'Everyone was nervous - Gerry Adams' hands were visibly shaking...'
A new book by Tony Blair’s former top aide gives an unprecedented account of the secret talks that led to the Good Friday agreement. John Cooney reports
Imagine the opening tense scene in a crime thriller tailor-made for direction by an Alfred Hitchcock or Stanley Kubrick in which a British Prime Minister and his chief aide are on their way to a secret rendezvous to meet directly with the IRA Army Council, all eight of whom will be clad in masks.
This clandestine meeting is set to take place in rugged rural countryside somewhere close to the Fermanagh-Donegal border. Uncomfortably seated in the back of a black Hackney taxi are Tony Blair and his trusted confidante, Jonathan Powell, both crouching incognito behind newspapers.
Britain's two most powerful political figures nervously eye the seedy looking driver who picked them up on their arrival by ferry at Belfast harbour to transport them to a historic encounter with the IRA military command. The two Englishmen know that they are taking a huge gamble in arranging this meeting with the leaders of a proscribed organisation which attempted to kill -- and almost succeeded in doing so -- Blair's two immediate predecessors, Margaret Thatcher and John Major.
After a drive, the taxi swoops up a narrow boreen where the two passengers spot a white-washed cottage tucked behind a line of trees. "Every time we cross the Irish Sea it always starts raining but you appreciate it even more, Jonathan, when it stops," Tony chuckles, his adrenalin pumping. On the doorstep, Blair oozes his fabled charm when he shakes the hand of the masked republican terrorist who introduces himself as the chief of staff of the Irish Republican Army, Oglaigh na hEireann, and ushers the PM and his chief aide inside, where in fading mid-afternoon light they come face-to-face with the other seven gathered menacingly around a turf-fire.
Now seated around a long-table, Blair, feeling a surge of confidence in his persuasion skills, makes his pitch straight-away. His message is clear, firm, lucid and passionate: they must disarm and sign up to the peace deal which he brokered in Hillsborough Castle on April 10, 1998, as the Good Friday Agreement. There must be no more Canary Wharf bombings in London. The hand of history is upon them, and in return for ending their armed struggle, he will offer concessions to prisoners and ensure Sinn Fein's installation in Government at Stormont.
When Blair finishes speaking, the burly chief of staff suddenly leans over the table and grabs the lapels of the startled premier's dapper pin-striped suit preparing to do to Blair what they failed to do with Thatcher and Major: kill him ... ... .
The camera cuts. A new setting flashes onto the screen.
Blair, arouses from a day-dream to find himself seated on his own couch in Downing Street after being awakened by an excited Powell, who has arrived with a secret communiqué from Sinn Fein leaders, Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness.
It is Powell's revelations in his new book, Great Hatred, Little Room: Making Peace in Northern Ireland that provide the dramatic licence for a would-be film-maker staging a showdown between a British Prime Minister with the IRA leaders. Serialised this week in The Guardian, Powell reveals that during their 10 years in Downing Street, Blair repeatedly pressed Adams and McGuinness to arrange a meeting for him with the IRA
Such a meeting did not take place mainly because Adams and McGuinness feared that Blair's direct involvement with the IRA Army Council may have made it harder for them to convince the hardliners to accept the peace process. Powell explained that Blair lavished attention on Sinn Fein for the simple reason that it had direct influence over people who controlled weapons. "The SDLP's Seamus Mallon's complaint is that we talked to Sinn Fein because they had the guns. My answer to that is yes and your point is?" Powell rhetorically asked. "We were talking to the people who had influence on the people with guns. Whether or not they were members of the Army Council I am not in a position to prove one way or the other."
Powell's extracts begin with his inside account of Blair's initial meeting with Adams, McGuinness and Pat Doherty in Stormont Castle in 1997.
According to Powell, everyone was nervous, especially Adams whose hands were shaking slightly. After Adams delivered a heavy history lecture, McGuinness made the telling point that the Irish problem was a political, not a security, problem. The meeting was inconclusive. "We hadn't really got a feel for their positions or even if they were serious about making peace, let alone why," Powell recorded in his diary.
At the follow-up meeting in Downing Street on December 11, 1997, "a strong sense of the past hovered over the meeting", writes Powell. "So this is where all the damage was done," observed McGuinness.
Thinking McGuinness was referring to the 1991 IRA attack on Downing Street, Powell shot back: "Yes, the mortars landed in the garden behind you."
McGuinness looked hurt. "No, this was where Michael Collins signed the Treaty in 1921," he said, referring to Prime Minister David Lloyd George's bullying of the Irish negotiators.
But the key moment came when Adams privately explained to Blair that he wanted to become the first republican leader in Irish history to find a settlement that would not split his movement. This remark persuaded Blair of the sincerity of Adams and McGuinness in wanting peace. In a gripping read Powell reveals the IRA reluctance to decommission, the political courage of Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, the fall of David Trimble and the rise of Ian Paisley.
The book also reveals that:
- Blair redrafted an IRA statement at Chequers in the presence of Adams in 2003.
- McGuinness would have accepted an apology for 'Bloody Sunday' rather than a lengthy and expensive Inquiry.
But, in chronicling his central role in the talks, Powell can leave the reader puzzled at the tortuous nature of events. So read him alongside an updated edition of Deaglan de Breadun's excellent The Far side of Revenge from Collins Press. Powell's book provides an apologia for America, Britain and Israel to talk directly to the leaders of the Taliban, al-Qaida and Hamas.
'Great Hatred, Little Room: Making Peace in Northern Ireland', published by The Bodley Head