Powell: Police at the front door – Gordon at the back

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23rd March 2008

TALKING WITH TERRORISTS

Times report: ‘After Brown’s abortive coup against his master, Powell observed: “It’s great working here. We’ve got policemen knocking on the front door and Gordon Brown trying to break through the back door.”’

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[Pics: Jonathan Powell with PM Blair, Brown with Blair]

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It must have been stressful in the throes of the Met’s Honours Inquiry (which came to nothing after 16 months) and fighting off the neighbours from hell. Just a month or two after the politically motivated police inquiry got underway in March 2006, the Brownites attempted to get rid of Blair without Police help! He managed to evade their clutches for another year.

Jonathan Powell was Tony Blair’s right-hand man and led the negotiations for peace in Northern Ireland. His new memoir reveals that Gerry Adams jokingly asked Blair if he would seek political status if he went to prison over cash for honours and that Blair had lively discussions about God with Ian Paisley. Powell also details the back channels that were open between government and the IRA even during the bloody years of bombing and says we should have a line open to Al-Qaeda.

The Black Humour referred to got me imagining a possible phone conversation with another well known individual:

Mr O: “Hello, Mr Tony. It’s me, Osama”.

Blair: “Oh, yes. How are you? Everything going along well now it’s almost a done deal?”

O: “But of course. I just wondered if I could offer you a little break in my hideyhole. A haven … away from all those ignorant, difficult critics. I have much empathy. We world leaders – we’ve all been through it. When you visit we can discuss theology, politics and the state of the world. And then, if we still can’t agree we’ll agree to differ. In exchange, I promise to stop making those videos.

Blair: Sounds reasonable, Obee. But what else is new? I like to get around these days, for sure, and the climate’s good in your part of the world. But what about the future of the west? When can we get back to fighting REAL world problems … the climate, trade, the world economy and Gordon Brown?

O: “No worries, my honourable friend. I have big plans for our futures. Like me, you’ve taken on some big challenges. I’d like to help them to completion – in a satisfying way for ALL of us. In between operations we’ve been tidying up the garden to welcome you. Even chopped down a couple of stray trees. And as a matter of fact my man Abda is carving a plaque with your name on it as we speak. It says – ‘King of the Jews’. That’ll make you feel right at home, will it not?

Blair: “Er … right … hang on a sec.”

[Aside to aide: “You did say it was Obama on the phone for me, didn’t you?]

(Note from BS: Now I’m not quite sure where humour ends & blasphemy begins; due to my tolerance of free speech, I suppose. But it’s just possible that were Britain a  fundamentalist Islamic state , it’d be ‘goodnight from me”; the Last Post, as it were.  OBL in his latest video, says such punishments still apply if one ‘blasphemes’ against ‘prophets’ too. Just as well this is still a secular, liberal democracy in which blasphemy has been relegated to the past. Hopefully, I’ll be seeing you all soon. In the meantime, at Easter, a time of deep contemplation, some of us are contemplating more than others.)

From The Sunday Times, March 23, 2008

Jonathan Powell: every prime minister needs him

Interview: Martin Ivens

With unintended comedy, Margaret Thatcher once said of her deputy William Whitelaw: “Every prime minister needs a Willie.” She was wrong: every PM needs a Powell.

Charles Powell was Thatcher’s strong right hand. Jonathan Powell, 51, was Tony Blair’s chief of staff, He is the youngest of four highly competitive brothers and presented an unflappable front while juggling the Iraq war, the Northern Ireland peace process and coping with the hysterics of new Labour’s overgrown schoolboys Alastair Campbell, Peter Mandelson and Gordon Brown.

In his new globetrotting roles as Middle East peace negotiator and global warming czar, Blair will miss Powell’s devoted Rolls-Royce service. In the good old days at No 10, after everyone else had gone to bed, Blair’s aide-de-camp was usually left to make another hundred calls or so. Powell’s long-suffering wife, the journalist Sarah Helm, with a nod to Diana, Princess of Wales, complained on her wedding day that “there were three of us in this relationship”.

Powell’s memoir about his additional role as chief negotiator in the Northern Ireland peace process, Great Hatred, Little Room, reveals that the juggling became all too frantic by the time of the cash for peerages affair. An urgent phone call from the Sinn Fein leadership came after Lord Levy, Blair’s chief fundraiser, had been arrested by Scotland Yard.

“Gerry Adams rang to ask if Tony and I would seek political status if we went to prison. He recommended that we not recognise the court. The picture of Tony and me on the blanket helped me temporarily to see the funny side of the peace negotiations.”

Meeting Powell at Millbank Lounge, a Westminster cocktail bar, last week, he is tall, tousled-haired, still youthful and unstuffy, a diplomat as comfortable with the rough and tumble of Ulster as with the ways of western chancelleries.

One of his greatest regrets is that he was not able to help Blair to overturn the old order and create a new Jerusalem of social mobility. “Like many younger sons, I was anti-Establishment,” Powell tells me, adding regretfully, “but instead we created a new Establishment.”

