The need to engage with conflict: Jonathan Powell
by Ronan KIRBY
19 May 2021
On 19 May 2021, Queen’s University Belfast, through its Public Engagement team and the Senator George J. Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice, facilitated a conversation with Jonathan Powell, who was the first Chief of Staff in No. 10 Downing Street under Prime Minister Tony Blair and played an instrumental role in the multiparty talks that led to the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement.
Subsequently, he created his own conflict mediation non-profit organisation, Inter-Mediate. Through Inter-Mediate he has done notable work, such as playing a crucial role in the most recent peace process in Mozambique, as a close advisor to President Nyusi and the official mediator in its peace talks. In 2014, David Cameron appointed him as the United Kingdom’s special envoy to Libya. He was also special envoy for the Columbian peace process, where he worked closely with the Columbian government and the armed group, The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia (FARC).
Powell also writes for publications such as The Guardian, and has authored a number of books such as, Great Hatred, Little Room: Making Peace in Northern Ireland and Talking to Terrorists: How to End Armed Conflicts. In 2017, Powell was appointed Honorary Professor of the Senator George J. Mitchell Institute for Peace, Security and Justice at Queens University.
Professor Richard English, a Professor of Politics at Queen’s University, facilitated the session. English initially asked questions of his own, after which he posed questions which came from the digital audience in attendance.
What is your assessment of the current state of the United Kingdom in terms of constitutional issues, Scottish independence, the Northern Ireland border poll, and British nationalism?
“I remember coming here to Ireland, with Tony Blair, just a couple of weeks after he was elected and he said, he did not believe there would be a united Ireland in his lifetime.”
Powell admits that he mirrored Blair’s feelings at the time. However, now he was not so sure:
“Now, I think opinion polls still show there is still a majority for remaining in the UK, but the uncertainty about that is affecting unionist and loyalist opinion here in Northern Ireland.”
Five years on, what is your assessment of the current politics of Brexit in terms of British opinion or the changing effect it has on Northern Ireland?
“There has been a reduction in the salience of class in British politics as a result of Brexit, class is no longer a useful indicator as to which way people will vote.”
He stated that the Conservative Party has a new basis; it is now an English nationalist party and they don’t care as much about Scotland and Northern Ireland. Powell then referenced the opinion polls of over 200,000 people at Tory Party leadership election,
“It showed that they were perfectly happy to lose Scotland, lose Northern Ireland, if they could have Brexit.”
In Powell’s opinion:
“Brexit and Northern Ireland has been even more destructive, and it was always going to be.”
Powell explained how, to him, the sea border brought about by the UK leaving the EU single market and customs union presented practical issues but also impacted on identity:
“Just as a border on the island of Ireland would have an impact on the nationalists, this has an impact on the perception of the unionist as being part of the United Kingdom.”
Powell mentioned how David Frost, negotiator on the matter, has recently produced a certain amount of rhetoric where he is trying to raise the temperature on the protocol issue, and how his timing could not be worse:
“We are just about to go into June and July, which in Northern Ireland are traditionally very tense seasons.”
What would be your thoughts, advice and reflections on improving a very bloodstained conflict in Israel/Palestine?
“When I left Government in 2007, I said that on the basis of what I have learned in Northern Ireland, I thought we should be talking to groups like the Taliban and Hamas, I was, not surprisingly, rubbished by my colleagues in the British government.”
Powell explained that, at the time, the British government would differentiate between these groups (Hamas and Taliban) and the IRA or the PLO — the latter were okay to talk to, whereas the former were not.
Powell then brought the conversation to present day, mentioning how the British government are now in talks with the Taliban in Afghanistan, but makes reference to the sticky situation they have with Hamas:
“We have talked ourselves into a position where we won’t talk with Hamas, had we been in a situation where we wouldn’t talk with Sinn Fein, we wouldn’t have been able to get to a peace agreement here.”
If it was up to Powell, he claims he would relax the “silly rule” of not engaging with Hamas and have all parties involved in the negotiations.
He went on to mention a new problem in Israel, the tension between Arab Israelis and Jewish Israelis:
“We need to draw lessons from Northern Ireland and elsewhere where you get into intercommunal disputes of that sort.”
How does unionism reinvent itself and develop a broader, future facing agenda and philosophy?
“I think there is a problem with unionism becoming very reactive, it’s easy to know what unionism is against, but how do you know what unionism is for?”
Powell stated the importance of the new leaders of the two Unionist parties not boxing themselves in by saying that the Protocol “has to be got rid of”:
“Because they’re either going to lose, and the protocol will remain, and they will have a grievance, or they won’t be able to accept the changes that can be made in the Protocol.”
Powell argued that what is needed is greater flexibility from both — UK negotiator David Frost and the EU — as this would provide an opportunity for Unionist’s to say,” Okay, we will live with the Protocol if it is done on these terms”, referring to terms they can reach if both sides are more flexible.
He underlined how important this is, as reunification could be on the agenda within the next 10 years, and that Unionists can’t just ignore it:
“Ignoring it and wishing that it will never happen is not a way of removing it and could lead to violence.”
What do you think about the new UUP leader’s call to disband the Loyalist Community Council?
“Just as the IRA have effectively gone away, isn’t it time that Loyalist paramilitary organisations also thought about going away?”
However, he acknowledged that it would be a mistake to get rid of the Loyalist Community Council right way, as they provide a political voice for Loyalists.
Powell made a comparison to the Israel/Palestine situation:
“Just as I said you need to speak to Hamas if you want to get to peace in the Middle East, I’m sure you need to speak to Loyalist’s as well.
