by PETER VINE
The Troubles is one of the most painful periods in recent Anglo-Irish history. The climax of almost over 500 years of conflict between English, Irish, Scottish and even Dutch and French powers, it has touched many lives and families across the British Isles and Europe. My own father, for example, served in 3 Para during the height of The Troubles, while a firm friend of mine grew up in Free Derry. We have found common ground in our own experiences.
It also has uncanny parallels with places as far afield as Palestine — not only with how each conflict has played out, but with how similar the respective players are. Ulster Unionists, for example, have mostly sided with Israel and its settler movement as comrades-in-arms circling similar wagons in different lands, whilst Irish Republicans have mostly found solace with the Palestinians and share their sense of injustice.
So why did the peace process in Ulster survive yet Israel and Palestine remain deadlocked? Great Hatred, Little Room: Making Peace in Northern Ireland, by Tony Blair’s former chief-of-staff Jonathan Powell, in a way answers this question.
After he left with Blair in 2007, Powell decided to write a book about his experiences at the sharp end of negotiating peace in Northern Ireland. His mantra is to keep talking to the other side, regardless of what happens. This could have saved the Oslo Peace Process in the Middle East.
He covers the initial optimism of Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern in solving the issue of Ulster, which nobody saw as solvable. He covers the bouts of despair when everything seemed lost and the exhausted jubilation when deals were signed and hands were shaken. Powell had a foot in both the Blair and Major administrations and thus had a special and privileged view into how events unfolded.
What Powell does well is give an insight into the hyperactive nature of the Blair government, with envoys and ministers from Britain and Ireland flying everywhere to talk, cajole and persuade. Powell aptly describes just how intractable the two sides were, with Sinn Fein being “addicted to negotiating” and the Unionists refusing to agree to anything.
What the book doesn’t do very well, however, is provide clarity. It’s content to simply reel off events and leave the reader to put the book down and contemplate the meaning. Powell’s failure to be self critical enough, whilst unsurprising, results in the author having multiple Tony Hayward-esque “I want my life back” moments.
Powell’s also takes a scatter-gun approach when covering the main players. He casts Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble as immature, emphasizing his lack of tact and his wild mood swings. Then flip-flops and notes how nice a chap Trimble was and how much pressure he was under. He praises the Democratic Unionists as enlightened intellectuals one moment, and the next as pedantic sticks-in-the-mud obsessed with agreement by committee over everything.
He describes Blair in a mixed light, at times inspired and almost devious in his political cunning. Other times Powell grumbles about how Blair was almost deluded in believing that he could solve any situation simply by being there in person. This “Jesus complex,” as Powell calls it, reached its climax when Blair asked Gerry Adams if he could meet the IRA Army Council in person. Adams politely but awkwardly declined.
Powell’s masochistic fascination with the Republicans also baffles. He does, though, have time to suggest that Martin McGuinness was weak compared to Adams.
Powell couldn’t make his mind up on the people involved in the peace process and as a result there simply isn’t any balance here. This affects the credibility of Powell’s take on events.
Despite these faults, Great Hatred, Little Room is a good read and will interest anyone wanting to know more about the final years of The Troubles.