By Matt Ross

05 Jan 2015

Jonathan Powell, the former diplomat, chief of staff to Tony Blair and Northern Irish peacebroker, is currently trying to negotiate a ceasefire in Libya. Matt Ross asks him about the FCO, sofa government, and the ups and downs of liberal interventionalism

Wherever a group resorts to terrorism to attack a greater military power, we see the same stand-off. The terrorists define their goals in fundamentalist terms, proclaiming the need for radical change; the government utterly condemns its opponents, swearing that violence will never be rewarded. But according to Jonathan Powell, behind these loudly-voiced principles, threats and supposed red lines, there’s almost always room for manoeuvre.

“People take this attitude that the demands of a terrorist group are immutable. But actually when you talk to them, their demands do change,” he says. “If you look at the negotiations with most terrorist groups, they don’t get what they’re asking for – but they usually settle for something else”.

A similar pragmatism ultimately triumphs on the government side, Powell points out – though politicians and officials seem condemned to endlessly repeat the same learning curve. Serving as Number 10 chief of staff throughout Tony Blair’s premiership, Powell was also the PM’s chief negotiator in the Northern Irish peace process; and when he left government in 2008, he argued that “we should talk to Hamas, we should talk to the Taliban, and we should even talk to al-Queda,” he recalls. “Not surprisingly, the Foreign Office said: ‘This is ludicrous.’ It was okay talking to the PLO and the IRA, but you shouldn’t talk to these new groups.”

Every time governments encounter a new set of terrorists, Powell says, “we react emotionally to the ghastly things they do by using only security measures. But every group with serious political support over the last 30 years, we’ve tried military pressure and then come to the realisation that we have to deal with the grievances that they feed on – and talk to them.” So in the last six years, “the American government has negotiated a ceasefire with Hamas and the release of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl with the Taliban; and Eliza Manningham-Buller, the former head of MI5, has said we should be talking to al-Queda.” 

“In the 1960s and for decades before, the British government paid absolutely no attention to what was happening in Northern Ireland"

Such contacts are, he argues, often essential to halting the violence: “When John Major said it would turn his stomach to talk to Gerry Adams, at the same time he was corresponding with Martin McGuinness – and thank goodness he was, because if he hadn’t we would never have reached a peace offer”. 

That peace offer, he adds, got nowhere near the IRA’s original demands. “The IRA wanted a united Ireland. It got power-sharing; North-South bodies; the Irish language; human rights,” he points out. “It got a series of different things, but it didn’t get what it was asking for.” In reality, though, the UK government didn’t need to provide the IRA with its preferred solution; it only needed to recognise and address the legitimate grievances which gave republican terrorists a casus belli and support within their community.

“In the 1960s and for decades before, the British government paid absolutely no attention to what was happening in Northern Ireland,” he says: Catholic complainants were referred back to the Protestant authorities in Stormont. “We just pushed it to one side. If we’d been sensible, we would have insisted on fair [access to] housing – which was what caused the civil rights movement – and on fair employment laws, and we would have insisted on power sharing rather than allowing unionist gerrymandering to squeeze the Catholics out altogether.” 

In other words, the UK should have imposed something like the current arrangements long before embittered Catholics became radical republicans. Powell’s real expertise, though, lies not in how to avert terrorist campaigns, but in how to address them. A few years ago, he left his berth at banking giant Morgan Stanley and founded Inter Mediate: a charity dedicated to catalysing and facilitating peace negotiations involving non-state actors. And he’s since written a book, Talking to Terrorists: How to End Armed Conflicts, which calls for states to hold their noses and talk to terrorist groups – creating the possibility of a negotiated compromise acceptable to all sides.

First, he says, governments should open a communications channel with terrorist groups. “It’s not always the right moment to negotiate,” he comments – but keeping a channel open slowly builds trust and prepares the ground: “If we hadn’t opened a channel with the IRA in 1972, John Major would not have been able to negotiate with them in ’91 and ’93, and [the Blair government] wouldn’t have had a ceasefire.”
When Inter Mediate first helps to open a channel, armed groups are “very difficult; very suspicious; they’re going to think you’re the CIA,” Powell explains. “But actually, in lots of cases these groups are very, very keen to talk because nobody’s ever talked to them. A lot of it is being prepared to show respect and listen.” These discussions start to provide a reality check for groups long isolated from mainstream dialogue, he says, revealing which of their demands are realistic and which unattainable; Inter Mediate, meanwhile, can “find the gaps in what they’re not saying that show you ways forward.”

