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One Shit at a Time

John-Paul McCarthy

Jonathan Powell
Great Hatred, Little Room: Making Peace in Northern Ireland
Bodley Head, 2008
352 pages
ISBN: 978-1847920324


Like their masters, British mandarins come in all shapes and sizes. Dexterity and adaptability are, after all, tools of their ancient trade. A quick gallop through Peter Hennessy’s unctuous tome Whitehall brings us in proximity to the four main variants of the breed. Firstly, there are the load-bearers, like Sir William Armstrong, then head of the home civil service who fainted at a meeting of permanent secretaries in 1974 convened amidst the collapsing scenery of the Heath regime.

Secondly, there are the indulgent. Bernard Donoghue’s riveting memoir of his spell as Harold Wilson’s policy chief in Downing Street from 1974-1976 suggests that he leads the way here. One of his diary entries for 1976 records that Wilson put no less than four large brandies down the prime ministerial hatch prior to a rough session in the Commons. A silent Donoghue passed him the bottle and Wilson duly knocked Mrs. Thatcher into a cocked hat. (Asquith, eat your heart out.)

Thirdly, there are the empathetic amongst the hordes of the permanent government. One thinks here of Cabinet Secretary Burke Trend in 1969 who, after observing that President Nixon had managed to cover his hands and pants with the contents of an ink well in the cabinet room, reached manfully for a jug of cream and doused himself as well. In honour of the special relationship, one assumes.

And finally, the heroic must get their due. Hugh Dalton’s reign of terror at the pauperised Treasury from 1945 to 1947 proved quite a nursery for this breed of civil servant. His many enemies dined out for years on the story of the private-secretary-who-was-pushed-too-far. Legend had it that Dalton, whose manners verged on the porcine for the most part, once propelled a messenger into the toilets to fetch one of his assistants for an emergency consultation about the UK’s chronic dollar shortage.

The chap in question was in a closed cubicle. Fearing the wrath of the Chancellor, Dalton’s messenger slipped a mortified note under the door. Seconds later, the note was pushed back out, bearing the exquisite retort: ‘Kindly tell the C.Ex that I shall be with him shortly. I can only deal with one shit at a time.’ The excremental, it seems, holds no fear for the best of HM’s panjandrums. On the strength of his recent memoir from his time as Tony Blair’s chief-of-staff, it seems that Jonathan Powell shovelled quite a lot of said material while holding the Northern Ireland brief from 1997 to 2007. His vapid, predictable memoir ensures that any sympathy we may harbour for the dirtier aspects of this job perishes in short order.


The ‘peace process’ in Northern Ireland during the nineties left rather a lot of sententiousness and self-pity in its shuddering wake. All of the major memoirs in this genre might have been written by the same hand. Everybody wants to ‘give peace a chance’, for the children you understand. Huddling under the gloom of the midnight oil, principles are invariably defended, friendships forged ‘across the divide’, and the hand of history gently caresses all and sundry. The village toughs and meanies nearly always morph into the firm friends of their interlocutors. While it would be quite impossible to have them down to one’s club, quite impossible you understand, the British mandarinate have always harboured a rather creepy soft spot for the rugged integrity of ‘the men of violence’. Powell ticks all these boxes in his book, but one reads on if only because of the prime ministerial frisson that remains the chief attraction of all books like this.

He dealt with quite a parade of horribles in his time, people whose lives seemed a trifle too rackety for many of his predecessors. In his portraiture he can be mildly entertaining. We meet the Rev. Paisley in these pages, a second-rate shake-down artist and theological grotesque still vituperating against the Council of Trent. Like the selectively deaf curate, Powell assures us that he can assume human form when he wants to. Powell had reason to pay close attention to the leaders of the Provisional IRA, Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness. He saw McGuinness as the more emollient of the two, whereas Adams was either at his feet or his throat, as plaintive or enraged as a toddler, albeit one with an awesome proficiency in the deployment of high grade explosives.

Their combined CVs, to which Powell gives but a nodding glance, suggest that he was rather casually feasting with panthers for most of the last decade. Between them, Adams and McGuinness can claim the following achievements: the torture and abduction of women and teenage civilians, the bombing of pensioners on parade, the murder of unionist academics with contrary opinions, the formalisation of tactical alliances with the drug lords who run Colombia’s FARC outfit and with ETA whom they mentored in the art of targeted assassination of elected officials. Between them, they organised the deaths of more civilians in Northern Ireland than all the UK security forces combined. Powell seemed to enjoy their gallows humour, but was wise in his wish to cultivate a wider and more congenial circle. Bertie Ahern, the long-serving Irish Taoiseach until his recent defenestration in Dublin, emerges here as a political fixer of Tammany Hall vintage, one with an extraordinary capacity to absorb impertinence and humiliation from all parties in this Byzantine process. As one who elevated muddling through into a high art, he was a particular favourite of Powell’s. Former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Peter Mandelson is sometimes ‘shitty’, but always absurd.