He enjoys defying convention: he once handed in his baby to a hat-check girl at the Groucho club and wore sneakers to his wedding reception. It was a strange fate that saw him embroiled in the cash for peerages affair. He would like to have seen the House of Lords abolished and has refused all political honours.

A wry sense of humour and occasional flashes of passion sometimes ruffle his smooth facade; Blair once had to prevent him thumping an Ulsterman who had questioned Tony’s integrity. He acknowledges the story, adding that Blair never lost his temper “without a purpose”.

During the IRA negotiations Powell had to curb his feelings. “My father was shot at by the IRA when working in Northern Ireland during the war,” he reveals. “Charles was on a death list. At the beginning I would not shake their hands.”

He soon became impressed by the republicans’ skills, though: “Tony Blair says they really were substantial politicians. Adams and [Martin] McGuinness first met British ministers back in 1972 and learnt from their mistakes. They had been longer together than most married couples. They were able to play good cop, bad cop. There was never any real division between them, however. They always walked in lock-step.”

Respect eventually turned into something warmer: “I would regard all of them as friends – Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness and David Trimble [the then leader of the Ulster Unionist party]. Not Paisley because he came from an older generation.” Blair went one better, though.

Campbell famously pronounced that “We don’t do God”. Yet Blair slipped his handler to discuss the Almighty with the Rev Ian Paisley. Behind closed doors at No 10, Powell could hear the two men swap jokes and theological profundities. The loud-mouthed man of the cloth even gave Blair’s youngest son Leo religious tracts for his instruction.

This chumminess grates. Can Powell really say that these men with blood on their hands have repented of their crimes? No crack in his facade now: “They have certainly said they are sorry for the violence.”

Sinn Fein and Paisley’s hardline Protestant Democratic Unionist party (DUP) rule the roost in Northern Ireland, although all indeed is peace. The moderate parties, the Ulster Unionists and the Catholic SDLP, have lost credit with voters who came to believe that only the extreme parties could deliver for their “sides”. There is bitterness in victory, surely?

Powell puts the case for the defence: “We tried hard to build up the centre. The trouble was the SDLP were not prepared to move without Sinn Fein and we could not move without that Catholic element.

We had to have Sinn Fein on board.”

We are all a bit hypocritical about Northern Ireland. Our stomachs turn at doing deals with terrorists, but in our hearts we are delighted to be rid of the futile conflict. Should western democracies talk to terrorists? Powell describes in some detail the back channels that the British government kept open to the IRA throughout the most bloody years of the bombing campaigns.

He even claims that Paisley’s DUP kept a secret line open to Sinn Fein when both sides were preparing to enter devolved government in Belfast. “I think it is always right to talk to your enemy, however badly they are behaving,” he concludes.

What is good for Ulster is good for the world, apparently: “There is no logical difference whether you talk to Hamas, the Taliban or the IRA.” He says you must talk to terrorists before you can expect them to lay down their arms: “You can’t refuse to talk to them without preconditions.”

“This is a technical rather than a political point,” he adds with great emphasis. It is his model for dealing with Eta, the Basque terrorists, and with the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka.

Powell argues, for instance, that John Major’s failure to bring IRA/Sinn Fein to the negotiating table stemmed from insisting that they hand in their weapons from the outset. The Conservative prime minister should have kept to his original focus on getting the IRA to concede that its ceasefire would be permanent.

Most controversially, Powell will not deny that his model could apply to opening a back channel to Al-Qaeda terrorists: “Al-Qaeda refuse to talk to us now. Their aims include such bizarre demands as putting parts of Spain and Portugal in the caliphate. You have a channel for when they realise they are not going to get what they want. Then you can have a conversation.”

Powell also defends what he calls “the mild messianism” of Blair over Iraq. He and Blair are as one in espousing the doctrine of liberal interventionism. The West must be prepared to take military action abroad to avoid humanitarian disasters and promote democracy.

He has a sense of urgency about the need for the West to act now before the balance of power shifts east: “American power is going to decline.” The “optimism” that led to the Northern Ireland peace also led to the toppling of Saddam Hussein – he has no regrets about getting rid of the Iraqi dictator. Some would quibble at the cost in lives.

Powell does admit “that if he could live his life over again” he would like to have made more progress on Blair-ite reforms to the health and education services. Was Brown a roadblock to reform? “Actually I think you need a great tension between No 10 and No 11. The Tories were at their most fruitful when there was tension between Thatcher at No 10 and Nigel Lawson at No 11.” Up to a point, Lord Copper.

After Brown’s abortive coup against his master, Powell observed: “It’s great working here. We’ve got policemen knocking on the front door and Gordon Brown trying to break through the back door.”

Would he heed a call-up from Brown? He chuckles. We chat about politics and the future of new Labour – without Brown. Then I bid farewell to the perfect model of a modern major apparatchik.




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3 Responses to “Powell: Police at the front door – Gordon at the back”

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