What I learned in Belfast (Jonathan Powell, Prospect)

A very interesting and honest insight by Jonathan Powell,
cheif aide to Prime Minister Tony Blair, in regards to the his account
of the negotiations that led to the Good Friday Agreement. A central
hypothesis of his is that while all terrorists are evil, a channel of
communication should always be established, so it’s available when they
are ready to negotiate. Case in point is his remark that from 1974 to
1993 nothing of much significance came from the channel to the IRA, but
thereafter it proved useful. Powell recommends this tactic is applied
elsewhere in the world, in order to ‘deal with them’, i.e. Tamil
Tigers, ETA, the Middle East.

What I learned in Belfast
Jonathan Powell (Prospect Magazine)

Of course the Northern Ireland conflict was unique. That doesn’t mean it holds no lessons for other trouble spots.

The tenth anniversary of the Good Friday agreement has produced
plenty of self-congratulation about peace in Northern Ireland (NI), but
it has also smoked out a critical analysis of the deal by people like
Charles Moore, Dean Godson, Peter Hitchens, Melanie Phillips and Max

This right-wing critique, lightly caricatured, is that the Blair
government sacrificed the moderate centre of NI politics and gave in to
the demands of terrorists rather than defeating them militarily. The
compromises necessary to make peace gave power to the two extremes. We
would be better off with the moral clarity of the Troubles. Above all,
they argue, the peace process in NI should not be seen as a model for
peace talks elsewhere in the world.

This analysis is historically wrong. The Blair government, like all
its predecessors, tried to build peace in NI from the centre with the
moderate unionist party (the UUP) and the moderate nationalist party
(the SDLP). But we were stymied by the refusal of the SDLP to move
ahead without Sinn Féin (SF). John Hume had sold that pass in the late
1980s when he began his brave dialogue with Gerry Adams. From that
moment on, it was likely the SDLP would go the way of the Redmondite
nationalists in Ireland after 1916. When we repeatedly urged Hume and,
later, Seamus Mallon to move ahead with the UUP and without SF, they
simply could not do it.

It is also untrue to suggest we sacrificed David Trimble and the UUP
to achieve peace. Blair backed Trimble long after the Northern Ireland
office, most of Trimble’s own party and the people of Northern Ireland
had given up on him. When urged to sacrifice him—for example at the
time of Stormont suspension in 2000—he refused.

Nor is it correct to suggest that the IRA got what it wanted by
force. It wanted a united Ireland. What it has got is the ability to
pursue that goal by political means. What the unionists got was the
continued union; the removal of the Irish claim to the territory of NI;
the acceptance by all parties, including SF, of the principle of
consent, which means there can be no change in the status of NI without
majority consent; and a devolved assembly—not to mention peace and
prosperity. Any peace process must involve talking to those with guns.
How else are you going to stop the killing if you don’t think there is
a purely military solution? As for suggesting that in some way we would
be better off with the Troubles, it is all very well to say that from
London; try telling that to the people of NI. 

The right-wing critique does, however, raise two questions. Was it
inevitable that an agreement in NI would involve the extremes? And are
there any lessons to be derived from the process for other conflicts in
the world?

On the first point, it is certainly not inevitable that the extremes
win. True, it is easier to make compromises if you know you cannot be
outflanked. The DUP found it easier to do the eventual deal than did
Trimble, who was leading a divided party and under constant attack from
the DUP. (Zapatero’s PSOE has found it harder to deal with Eta than
Aznar’s Partido Popular partly because the PP constantly attacked the
PSOE on the matter.) But the fact that the more extreme parties
dominate their respective sides now does not mean they always will. Ian
Paisley’s departure from politics probably heralds a reconfiguration of
unionism, and Trimble used to argue, persuasively, that sectarian
parties in NI would eventually be replaced by more conventional
conservative and social democratic groupings. 

What about the wider lessons from NI? Of course the conflict in NI,
like all conflicts, was sui generis: it was a struggle between two
traditions for recognition and influence in a western country affecting
only a few hundred thousand people. But the main lesson is a simple
one: the past intractability of a conflict is no guide to the future.
You have to keep trying.

The NI peace settlement was the result of long-term political and
economic changes combined with the vital role of some key individuals.
As the Celtic tiger emerged in the 1980s and 1990s, the priest-ridden,
impoverished Eire that had served the unionists as a bogeyman for 50
years disappeared. Ireland no longer defined itself by reference to
Britain but was comfortable in its new role in Europe. And there was a
generational change in the IRA leadership. By the late 1980s, Adams and
Martin McGuinness were well past fighting age. They saw another wave of
young people being arrested and killed as part of a campaign that
neither side could win, and they wanted a political way out.
Fortunately, NI was well supplied with brave and able politicians on
both sides, and in Ireland and Britain both Bertie Ahern and Tony Blair
belonged to a generation less weighed down by the past. 

But success was never inevitable. The process could have collapsed
as late as March 2007. When Ian Paisley called me at half past midnight
on 24th March demanding a two-month delay before establishing a
devolved government, it seemed likely that SF and Dublin would reject
the idea. In the end, by persuading them to agree to a televised
meeting between Adams and Paisley, we managed to deliver an image so
powerful for republicans that they swallowed the delay and the process
was saved. There were hundreds of moments like that over ten years.

There are other, more specific lessons. You cannot reach peace
unless the key actors accept that a military victory is impossible. In
NI, the British army, after a disastrous start with Bloody Sunday and
internment, soon realised that while it would not lose, it could not
win. All it could do was contain the violence. And the IRA, after
trying the short, sharp shock, the long campaign and the dual strategy
of the Armalite and the ballot box, eventually came to realise it would
not achieve Irish unity by violence. But in Sri Lanka, for example,
both the government and the Tamil Tigers now believe they can win by
military means. The danger in such circumstances is that the cycle of
blood has to turn another full revolution before another generation
grasps the futility of violence.