And the chairman of the constitutional negotiations, former US Senator George Mitchell, added a touch of Yankee class to the whole endeavour. With his old fashioned manners and his Liberace smile, Mitchell was a solid packhorse during many tense months of political standoff between the parties. Reading through his own memoirs from 2001, one is sometimes astonished to recall that Mitchell was twice offered a seat on the US Supreme Court by President Clinton, once in 1993 when Byron White called it a day, and again in 1994 when Harry Blackmun retired, only to decline both offers so as to keep the Northern Ireland brief. Having listened to nearly three years of Paisley’s evangelical scurrilities, at times he must surely have longed for the happy slog that is a life devoted to parsing the American federal tax code in the marble palace.


This material is just the antipasti compared to Powell’s main course, which is his depiction of Prime Minister Blair in real time, or ‘Tony’ as he refers to him throughout. Blair is the central presence in the book, and Powell gives scholars an important, if largely unreflective insight into the peculiarities of his premiership. As the youngest man to become Prime Minister since Lord Liverpool in 1812 and the first since Ramsay MacDonald to hold the office without any previous ministerial position whatsoever, Blair was neither house-trained nor especially deferential in his attitude towards policy formulation. Up to 1997, Northern Ireland policy was handled by a butcher’s dozen of officials in Whitehall and Belfast. If you were lucky, co-ordination came from the cabinet secretary and more immediately from the foreign and defence private secretaries in Downing Street. Blair took an axe to these structures in 1997, centralising policy around Powell and ruthlessly cutting the Ministry of Defence out of the picture. Their new impotence became clear on the day he formally apologised to those who were wrongfully convicted of terrorist charges in the 1970s and when he established a new tribunal to inquire into the killing of 13 civilians in Derry in 1972, decisions which had long been opposed by the Ministry of Defence.

Blair’s handling of the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA) still remains a great puzzle however, and Powell’s book does little to explain the problem. Blair showed none of the steeliness in Northern Ireland that would become his trademark when faced with Milosevic in Kosovo, Mullah Omar in Afghanistan, or the Hussein crime family in Iraq. All of the major studies of the peace process have shown Blair to be something of a soft-touch in his dealings with Adams and McGuinness, someone who allowed them to define the scope of the process and the tone of the negotiations far more so than even the Irish Government thought wise. (Blair was intensely irritated for example by the Irish Government’s insistent characterisation of PIRA as ‘a colossal crime machine’ after 2001. In one Irish account, he is said to have told the Taoiseach in his best Fettes accent, ‘This was, um, you know, um, unhelpful, really.’) He craved a deal from the first minutes of his premiership and declined numerous chances to extort one from Adams for fear that he might split the PIRA, regardless of the reality that they were already split since 1995.

Powell’s book amplifies this general sense of Blair’s fluffiness. This is best reflected in the extraordinary informality that characterised some of his major judgment calls. Prime Minister and Taoiseach apparently agreed an amnesty for some of the grossest murderers in Northern Ireland’s low-key civil war on a stairwell around 5 am in Castle Buildings in Belfast in 1998. Powell himself tried to cobble together a timetable for the disarmament (but not disbandment) of PIRA while being ferried around various ‘safe-houses’ in west Belfast by one of Adams’ flunkies in a battered Toyota. His drivers forbade him to tell the local police of his movements.

The grave issue of possible collusion between UK security forces and loyalist terror gangs was first formally discussed in Downing Street while Blair and Ahern took part in an episode of Masterchef. Sadly again, the issue of recovering the remains of those abducted, tortured, and secretly buried by PIRA in the seventies was hardly discussed at all. As such, the acoustics if you like of the negotiations between the UK and PIRA remained hopelessly skewed in the latter’s favour. Dean Godson’s exhaustive account of this process, Himself Alone: David Trimble and the Ordeal of Unionism, showed that as befitted a lifelong bully, Adams himself only ever succumbed under pressure and threat. Thinking of the millions he had extracted from vengeful Irish-American millionaires since 1994, he was terrified of various American envoys like Mitchell Reiss who could suspend his fundraising visa with a simple phone call to the State Department. Mohammed Atta’s obliteration of downtown Manhattan on September 11th had the kind of pedagogic effect on him that had eluded Powell for the previous four years. PIRA cashed their chips and decommissioned shortly afterwards.

One is left with the feeling that the more sensible parties in the mainstream of Northern Ireland would have survived if Blair and Ahern had pushed Adams harder and faster to disband his paramilitary wing, an argument Powell dismisses at the end with a fatuous claim that the ‘Nixon goes to China’ principle shows that the more extreme parties are better at making deals stick. This is true, one is tempted to reply, if their competition is hung out to dry.

