One of the speakers participating in the much anticipated Mount Stewart Conversations this weekend is Jonathan Powell, the former chief of staff to Tony Blair and now director of Inter-mediate. Talking to me earlier this week, he said that he was looking forward to coming back to Northern Ireland. Despite his work in many global conflict situations, his work on the NI peace process is “the thing I feel proudest of in my life”. He says his involvement is “something I cherish and want to make sure it doesn’t go wrong, as far as I can do anything to stop it going wrong”.
The former diplomat is taking part in a panel on Saturday entitled Can the Kingdom Stay United after Brexit? along with commentator Fintan O’Toole and historian Alvin Jackson. You can see the full line-up of storytelling, talks, music and culture across Saturday and Sunday on the National Trust website, and buy tickets to attend either day or the whole weekend or book passes for some of the six talks in the programme being organised by the BBC.
Was the EU referendum result a surprise for him?
“I was completely shocked. I went to bed absolutely certain that Remain would win … My wife woke me up at three o’clock in the morning and told me that as usual I was completely wrong.”
There’s reluctance in Downing Street to quickly trigger Article 50. What might happen next?
“Well nothing very much happens next. Lots and lots of throat clearing and trying to work out what on earth to do. My own hunch would be – and it is no more than a hunch and I appreciated that this is extremely controversial – but I rather doubt that we’re actually going to be leaving the EU. At least I think it’s quite unlikely that we’re going to be leaving the Single Market.”
Powell listened closely to Prime Minister Theresa May’s comments on last weekend’s Andrew Marr Show.
“She didn’t say that free movement had to be ‘abolished’. She said free movement had to be ‘changed’ if we were going to stay in the Single Market. Now change to free movement is perfectly possible. There’s no reason why you shouldn’t be able to negotiate something like that. And indeed many other Europeans have issues on migration that they want to deal with.
“The thing with politics is that you can’t predict a straight line from here to there but I suspect that in one or two or three year’s time when we’ve still got the negotiations going on and a picture is beginning to build up of what ‘hard Brexit’ would mean, people are going to start getting pretty cold feet, including those who voted to leave at the time. So I wouldn’t be entirely surprised if we don’t end up remaining in the EU or at least remaining in the Single Market.”
Was the EU referendum a mistake? Powell sees the merit in referendums, mentioning the importance of the one that followed the Good Friday Agreement. But not all are wise.
“It’s quite important to think about a referendum before you have one. To have one that was entirely unnecessary, to have it mid-term with a not-very-popular government, and to have it when you can’t be sure of winning is I think a bit irresponsible and can lead to real problems as we’ve discovered.
“I think that David Cameron was clearly very confident that he could win. He thought he needed to promise it because of back benchers in the previous Parliament, but it’s always better to avoid those promises if you possibly can. So I’m not against referenda in general, but I think a referendum in that case was misjudged.”
Commenting on the regions of the UK where a majority voted to remain in the EU, Powell was realistic about the options.
“You can’t count part of the vote and say that means London will stay in the EU. But you do know that the majority of people in London, the majority of people in Northern Ireland, the majority of people in Scotland would rather remain in the EU and will carry on rather remaining in the EU.”
A second vote might be useful.
“… there’s certainly no reason why you couldn’t have another referendum, obviously not now but in two years, when perhaps you’d have a real choice between what Brexit really looked like and what staying in looked like instead of some sort of wonderful imaginary nirvana where we get £3 billion a day for the NHS and no foreigners allowed to come here ever again! When people see the real choice maybe people will take a different view and you could have another referendum. Or you could have a general election. If there were a pro-European party with a pro-European leader maybe they’d win an election and you could change that decision.”
In the meantime there’s the question of who represents Northern Ireland (and Scotland) at the Brexit negotiations. It shouldn’t be the Secretary of State James Brokenshire as “he’s not elected to anything in Northern Ireland so how can he represent [it]”. Jonathan Powell suggests that it would be reasonable for the First Minister and deputy First Ministers to “demand to be represented at the talks”.
“I don’t see any very legitimate argument that the government has to say ‘no’ to that.”
Should we be surprised that there was so little political planning for a referendum result that favoured Brexit?
“It’s the outcome of an unexpected result. I imagine that Cameron gave an instruction that there could be no planning for Brexit as he didn’t want a leak saying there was work going on suggestion that we were going to leave. So no work was done.”
Though since the referendum result was “a vote against something” and the Government now has to evaluate its preferred position on the Single Market, free movement and the cost of these decisions, Powell feels that the lack of planning is quite understandable.
“If you leave the Single Market you will have a different customs policy. You cannot possibly have an open border otherwise stuff will be slewing backwards and forwards across it and into the rest of the UK so the customs policy doesn’t make any sense. If you change the migration policy and stop free movement of people inside the EU to the UK (and Ireland doesn’t since it remains within the Single Market) then you’ll end up with two different policies.
“So you’ll have to have a hard border. You’ll have to have customs posts. And you’ll have to have immigration posts. The only alternative would be to have immigration posts and customs posts between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK which would not I imagine be terribly attractive to unionist politicians.”
If the UK leaves the Single Market and the likely scenario follows that there’s a successful independence referendum in Scotland (“and it seems extremely likely to me that Scotland would vote to leave the UK”) and they re-join the EU and are in the Single Market and have free movement of people across the EU, what happens to Northern Ireland’s borders?
“You’re then going to end up with Northern Ireland in the unenviable position of having hard borders with the South and hard borders with Scotland …
“It’s those sort of problems that people really haven’t thought through. When they just assert that it’s to do with the Common Travel Area that goes back before our EU membership that’s fine. But it doesn’t make any difference. If you’ve got two different policies on immigration you can’t have an open border.”
