrorists were squeezed and as Bew et al point out, “it was the IRA who came to the British seeking negotiations, not vice versa.” So stalemate in a sense – but a stalemate that increasingly exposed the pointlessness of the Republican “Armed Struggle” and one the security forces and the people of Northern Ireland were used to and were steeled to endure.
    – Powell also misses how Republican strategy changed in the light of this – something flagged by unionists heavily at the time – which was the TUAS strategy (Tactical Use of the Armed Struggle). It was a new and actually more effective way to use terrorism to win political concessions, albeit more modest ones, by turning the killing tap on and off. The real achievement of the peace process – and the UUP and SDLP were instrumental here – was in moving SF-IRA from thinking they could get away with that to following the Mitchell Principles to their logical conclusion – refraining from any threat of violence. It took a while. Constitutional politicians insisted on principles of fairness, were backed by the British, Irish and US governments and the mediator and they prevailed. The lesson perhaps is not to let the violent or even the recently violent skew the process in their favour. Powell and Blair too often, after 1998, let them do that.
    – That’s why decommissioning was so important after 1998 – they’d made pledges and we took these on trust for a time in the interests of a deal, but we needed evidence they meant it. As they refused to do it before negotiations, then during negotiations, then at the end of the negotiations, it was a quite reasonable expectation of them that they would honour their commitment to decommission within 2 years. They tried to get away with minimal action on this and almost brought it all crashing down. It was only really 9/11 and the subsequent shift of mood among donors in the USA towards terrorism that convinced them they might as well go the whole hog with winding down the terrorist arm. Horrible way to get lucky, but we did in that sense. So the lesson would be perhaps to be firmer in insisting that a terrorist movement makes a firm, monitored commitment to disarm, which should happen at the very latest as soon as possible after negotiations are concluded. Strike while the iron is hot.
    – I’d echo David Trimble’s words about the direction Blair-Powell took the peace process in in the early years of this century – there was a “moral vacuum” at the heart of the process, he said. The pragmatic tendency of the government to appease the potentially violent Prodigal Sons sidelined and undermined the real people of peace. It still poisons politics in NI, when we could have moved on, had a firmer line been taken by Dublin and London. Too many people in NI today, while grateful for the absence of violence, seeing an unrepentant former terrorists riding high, feel the place is not at ease with itself – that peace has been gained at the cost of the truth. SF has been indulged in its air-brushing of the Troubles narrative, so that their terrorist campaign and its consequences is now morphed into some kind of ‘war’ (and we all know killing is tolerated when there’s a ‘war’ on). It is The Big Lie, told for SF’s own ends; its ascendancy even in supposedly educated discourse has discredited politics and elites in the eyes of most people who lived through the Troubles and who know the difference between terrorists and decent people. The Big Lie lives like a cancer within NI society and it’s not being treated. People like Powell could do a lot more to take it on.
    – The lessons Powell should be communicating above all is that violence doesn’t win; that ridiculous demands to overturn the democratic wishes of the people just have to be dropped; that you wreck trust when you give in too much to the extremes. Giving into half of SF’s demands was not clever pragmatism, it led to a haemorrhaging of unionist trust in process and the loss of the kind of leaders like Trimble and Durkan who could have initiated real reconciliation. There’s one final lesson I suspect: it takes the former terrorists to disappear from the scene before the rest of us can truly get on with our lives. That might even be a new generation within SF who can distance themselves properly and convincingly from their elders’ prejudices and savagery – let’s see.

    And as I never tire of saying when “Sunningdale for slow learners” is trotted out, it was also of course “partition for even slower learners”. If we can ask ‘what ifs’ about 1973-4 (especially what if the Council of Ireland had been dropped – as the GFA effectively did), we can also do so about 1921. What if nationalists had conceded NI’s legitimacy then instead of embarking upon a 77-year wild goose chase? Northern Ireland might be a very different place. But better late than never, I suppose.

  • Morpheus

    Yeah yeah yeah, it’s all their fault, we’ve heard it from you over and over and over again and quite frankly, it’s boring. For someone who likes to portray that they are well read you have an *extremely* blinkered view of the past, void of any balance or objectivity. Did none of the books you have come across point out that there was more than 1 player in this whole sorry debacle? You may have read a book or 2 but I struggle to differentiate between you and those I see on LAD – longer words for the same old BS, that’s all.

    I noticed you changed your closing remarks – why is that?

    “What if nationalists had conceded NI’s legitimacy then instead of embarking upon a 77-year wild goose chase”

    In case it slipped your attention Northern Ireland was born down the barrell of 25,000 illegally imported guns and 5m rounds of ammunition to ensure that the democratic will of the majority was not carried – bullets to be used against the very people they claimed loyalty to. Was that episode in none of your research? Let’s says Cornwall did the same thing tomorrow – would that be legitimate?

    Even after partition Northern Ireland could have turned itself into a place where everyone was welcome – but oh no, too sensible. Systematic discrimination, inequality and electoral abuse galore turnedit into a powder keg. Maybe “Northern Ireland might be a very different place” if that hadn’t happened eh?

    But we’ll never know all we can do is look to the future but one thing is for certain those ‘good old days’ when themuns knew their place are gone never to return. We’ll either have a UI or a NI where themuns are the biggest group – which is preferable to you?

  • MainlandUlsterman

    The whole situation would have been different in my scenario, surely – but it is fairly idle speculation. I’m not standing up for unionist arms imports or misrule. But the border was and is democratically legitimate, as is now universally accepted.

    On the blame for the Troubles, let’s not go on at length again but broadly I think it’s fair to blame both communities initially in the breakdown – it’s complex at that stage – once you get to January 1970 and the IRA Army Council decides to go for it, the Troubles were very much Republican-led. It doesn’t excuse Loyalist killing, of course not – but nor is it right to paint the Troubles as 2 sides simply having a go at each other for the hell of it and everyone was guilty. Republicans did about double the killing of Loyalists; the security forces accounted for around 10 per cent. The main motivation of the security forces was to bring terrorism to an end. Even the Loyalists, while bearing a huge amount of guilt which I’m not glossing over, were mainly motivated by countering the IRA. It’s a simplification, but not an altogether misleading one, to characterise the Troubles as principally the IRA’s Armed Struggle plus the violent reactions to it.

    I know not everyone sees it that way, but that was my take at the time and it remains my view, having looked over many years now in detail at the history of the period, including the grim statistics. I am unionist politically but I really don’t think you need to be unionist to see it that way – the facts tell the story, especially the death statistics. That this is even under any kind of dispute is deeply depressing.

  • Morpheus

    Agreed, following the GFA the border is now democratically legitimate and it will be there if the majority want it to be there and conversely it will cease to be there if a majority say it should cease to be there.

    Agreed, there is ample blame to go around when it comes to how things panned out in Northern Ireland.

    Agreed, the Republican death count was disgustingly high and I hope each and every family of a victim can get justice/closure.

    Loyalists were mainly motivated by countering the IRA? Disagree. When reading the grim statistics I am sure it didn’t escape your attention that the first murders as part of the Troubles were Loyalist and the overwhelming majority of Loyalist murders were innocent Catholics, not the IRA.

    The crap that went on in Northern ireland didn’t just magically appear in January 1970 and it is important to take into consideration the build-up and how NI became a powder-keg in the first place.

    Like I said, more than enough blame to go around

  • Posted a quick review of Saturday night’s conversation with Jonathan Powell at the Belfast Festival.