Peace is not an event but a process. You can achieve a breakthrough
deal like the Good Friday agreement, but that counts for little if the
parties do not apply themselves to implementing it. The ceasefire
between Eta and the Spanish government in 2006, the agreement in Sri
Lanka in 2002 and the Oslo accords for the middle east all looked
promising, but in each case not enough people realised that it was just
the start. The Israeli government made no effort to sell Oslo to its
people, and the Palestinians soon lost faith. Shimon Peres was right
about the conflict when he said: “the good news is there is light at
the end of the tunnel. The bad news is there is no tunnel.” The problem
in the middle east is not the outline of a final deal—that has been
clear since Taba—but that there is no process allowing the two sides to
get there and no trust allowing them to build such a process. 

You have to keep the process moving. Once the violence starts again,
as in Spain with Eta after the Madrid airport bomb in 2006, it is hard
to get back on track. Blair has been much criticised for his messianic
zeal in other areas of policy, but without his insistence that we keep
the process going in NI, however bleak it looked—after the Omagh bomb
in 1998, for instance, or the 2004 bank robbery—there would have been
no chance of agreement. Sometimes it required the ability to absorb
real political pain. The Conservatives pretended to maintain the
bipartisanship we had offered in opposition, but actually tried to make
our life and that of the UUP as difficult as possible. The concessions
we made on the release of terrorist prisoners or the treatment of
terrorists on the run outside Britain were painful, but necessary to
keep the process going.

Of course, it is not just a matter of process. The legitimate
grievances that had motivated the civil rights movement in NI had to be
answered, and they were—thereby reducing the base of support for the
IRA, if not removing it completely. And a process can become
discredited if you are seen to pursue it whatever happens. The Good
Friday agreement was necessarily based on ambiguity. The two sides were
too far apart to get agreement on decommissioning, so it had to be
phrased in such a way that both sides could project their desired
interpretation on the text. The ambiguity that had been initially
constructive became destructive over time. As the transition dragged on
and the low-level violence and organised criminality continued, the
agreement lost support among unionists. So we had to force the issue by
driving the ambiguity out of the agreement. Blair made it clear in 2003
that republicans had to give up the dual strategy for good and opt for
a purely political strategy. It was high-risk, and we could have lost
them at that point, but ultimately it provided the catalyst for
entering the endgame. (Most of the ten years of the NI negotiations
were spent trying to overcome the blockage caused by the demand that
the IRA decommission its weapons. Yet the issue would have been better
left to the end of the peace process. After all, getting rid of gives
no real assurance that terrorist activity will cease. The terrorists
can easily acquire new weapons if they decide to go back to fighting.) 

The NI process also benefited from having a strong facilitator in
the shape of the British government. Of course the government was also
a player in the game, but it had long since made clear that it had “no
selfish strategic or economic interest” in NI. It just wanted an
outcome that all sides could live with. And although neither unionists
nor republicans and nationalists ever fully accepted it, its role from
then on was neutral. But it ruled NI day to day, and the security
forces and economy were under its control. It therefore had things to
offer each side and the means to make things happen. There are few
other such strong facilitators in the world (although the US government
could put itself in that position in the middle east if it chose to do
so). Sometimes it is useful to bring in an international facilitator.
Some countries, such as India over Kashmir, expend huge effort in
keeping outside influences away. But we welcomed international
involvement in NI. The international component can offer one or both
sides a reassurance that the approach is truly neutral.

A facilitator has not just to carry messages from one side to the
other but to explain what they mean and suggest ways in which they can
be interpreted or pushed further to meet the needs of the side
receiving the message. Both sides will lose faith in the messenger if
it becomes clear he has been freelancing or even lying. The role
depends on trust, and the thing that most kept me awake at night was
when I felt we had gone too far in making promises or could be seen as
not totally straight. 

The process would fall over when one side was unable to deliver what
the other thought it had promised. When David Trimble was unable to
deliver the UUP after the IRA act of decommissioning in late 2003,
republicans gave up on him. When the IRA failed to begin
decommissioning after the Mitchell agreement in 1999, the unionists
pulled the house down. We too occasionally failed to deliver on our
promises—over the treatment of terrorists on the run, for
example—because we could not get them past the attorney general or
parliament. We got away with it, but it was perceived broken promises
like this that helped bring down the ceasefire understanding between
the Spanish government and Eta in 2006. So, if at all possible, never
promise more than you can deliver.

Deadlines can help. If we had not set the initial deadline of Easter
1998, both sides would have found it easier to keep on talking
indefinitely rather than forcing their constituencies to face difficult
decisions. But we began to lose credibility as we drove through more
and more deadlines in 1999 and 2000 without anything happening. So if
you set a deadline, you need to stick to it. 

The one conclusion I have come to above all else in reading the
official papers again and writing my account of the NI peace process is
the importance of talking to your enemy. If we had not opened a channel
to the IRA in the early 1970s, I do not know how the ceasefire could
have been brought about. Although the channel was not used to negotiate
anything serious from 1974 until 1993, its existence was crucial to the
start of a peace process. 

Of course, that does not mean you should concede to terrorists’
demands in response to violence or the threat of violence. Nor is it
essential that the terrorists be ready to negotiate or have coherent
demands. You put a channel in place for the time when they see the
futility of achieving their ends by violence. To argue that al Qaeda or
the Taliban are different and that therefore you cannot talk to them is
nonsense. Of course they are different, but terrorists are terrorists.
What they do is evil, regardless of the cause. But you need to find a
way to deal with them.

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