While Powell doesn’t see Brexit and its effect on the border as a threat to peace in Northern Ireland, “it is another factor that could make instability return instead of the stability that you need grow economically and succeed”.
“I don’t think it means we go back to the Troubles and it doesn’t means people are suddenly going to support an all-Ireland option in a border poll, but when you’ve already got political instability that you’ve just managed to get out of last year … this would be another factor that raises the issue again because if people really face the prospect of a hard border they’re going to get very anxious about it. And that’s going to make politics go back to that volatile state that you’ve been trying to escape.”
Jonathan Powell returned to Northern Ireland last year to facilitate the launch of the Loyalist Communities Council partly because he was invited, but also “because I felt it was unfinished business”.
“I met with the loyalists a number of times when I was in government to see if we could find a way of bringing them into the Agreement. And frankly it hasn’t really happened since the Agreement was concluded and implemented. There’s a feeling in loyalist communities that they’ve been left behind – if you look at the figures in terms of education lack of attainment or criminality – they’ve had a really tough time. We can conclude that the policy over the last ten years hasn’t worked … If there is a police solution it hasn’t been found yet.
“So we need to try and find another solution. And it seems to be the obvious way is to offer some incentive to move forward out of paramilitarism and, out of violence, out of crime, and into a positive future and have some positive role models for kids growing up in loyalist communities. It seems to me a good idea.”
He’s been told that the initiative “has made some small difference in certain areas” with increased cooperation and attempts “to move people in a law-abiding direction”. Aware that criminality in loyalist areas remains he says, “it’s not something to throw your hat in the air about yet”. But he remains optimistic and is keen to hear more when he’s over at the weekend and can meet up with people involved.
“Having a positive pole to attract people in the right direction and the police dealing with people who refuse to move towards that positive pole at least seems like a more logical policy that stands a better chance of succeeding than just carrying on with the same old thing … This is a really deep-rooted problem and it’s going to take quite a lot of effort to solve it. But doing nothing is a big mistake and will hurt Northern Ireland in the long term.”
Reviewing Powell’s book Great Hatred, Little Room some years ago I picked up the sense from his description of the peace process that “baby steps build confidence and trust, while moving towards the main objective”. And I noted that even if some of the later baby steps fall apart, at least you’re closer to your objective than when you started. A different (admittedly incongruous) metaphor comes to Powell’s mind:
“It’s think of it more like a ballet where you’ve got to agree a series of steps. No one ever wants to anything irreversible until the other side’s done something. In this case, trying to agree the ballet and what are the first and second and third steps to take.
“Firstly you should always be prepared to talk to people and just ignoring them isn’t a sensible policy. Secondly, if you can try and get people to take small steps and that may make a change in the long term and certainly a more stable change then trying to make a great big leap that people reverse overnight.
“That’s one of the reasons that Northern Ireland succeeded in the end was because it was built on pretty firm foundations and it took a very long time not just to negotiate the agreement but to negotiate its implementation. That’s why it’s been more stable and successful than people might have guessed at the beginning. The majority of agreements fall down during the implementation phase and just dissolve.”
Away from Northern Ireland, Powell has been working in Colombia over the last five and says the latest agreement “is encouraging”. With four previous attempts at peace, this is the first to get to an agreement and referendum.
“Implementing it will be very, very difficult because it’s an extraordinarily challenging country geographically, politically and there are huge amounts of violence that aren’t to do with the FARC. But I think it will work this time because it’s on firm foundations, it’s built on small steps taken by both sides in a sequence that’s been agreed in advance and if it does work it’ll be the last guerrilla campaign in Latin America ended.”
You might hear more from Jonathan Powell about that in his second session at Mount Stewart Conversations when he talks to the BBC’s Mark Devenport on Sunday at 1pm about The New Machiavellis: Statecraft, Back Channels and Conflict Resolution.
The full programme includes and buy tickets to attend either day or the whole weekend includes contributions from prizewinning author Anne Applebaum, commentators David Aaronovitch and Fintan O’Toole; journalists Sarah Helm and Rachel Johnson; historians John Bew, Robert Gerwarth, Alvin Jackson, Margaret MacMillan, Adrian Tinniswood and Diane Urquhart; chief executive of Volunteer Now Wendy Osborne; founder of Beyond Skin Darren Ferguson; and solicitor and Parades Commissioner Sarah Halvin.
Complementing the debate and discussion with the audience will be a programme of intercultural arts (including acts from the roster of local charity Beyond Skin): local songster Iain Archer, Eurovision entrant Molly Sterling, Orchestre des Refugies et Amis, Anglo-Colombian duo Bitch’n’Monk, dangerous harpist Ursula Burns, a Ukulele and Charango workshop, the acrobatic Lords of Strut, your chance to join in some Ugandan dance, and the Campervan of Dreams.
Buy tickets now for the Mount Stewart Conversations to soak in the atmosphere and soak up the ideas this weekend. Slugger will be there to capture the mood and debate – do say hello if you spot us.
Alan Meban. Tweets as @alaninbelfast. Blogs about cinema and theatre over at Alan in Belfast. A freelancer who writes about and reports from civic, academic and political events, reviews cultural performances, chairs discussions, and live-tweets, streams and records lectures and conferences. He delivers social media training, coaching and consultancy, produces podcasts, is a member of Ofcom’s Advisory Committee for Northern Ireland, FactCheckNI board member, and is a member of the Corrymeela Community.