 “I remember a very distinguished former diplomat who said: ‘I don’t want to budget; it’s like asking a brain surgeon to budget. I should be concentrating on diplomacy.’ So there was a very, very old-fashioned attitude."

It can take years to reach the right moment for talks: “Negotiation only works when you have a ‘mutually hurting stalemate’ – when both sides have fought and realised they’re not going to win” – and demands political leadership, he says. “In the 1980s Adams and McGuinness, who both joined the republican movement very young, reached well past fighting age and saw that the battle could go on forever; then they started reaching out.” As an armed group starts to engage with its enemies, its most radical members may split off to continue the fight; but those who keep talking often improve their reputation and legitimacy – winning more community support. 

What’s needed then is persistence. “Seamus Mallon, the deputy leader of the SDLP, called the Good Friday agreement ‘Sunningdale for slow learners,’ because Sunningdale in ’73 had pretty much the same provisions as the Good Friday Agreement – but it failed,” Powell recalls. “In ’85, the Anglo-Irish Agreement failed. In ’93, the Downing Street Declaration failed. The Good Friday Agreement wasn’t built on nothing; it was built on a series of failures.” 

Along with persistence, negotiations demand constant attention; our interview is interrupted by calls from Libya’s embattled city of Benghazi, where Powell is trying to negotiate a ceasefire between a former general and a set of Islamist militias. “We need to get the bodies cleared, and tackle the sewage problem,” he comments.

Such challenges have peppered Powell’s career. He joined the Foreign Office as a diplomat in 1979, working there until Blair recruited him two years before the ’97 election – and he retains huge respect for our diplomatic service: “When I travel round the world, I see young third and second secretaries who are extraordinarily talented; certainly a lot more talented than I was! The quality of people going in is every bit as good, if not better than it used to be.”

Was defence select committee chair Rory Stewart right to suggest the FCO has lost local expertise in an ill-judged drive to improve management skills? Powell welcomes the reintroduction of a departmental language college: “It was daft to get rid of it, because if you don’t have language skills at ambassadorial level you cannot operate.” But he can understand why the department wanted to sharpen its management: “When I joined there was a problem; there was no concept of management at all,” he recalls. “I remember a very distinguished former diplomat who said: ‘I don’t want to budget; it’s like asking a brain surgeon to budget. I should be concentrating on diplomacy.’ So there was a very, very old-fashioned attitude. The FCO did get a bit stuck on management obsessions for a time, but I can kind of understand why that happened – and now it’s going back on track.”

Powell is also sympathetic to Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude’s civil service reforms. “There’s no doubt that we have, if not the best, certainly one of the very best civil services in the world,” he says. “But it’s been the same way for a long time, so it’s become very institutionalised. It’s very set in its ways; very inclined to thinking in a certain way; very disinclined to take risks. The system is set up in such a way that you get rewarded for covering your back, not for being entrepreneurial.”

Though he emphasises that he “would not want our civil service to be like the American system,” he argues for more movement of staff in and out of government. “I describe the civil service as a monastic order: you still generally enter at 21 and leave when you retire,” he says. “That cross-fertilisation would introduce some oxygen”. Low pay levels in the civil service are a barrier to recruiting from outside, he adds – but so are the favourable pensions which make civil servants “very reluctant to leave: we’ve built in these rigidities.”

 “There were some cases where it clearly went wrong and there weren’t records of crucial meetings – there’s no doubt about that – but if you looked back at previous governments you’d find that was the case then too.”

Hence Powell’s sympathy for Maude, who’s “trying to bring about change. It’s very, very difficult to do, and to be honest we didn’t really succeed in our time in government”. Asked whether this is a time of particular tension between ministers and officials, Powell responds that Maude’s operating “in a fairly muscular way, and that’s causing various stresses and strains”. But he suggests that things have ever been thus: remember then-home secretary Michael Howard’s public argument with prisons chief Derek Lewis? The main difference is that such spats “used to be carried out in the Athenaeum and Reform clubs, not in the newspapers.”

