Jonathan Powell, the British Government’s chief negotiator on Northern Ireland under Prime Minister Tony Blair (1997-2007), joined Prof Richard English Monday for a conversation on ‘Ending Conflicts’ at the Senator George J Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice at Queen’s.
Powell is now director of Inter/Mediate, a charity he founded in 2011 to work on conflict resolution around the world, and an Honorary Professor in the Mitchell Institute. Inter/Mediate is currently helping to facilitate negotiations in ten locations.
The conversation ranged from Powell’s experience in Northern Ireland, to examples from Colombia, Libya and Sri Lanka.
Powell asserted that there are two important conditions for ending conflict:
- A ‘mutually hurting stalemate’, in which every side to the conflict realises that a clear-cut ‘victory’ is not possible
- Courageous leadership that is willing to take risks and to bring hardliners along
It may seem like the default mode in Northern Ireland politics is cynicism. So Powell’s descriptions of local politicians demonstrating courageous leadership seemed jarring, given the current impasse at Stormont.
Powell praised both Blair and his contemporary Taoiseach Bertie Ahern. He said that the difference between Blair and the two previous British Prime Ministers was that Margaret Thatcher believed the conflict could not be solved, John Major believed it could be solved but that he couldn’t do it, and Blair believed that the conflict could be solved and that he could do it.
He drew some laughs when he said some people had argued that Blair had a messiah complex, but former Northern Ireland Secretary of State Mo Mowlam had put it less politely: she said Blair ‘thought he was f****** Jesus.’
The point taken was that courageous leadership requires belief in yourself – not least in your own abilities to bring your followers along the same path.
Powell also said that in every conflict with which he had been involved, there seemed to be a certain fatalism that the conflict was inevitable. That created despair – and a sense that there was no solution. But whenever peace agreements were reached, people started to say that the peace had been inevitable. The solutions had been looking everyone in the face all along.
In this way, Powell reminded listeners that neither conflict nor peace is inevitable: it is down to human actors to work out solutions for themselves.
Powell also praised David Trimble, Ian Paisley, Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness and John Hume for their leadership roles. He said their leadership might not have been recognised at the time, or appreciated by all sides, but all demonstrated courage in their own ways.
He recalled Blair’s anxiety when the DUP became the largest party, fearing that it would never do a deal and sit in government with Sinn Fein. Then he described how Blair built a strong relationship with DUP leader Ian Paisley, talking with him about religion for hours on end. He said this created a genuine bond between them, creating a trust that undergirded the negotiations that led to the DUP-Sinn Fein government in 2007.
Questions were taken from the floor, and Powell was asked whether he thought the power-sharing (or ‘consociational’) form of government created by the Belfast Agreement was no longer fit for purpose. He said he thought some form of power-sharing was still necessary, but did not address particular aspects of the settlement like mandatory collation and the mutual veto.
Prof Monica McWilliams, who had participated in the peace negotiations on behalf of the Women’s Coalition, was in attendance and she asked Powell about the importance of secrecy during peace talks. She recalled that in his 2014 book Talking to Terrorists Powell had revealed that Gerry Adams had used some text that Powell had written – word for word – in a speech at a crucial stage in the peace process. This revelation was widely reported in 2014, with this quote from the book reproduced in the Belfast Telegragh:
“We felt that we had to address the ambiguity or lose the agreement, so Tony Blair made a speech in Belfast in which he demanded that Sinn Féin choose between the Armalite and the ballot box. We were nervous about the response but Adams called me a few days later and said, to our relief, it was a good speech. To my surprise he asked me if I would draft his response.
“I tried to write in republican-speak and composed a passage that ended with ‘People ask me do I envisage a future without an IRA? The answer is obvious. The answer is yes’.
“I turned on the television a few days later to see Adams deliver the speech unchanged.”
McWilliams said that she thought that this revelation was reckless – even in 2014. Powell agreed. He said that if he had to do it all over he would not have included it in the book, admitting that it could have destabilised progress.
The Northern Ireland peace process is regarded as a great success story outside these shores. It does not always feel that way for people who feel they have been left behind in the process, or when our political institutions have been suspended. So for some listeners, Powell’s reminiscences might have seemed nostalgic. But they were also a reminder that our politics have come through much more difficult times, and that it is down to us to keep building on peace.
Disclaimer: I am a Research Fellow in the Mitchell Institute.