Powell’s account suggests that we have to add unpredictability to the previous charge of fluffiness levied above. He tells us at one point that Blair became bored with Adams and McGuinness’s unending pleas for more time to square their militant flanks. He apparently felt that he was wasting his time with the monkeys when he should have been addressing the organ grinder. Blair asked Powell whether he should talk to the top-brass of PIRA himself, the so-called ‘Army Council’, in the hope that the roar and dazzle of his Clause 4 charisma might seal a deal. In the end he chose not to, but Powell must surely have warned him that he would be going up against at least two certifiable sadists here, Brian Keenan, the gun-nut whose contribution to inter-community amity lay in extorting rockets from Gaddafi in the early eighties, and Thomas ‘Slab’ Murphy, the pig farmer-cum-millionaire in whose large house Irish police recently found a functional torture chamber. One is left wondering just what Blair would have said to them.

In these reckless instincts, unlike so much else about him, Blair followed a squalid path laid down by his predecessors. Like him, they too were tempted by bold wheezes that would lead to some unspecified ‘breakthrough’. Harold Wilson foolishly met with PIRA in 1972, lying to the Irish Government about his intentions to boot, thereby simply prolonging their campaign for no recognisable return. Against the advice of the local police, Edward Heath thought that the Paratroopers, the most notorious regiment in the British Army, would make good peace agents in Derry in 1972. He seems to have been the only one who was surprised when they massacred 13 unarmed civilians that same year. (The transcript of the telephone call placed by the distraught Irish Taoiseach Jack Lynch to Heath’s private office the evening of the killings still shocks the conscience three decades later. The transcript can be found online.)

Yet it was Mrs. Thatcher who established the gold standard for prime ministerial hubris. In 1983, during a discussion at Chequers about the auxiliary security functions of the Army in Northern Ireland, her mad left eye seemed to swivel and she suddenly asked her Irish counterpart if he would consider a joint population transfer as a definitive solution to the violence. As recounted in the then-Taoiseach’s memoir, she mused aloud to him, ‘What was that man’s name again, Garret? That 17th century fellow…yes, Cromwell, that was it.’ The Taoiseach suggested an emergency tea break.

Powell’s overt sensitivity to the so-called ‘burdens of history’ serves merely to warp and cripple. In some cases, this spurious regard for historical grievances is just a cover for indulging tribal myths and self-pity. Powell fell head first through this trap door in 1997. His vapid historical introduction in this book shows signs of this neurosis as do his myriad lectures about the literal quality of the Protestant mind, or the more convoluted register allegedly favoured by the extreme nationalist constituency. Such clichés flattered their fathers, but did little to sharpen the diplomatic perspective and simply reduced him to the status of a headwaiter for whichever group could push itself to the front of the queue. At least readers were spared another invocation of Heaney’s much overworked line about hope and history rhyming, a favourite of Bono, Clinton, and Mandela. Then again, like God, New Labour didn’t do poetry.


Powell’s book betrays a kind of cherubic optimism that is all the more alarming considering the realities of life in Northern Ireland today. Throughout his account, he blithely assumes that peace is in fact a reality, and that the worst problems have now been bypassed thanks to Tony’s tireless tact and his own hard graft in the monasteries, B&Bs, and slum pubs of west Belfast. Almost none of Blair’s initial calculations proved sustainable however between 1997 and 2007.

The two moderate political parties there, the Ulster Unionist Party on the unionist side and the Social, Democratic, and Labour Party on the nationalist, were gradually bled dry by the enormous attention Powell gave Adams and Paisley. The constitutional arrangements agreed in 1998 under Senator Mitchell’s chairmanship were cutting edge consociational democratic structures designed to facilitate partnership amidst the centre parties. This finally collapsed last year as both extremes accepted the keys to the kingdom. Powell accepts no meaningful responsibility for Blair’s failure to protect the vulnerable centre by squeezing the village toughs whose noisy demands filled the PM’s nightly red boxes.

Powell’s cheap moralising should be read alongside Paul Bew’s moving last book, The Politics of Enmity, which is in many ways a threnody for the political world Powell so casually cast aside. With a more focused British Prime Minister, Bew suggests that the centre might have held and the world might have been spared the sight of Paisley’s triumph. Powell is also silent on what is perhaps the biggest problem facing the next generation in Northern Ireland, namely the constitutional formula agreed by all parties which permits a change in the state’s constitutional status if 50 percent of the population plus one solitary extra voter plump for same in a local referendum.

As Richard Bourke points out in the chilling envoi of his book, Peace in Ireland: The War of Ideas, such a simple-minded majoritarian calculation would cause mayhem all over Ireland should it ever be activated. Powell is too busy drawing threadbare parallels with the Tamil Tigers and the PLO to give much thought to this problem. British statecraft has not been without its detractors in our own time of course. That veteran Labour curmudgeon Denis Healey once said that the chief legacies of British diplomacy in the modern era were minimal: the popularisation of Association Football and the term ‘fuck off’. Watching Powell brandish the medals of his defeats, it’s hard not to feel that Healey had a point, or that someone is going to be back in that battered Toyota before too long.