#BelFest Jonathan Powell: “terrorists are often better negotiators than governments”

BelFest Jonathan Powell wide shot squareJonathan Powell was Tony Blair’s chief of staff. When it came to the peace process he rolled up his own sleeves in 1997 and flew across incognito to Belfast and made his way up to Derry to meet Martin McGuinness face-to-face having been driven round the city in a taxi for an hour. He continued to meet Sinn Fein in low profile locations for the next ten years in addition to more formal and public engagements.

The political negotiator and author sat opposite Mark Carruthers in the QUB Great Hall at Saturday night’s Belfast Festival event. He had a dispassionate manner and at times appeared quite introverted, mostly avoiding eye contact with his interviewer and much of the time avoiding looking at the audience. Yet he spoke quickly and exactly, oozing a humble confidence and charm with his reflective anecdotes and carefully crafted insights into the local peace process.

Answering questions from the BBC broadcaster and the audience with anecdotes and dodging awkward issues with nearly imperceptible swerves, Powell demonstrated his diplomatic skills. Around 200 people had crammed into the wooden-panelled room – much grander than it used to be when it served sausage rolls and chips to students at lunchtime – under the watchful eye of a portrait of Mary McAleese, the former Irish President and former pro-vice chancellor of the Belfast university.

Powell described Northern Ireland as the “most agonising and frustrating peace process” he has been involved with, but also “the most satisfying”.

The premise of his recently published book Talking to Terrorists is that while there is no ‘Northern Ireland model’ to be directly exported, he does believe that there are lessons from the peace process that can be learned and applied. The book looks at a wide range of conflicts between armed groups and governments around the world, speaks to the negotiators involved and draws out five lessons or common patterns which Powell listed at the start of the evening. They were also the subject of a post on Slugger O’Toole penned by the diplomat earlier this week.

Powell stressed that “there is no group that is beyond the pale”.

Every time we meet a new terrorist group we say we’ll never talk to them. Inevitably we will. We need to learn that lesson. However, it’s not always the right time to start, and conditions need to be right.

He suggested that while security forces may have been able to contain the IRA, they would admit that they couldn’t have eliminate the paramilitary group. Negotiation was necessary.

Asked whether negotiations should be opened with ISIS, Powell said “I don’t think there would be any earthly point sitting down with ISIS yet”. The conditions were not yet right.

BelFest Jonathan PowellGovernments and politicians often keep their nascent contacts with terrorist groups secret. British Prime Minister Willie Whitelaw denied talking to the Provisional IRA – an understandable “white lie” according to Powell.

The government of Nigeria stated that they would never negotiate with Boko Haram. Then last week they admitted that they have negotiated a ceasefire with the militant group after a month of talks mediated by Chad and the abducted schoolgirls will be released if the deal is fully implemented.

Mark Carruthers asked Powell about dissident republicans and whether there might be a government channel open with them at the moment? “I rather doubt it” Powell answered, arguing that the conditions weren’t right given the lack of a body of political support like Sinn Féin had during the Troubles. However, he did see value in talking to groups “however fractional” and opening up a channel “does no harm as it may at some stage prove useful in finding a settlement to the problem”.

One member of the audience asked about government strategies for dealing with kidnappers. Powell admitted that if he or a family member was kidnapped he would hope that someone would pay a ransom. But he stressed that in general paying ransoms is recognised as a bad idea that only encourages and spreads the practice of kidnapping.

Powell recognised that – in his experience – terrorists are often better negotiators than governments. While he emphasised that he wasn’t calling the ANC terrorists, they had been more skilled at negotiation than the South African government.

You’ll not get to a solution and a lasting peace until you can get away from the zero sum game. It took Sinn Féin a long time to realise that coming out of negotiations spinning their position as a victory – and a failure for the other side – was counterproductive. There can be no winners and losers.

Asked about Ian Paisley’s change of heart from Dr No to Dr Yes, Jonathan Powell felt that “he saw his own mortality and thought about his legacy”. In negotiations Tony Blair’s chief of staff had become aware of the DUP leader constantly seeking to reach agreement even when other party members in the room were saying no.

Perhaps an encounter with your maker changed politicians? After serious illness in 2011, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez “started to go to church twice a day and pushed FARC into talks”. Mark Carruthers quickly countered that Northern Ireland had “an awful lot of politicians who go to church and it doesn’t mean they automatically want to agree with each other”!

Powell ducked a question about whether he believed Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness were negotiating as IRA leaders as well as Sinn Féin politicians during the peace process. Throwing in a story about Mo Mowlan, the ex-diplomat concluded that the IRA was organisationally complicated and that Adams and McGuinness obviously “had a lot of influence on the IRA otherwise we wouldn’t have talked to them so intensely”. There was laughter from the audience when he told a story about Adams:

Powell: We’d been negotiating with Adams in West Belfast on the Falls Road, really intense negotiating had gone on for eight hours, really quit unpleasant and then at one stage [Gerry Adams] lent across the table and said “the thing I like about you Jonathan is that when you lie you blush!” A Northern Ireland Office official sitting next to me leaned back and as fast as anything said “Unlike you Gerry”.

Carruthers: Did he smile at that?

Powell: No.

While praising the brave leadership (and self-sacrifice) of David Trimble, Powell agreed that the former UUP leader was not a great salesman: “he usually forgot to tell his colleagues in the party the details [of deals] never mind anyone else”.

There were some self-confessed Radio 4 listeners in the audience: yet nearly all the questions dragged Powell back to discuss Northern Ireland. We’re terribly parochial!

The evening closed with a question about the latest round of political talks which have a lengthening shopping list of issues. Powell was worried about “the political will to find an agreement” rather than the actual shopping list.

I suppose it depends on whether they wish to keep Stormont up and running or whether they wish to make it function successfully. And that’s the real issue of political will rather than the length of the shopping list.

That and the quality of “the third party” helping chair and negotiate the talks. Jonathan Powell was once that unflappable man in the middle, and after listening to him for eighty minutes and reading part of his book, it is clear why he usefully continues to practice his skills in conflicts around the world.

There’ll be more from Jonathan Powell on Sunday Politics. And more Belfast Festival talks in the Great Hall, starting on Monday night with war photographer Paul Conroy (tickets are available for the extra ‘late’ talk that has now been scheduled to satisfy demand).

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