On May 8, 2007, an Irish miracle occurred. With Prime Ministers Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern beaming alongside, Ian Paisley, the leader of the staunchly pro-British Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), and Martin McGuinness, a leader of the Irish Republican Sinn Fein, took their oaths of office to lead a devolved Northern Ireland Assembly. The end of the “Troubles”, a day few had ever thought they would see, had finally arrived.
One person who not only envisioned this result but was also a key actor propelling it was Jonathan Powell. Powell was Tony Blair’s Chief of Staff on paper, but in reality he was his alter ego—a trusted confidant and chief negotiator for ten years on the Northern Ireland peace process. Now, less than a year out of office, Powell has written Great Hatred, Little Room, his account of this high-stakes roller coaster ride, his main aim being to account for how the Blair government was able to solve a problem that had bedeviled previous Prime Ministers, and why it succeeded when it did.
One reason for success was clearly the sheer amount of energy, time and dogged persistence that Powell personally devoted to keeping the process afloat. Powell’s book introduces us to an extensive series of private one-on-one encounters and secret meetings, crises flaring and crises doused, with Powell always hurrying about to patch up or paper over the latest row or misunderstanding. Powell rummages over all the issues, from disputes over the new Northern Ireland police force to the use of rubber bullets for crowd control to the proper place of the Irish language to the more central concerns about the British Army’s demilitarization and the decommissioning of the IRA’s once formidable arsenal. At times his account verges on the “one damn thing after another” school of history. Indeed, it sometimes seems more like stenography than history at all.
For all of his voluminous insider knowledge, Great Hatred, Little Room contains little new information, other than the fact that the Democratic Unionist Party had established a back-channel with Sinn Fein in 2004, a time when the DUP publicly declared Sinn Fein to be its mortal enemy. Even this is something less than a genuine revelation: I had been told the same information at the time (when I served as the President’s Special Envoy to the peace process from December 2003 to February 2007), and the...