“That is not to say you accept their criminality, you have to deal with the criminality and it doesn’t mean the transition goes on forever, these groups do need to disappear and become irrelevant, but in doing so we need to help those that want to get onto a political track.”
Two weeks ago, you called for a new truth and reconciliation process, in the Belfast Telegraph. How does ripping up the Stormont House Agreement help?
Powell said that the desire for maximum prosecutions doesn’t necessarily help the situation, especially if they fail, which can lead to higher levels of discontent in the communities:
“I noticed that when people show the most emotion and joy, is when you get something like the Bloody Sunday report, and David Cameron actually admitting responsibility for it…”
Powell then spoke of how they used a transitional justice system in Columbia, which he said was not perfect by any means, and no matter what, there are going to be unhappy parties on both sides:
“But you need to have a transitional Justice system that finds a way of drawing a line under the conflict and it seems to be working at the first steps in Columbia.”
Powell iterated, “Whilst you do have a duty to the victims of the past, you also have a duty to the victims of the future.” He added:
“In future negotiations, that will be the transitional justice system, and we didn’t have that in the case of Northern Ireland, and we probably should have done.”
How do you build trust with groups involved in violence?
Powell said you have to talk to the men of violence:
“We were in this hall and Seamus Mallon criticised me for talking to the men of violence, but if we hadn’t talked to the men of violence, it is not obvious to me that they would have stopped their violence.”
Powell then spoke in a more global context making reference to a number of other conflicts:
“If you want to bring a conflict to an end you have to engage with those people who are in the conflict.”
He then warned that this usually comes with criticism and you have to be careful not to encourage these combatants to carry on with the violence, and most importantly, make it clear that you want the violence to end:
“It’s not an easy thing to do, to get that balance right.”
In conflict situations how important are perceived threats to identity as impediments to resolution?
Powell detailed how a lot of the conflicts that he works have identity as the central issue and gives the examples of Myanmar and Afghanistan:
“Identities are enormously important, and if you don’t take that identity seriously, and you can’t address that identity, you will never get to a settlement.”
Again, he reverted back to the example of Northern Ireland:
“That was the central issue here, we couldn’t resolve the issue of a united Ireland or a United Kingdom because some people wanted one and some wanted the other.”
Powell proceeded to describe the Good Friday Agreement as an agreement to disagree:
“It allowed people to have whichever identity they wanted, while living within Northern Ireland, they could feel Irish, they could feel British, they could feel both.”
Powell claimed this was the secret to the success of the Good Friday Agreement and that Brexit has threatened that.
Do you think there is merit to the joint sovereignty approach in Northern Ireland?
“Well, the history of joint sovereignty in Northern Ireland goes back a long way, and it was never really addressed.”
Powell continued by highlighting that the interesting thing is:
“If you think about it, if it is possible that there will be a united Ireland, I worry that nobody wants to address that issue, for understandable reasons. The current Irish Government says they won’t address this issue in their term [of office], which is the right answer.”
Powell noted how the Unionists are similar, insofar that they don’t want to address the issue either, but noted that there is a high probability of a border poll, therefore ‘what a united Ireland looks like’ needs to addressed:
“Will there still be a Stormont in a united Ireland? Will there still be protections for minority rights? It would be a different Ireland that you are talking about. You can’t just have a vote and figure this out after.”
Powell rounded off his answer by stating how joint sovereignty may not be the answer, but engaging with the numerous communities in Northern Ireland is paramount.
To what extent do you think that Northern Irish politics is suffering from the absence of Martin McGuiness?
“The most successful government in Northern Ireland was the government with Martin McGuiness and Ian Paisley in it, and you wouldn’t have thought that would be the case, with two sworn enemies.”
Powell alluded to how most people would have presumed that ‘that’ government would have been a highly contested government that would struggle to make progress. On the contrary:
“[Progress] happened more or less the first moment they met, they sat down and started joking straight away. Martin was very sensible about deferring to Ian Paisley, to be very human with him, and Paisley was very good at reacting to the way Martin was.”
Powell looked to the future and conveyed his worries about the next year:
“Institutions may be pulled down again, before we get to the elections next year, if there is weak leadership on both sides. If the intuitions get pulled down again, I don’t know if they will ever come back up.” He added.
From your experience, what do you make of the rising temperatures regarding community tensions and Loyalist violence, and how do we stop it spilling over?
“I do think that there needs to be more of an engagement with the Loyalist communities, and trying to address some of the grievances they have economically, socially and politically”
Powell explained how, when he was working in government, they not did enough on this matter and likewise, there hasn’t been enough done since then to deal with these issues:
“Westminster thinks it’s a problem for Stormont, and Stormont thinks it’s not their problem. Someone is going to have to address that issue or else, in the long term, we are going to have that problem (violence) again.”
Do you think that there needs to be reform in the Westminster system to convince Scotland and Northern Ireland to stay in the UK?
“Yes, I also actually think that there needs to be reform in the Westminster system for other reasons as well. I wouldn’t have always been a fan of proportional representation, but I am beginning to be persuaded that it is going to be necessary if we are not going to end up in a one-party state.”
Powell spoke of how there needs to be reform of the Westminster system to make it more responsive, by way of proportional representation, which would help in the contexts of Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, as they feel their views are not being listened to.
What if the majority of the people in the Republic of Ireland don’t vote for a united Ireland?
“I suppose it is a paradoxical thing, a lot of the younger generation in Ireland are not too keen on unification and certainly not that keen on addressing it quickly. They see what the cost will be and who is going to bear those costs.”
However, Powell does not believe this to be likely:
“In the end what I think is the most likely thing, if this ever happens, is that you would get a very close vote in the North, and that is where the trouble will begin.”
You can watch the full interview here.