Great Hatred, Little Room - Making Peace in Northern Ireland

Book review: Great Hatred, Little Room
By Sean O'Hagan
Great Hatred, Little Room:
Making Peace in Northern Ireland
By Jonathan Powell

Out of Ireland have we come,
great hatred, little room,
maimed us at the start.
I carry from my mother's womb
a fanatic heart.

~William Butler Yeats

One of the many revealing anecdotes in Jonathan Powell's fascinating and fast-moving account of the Northern Irish peace process concerns Sinn Fein's first visit to 10 Downing Street in December 1997.

As Martin McGuinness entered the Cabinet Room, he paused, looked around and said: "So, this is where all the damage was done."

Powell, assuming that he was referring to the IRA mortar attack on No 10 in 1991, immediately began recounting in some detail the damage wrought on that day.

McGuinness let him finish, then said: "No, I meant this is where Michael Collins signed the treaty in 1921."

The encounter illustrates the gulf between what Powell calls "our shorter-term perspective" and "their longer sense of historical grievance".

It also highlights one of the many ironies of the Northern Ireland peace process.

Its success depended on British Prime Minister Tony Blair's belief that the past was a place that was best left behind in order to move forward. Blair's vision of a new Northern Ireland was broadly similar to his earlier vision of a New Labour party. Tradition, history and ideology were, at best, distractions, at worst dead-weights dragging against the tide of modernity.

That this approach worked when applied to Northern Ireland, a state defined by fixed, and conflicting, versions of history, and that it worked where all other approaches, from Thatcher's intransigence to Major's diplomacy, failed, is nothing short of wondrous.

How it worked is revealed, step by dogged step, in Powell's illuminating insider's account.

Powell was Blair's chief-of-staff and principal adviser on Northern Ireland. Early on, he reveals that he and Tony, as Blair is referred to throughout, have Irish ancestors. Powell's belong to that particular strain of the Anglo-Irish ascendancy who sympathised with republicanism, hence, perhaps, the book's rather grandiose title, from Yeats' great poem of contrition, Remorse For Intemperate Speech.

Blair's grandfather, on the other hand, was an Orangeman. Not that any of this personal history matters much to either of them.

"Neither of us knew much about our Irish antecedents," writes Powell, "and neither of us had any historical baggage on Northern Ireland, one of the advantages of relative ignorance about its history." He adds, almost as an afterthought: "We were the younger generation and the war against Irish terrorism was not our war." This is an extraordinary thing for a high-ranking British civil servant to say, but it gets to the very heart of Blair's determination to look at Northern Ireland afresh, free from the received wisdom of his predecessors for whom Sinn Fein and the IRA were one and the same, beyond political rehabilitation.

This bravery, based in part on political naivety and in part on the collective hubris that infected the Blair camp from the start, is crucial to understanding what follows.

From the first, Powell is a quietly astute adviser who leaves the grandstanding to Alastair Campbell. Powell often seems to be more crucial in defining Blair's policy than his successive Northern Ireland secretaries - Mo Mowlam, Peter Mandelson and John Reid - all of whom are constantly irked by his looming presence at cross-party meetings and ministerial briefings.

Powell's gossipy approach and breathless style is often at odds with the slow pace of the events he describes, but it works.#The story of Gerry Adams trying to shake David Trimble's hand while both are peeing, only to be rebuffed by a curt grunt of "Grow up", has been told before, but not with such glee.

There are other even more surreal interludes, many of which, like the image of Adams and McGuinness climbing through a window of Number 10, then trying to master Nicky Blair's skateboard in the garden, may cause apoplexy among staunch loyalists and British intelligence chiefs alike.#More dramatic still are the details of various secret encounters with the IRA in safe houses.

Oddly enough, it is not the Rev Ian Paisley but Trimble, the moderate Unionist leader, who appears the most truculent player.#He insults his SDLP counterpart, Seamus Mallon, at every turn and "was appallingly rude to [Irish Prime Minister] Bertie Ahern, who came within an ace of hitting him".

For all that, Trimble, as the even-handed Powell attests, was a brave politician and "a vulnerable figure". The extremists, in their turn, have grown more moderate as posterity beckons, none more so than Paisley, whose sudden mellowing Powell puts down to his life-threatening illness in 2004.

The political marriage of extremes that is the Northern Ireland Assembly is now functioning in a way that, even a few years ago, would have been unimaginable.

And the Provisional IRA, despite Adams' now infamous warning to the contrary, seems, for the time being, to have gone away. Unbelievably, all its most high-ranking members were present when Paisley took his oath of office as First Minister of Northern Ireland in May last year.#"It was only after the ceremony that we discovered who they were," writes Powell. "The quartermaster-general, the military commander in Belfast, the head of intelligence and the chief ideologue - all sitting just a few feet away from Bertie Ahern and Tony Blair."
I'm halfway through the thing at the moment. I went down to get it in Waterstones (Belfast) when I came out there were peelers and ATOs all over the place. Just like the good old days.
I have to admit I find the constant 'Weren't we so clever and intelligent' tone a little grating.
Its just a pity it took thirty years before the lazer like omnipotence of Blair and Powell applied their minds to the problem.

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