The former chief of staff also rejects the suggestion that under Tony Blair, the Cabinet lost influence as key decisions were made in small, informal groups in Number 10. “The whole ‘sofa government’ thing is just a myth,” he argues – there never was a “golden era of Cabinet government.” 

“It’s ironic that the people who criticise it worked for Mrs Thatcher, because Mrs Thatcher was above all a sofa government person,” he adds. “The Falklands War was fought out of her drawing room upstairs in Number 10, not round the table in the Cabinet Office.” What mattered under Tony Blair was getting “the right people in the room – and that may not include the cabinet secretary when you’re discussing, for example, foreign policy. You might rather have the chief of defence staff, or the head of an intelligence service, or the foreign secretary. As long as the decision is challenged, as long as it’s recorded and put into action, then I don’t think it matters whether you’re sitting on a sofa or round the Cabinet table.”

Powell does, however, acknowledge that some such meetings weren’t properly recorded: “There were some cases where it clearly went wrong and there weren’t records of crucial meetings – there’s no doubt about that – but if you looked back at previous governments you’d find that was the case then too.” It would be harder to make the same mistake today, in the era of the National Security Council – an innovation that Powell applauds, calling for it to “drive policy” as effectively as its counterpart in Washington, DC. But some of those unrecorded meetings were indeed crucial: during Powell’s time, we joined George W Bush in invading Iraq.

“It’s about dealing with a state of anarchy, rather than dealing with rigid ‘sides’ – and when conflicts are like that, it’s possible to come to a solution.”

Asked whether it was naïve to think that a western alliance could successfully occupy Iraq and establish a functioning democracy, he replies that it was not “naïve to think we could replace Saddam, and that if we did replace him we needed to stay there and help rebuild a state. If we’d gone in, got rid of Saddam and rushed out again, you’d have left them in a state of complete anarchy.” The occupation went wrong, he says, because in Iraq the minority Sunnis had ruled over the Shi’a majority “for centuries. When we came in and changed that, there was always going to be violence.” 

“The reason we’ve had to go back in again now is because we left without trying to resolve that problem,” he argues. “We left the Sunnis prisoner of a sectarian Malachi government, and did nothing to get a dialogue going. So unsurprisingly, the consequences were to get the war into such a state that we had to go back again. I just hope it’s not true of Afghanistan!”

So the rise of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, like that of the Provisional IRA back in the ‘70s, is rooted in legitimate grievances. “The position of the Sunni communities in Iraq and Syria has been dire; they’ve been treated extremely badly,” he says. “That does not mean it would be sensible to negotiate now with Isis on the Islamic Caliphate – that would be nonsense, and they wouldn’t want to – but as with the IRA, we need to open a channel. If history’s any guide, we’ll need to talk to them at some stage.”

One of the results of the failure in Iraq, Powell points out, is that western nations are reluctant to commit ground forces across the Middle East. “You can see that in Syria: we haven’t intervened at all, and the consequences are really grim,” he says. “Or Libya, where we intervened from the air and left them. When I go there, most people say: ‘Why did you go away and leave us?’ I understand why people did. But it was a mistake.”

Powell’s charity is working with the UN to broker ceasefires in Libya, where he sees chinks of light. “We don’t have the divisions of ethnicity which we have in Iraq, for example, or the divisions of religion,” he says. “It’s about dealing with a state of anarchy, rather than dealing with rigid ‘sides’ – and when conflicts are like that, it’s possible to come to a solution.”

On the other hand, the Libyan conflict and the disintegration of its central government present huge risks. “It’s teetering on the brink, and could fall right into the abyss of a civil war – and then you’d have Somalia by the Mediterranean,” he comments. “And there are real terrorist groups filling the vacuum. They’re coming up from al-Queda in the Islamic Maghreb, they’re coming from Boko Harram and they’re coming back from Syria in the form of Isis people. And if we leave that vacuum we will face very, very serious consequences.”

As he tries to help damp down the conflicts left in the wake of another ill-fated western intervention in the Arab world, Powell has few levers at his disposal: “There is no prospect of any western country being willing to intervene in Libya, nor do I see any prospect of any Arab country being willing – or being acceptable to the Libyans.” So can the fighting be stopped by negotiation? “I think the only way it can be done is by negotiation,” he replies carefully. “It may not succeed, but we have to try.”

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