Q&A with Jonathan Powell

We speak to the honorary visiting professor in the Institute of Irish Studies at the University of Liverpool

December 19, 2013

Last month, Jonathan Powell, former prime minister Tony Blair’s chief of staff and the principal negotiator in the Irish peace process from 1997 to 2007, was appointed honorary visiting professor in the Institute of Irish Studies at the University of Liverpool.

Where and when were you born?
1956. Fulbeck, Lincolnshire.

How has this shaped you?
Very little, since I left on a troop ship for Singapore at the age of 2. It was the rootlessness that went with being the son of an RAF officer that shaped me. I had been to 11 schools by the time I was 9.

Have you had a eureka moment?
When I finally realised there was peace in Northern Ireland. It was not the Good Friday Agreement, nor the St Andrews Agreement, but in May 2007 when a Northern Ireland Office official called me to say that Ian Paisley was in a bad mood. “Oh dear, does he regret signing the agreement?” I asked. “No,” was the reply. “He was just up late Scottish/Irish dancing with Martin McGuinness.” Finally, Northern Ireland had achieved peace.

What advice would you give to your younger self?
Not to worry so much and always remain optimistic, however bleak things look.

Who have you always admired?
Rather unfashionably, Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern. Neither is popular at the moment, but history will be kind to them, not least because of what they achieved in Northern Ireland.

What were the best and worst things about your job as a peace negotiator?
The best is the realisation that there are dead men walking at least in part because of what we have done. The worst is the falling sensation in the pit of your stomach when a peace process collapses and you feel personally responsible.

What role should academics and universities play in tackling conflict?
In government, I felt the real lack of intellectual underpinning for what we were trying to do in the Northern Ireland negotiations. Universities can provide the theoretical framework for how to deal with armed groups and how to approach such negotiations.

As a child, what did you want to do when you grew up?
I still don’t know, but I hope I will find out before too long.

What’s your biggest regret?
The only soundbite I came up with for Blair was “education, education, education” as our three priorities in government. Even though we made a lot of progress, I wish we had stuck to those priorities above all else.

What were your defining personal experiences during the Irish peace process?
I was no friend of the IRA in 1997. They had shot my father in an ambush in 1940 and put my brother on a death list for eight years. I refused to shake hands with Gerry Adams and McGuinness when I first met them. Shortly after that meeting, I got a call from McGuinness asking me to come incognito to Derry and not tell the police. I took a plane and a taxi and stood on the street corner feeling rather foolish. Two men with shaved heads turned up and pushed me into the back of a taxi, saying, “Martin sent us.” They drove me round and round for hours until I was lost. They pushed me out, outside a neat modern house on the edge of the Bogside. I knocked on the door and it was answered by McGuinness on crutches, who made an inappropriate joke about knee-capping. We sat for three hours talking about the peace process, and although we made no breakthrough then, for the next 10 years I criss-crossed the Irish Sea for meetings in safe houses in Belfast, Dublin and Derry. Those taught me the importance of building trust through shared risks if you are to succeed in making peace.

Will the region ever see total harmony?
If anyone thought that it was going to be like a fairy story and we would all live happily ever after once the Good Friday Agreement was signed, they were sadly mistaken. Northern Ireland still suffers from its past, and it will take generations to escape sectarianism and for violence to end totally. Nonetheless, it is in a different place now than during the Troubles, and it will not go back to the old days.

Tell us something we don’t know about Tony Blair
One thing people never understood about Blair was his obsession with detail. There was a myth that he skated over the surface of subjects, but this was untrue. As a former barrister, he vacuumed up detail and spent three or four hours at a time on meetings on healthcare or education reform. If you are a PM rather than a president, this obsession with detail is essential.

How much have the Edward Snowden leaks damaged the US and Britain?
Hugely. More than people realise.


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