The truly subversive nature of Jonathan Powell’s important book can only be gauged by comparing its initial impact in Belfast and London. In London, there was much excited talk about dialogue with the extremes and the implications for British policy towards al-Qaeda. In Belfast, however, the local political ‘extremes’, who now dominate the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive, were dismayed. The Paisleyite DUP was infuriated by Powell’s casual revelations of its back-channel contact with Sinn Fein during a period when the party denied any such dealings. There was also embarrassment about Dr Paisley’s habit of leaving ‘religious tracts’ for the then Prime Minister’s son; once, when these had been tidied away, it was found that the DUP’s latest policy statement had also been binned. Far more disturbing was the message for Sinn Fein. Here are Adams and McGuinness being told at the very first meeting with Tony Blair that a united Ireland is off the agenda, and privately promising to sell this to their own people. Even more pathetically, late in the day, when Powell is trying to bring about IRA decommissioning, he talks of a ‘bigger’ concession, meaning something in the field of demilitarisation, but Adams and McGuinness desperately ask if this is something to do with a united Ireland.
There are many droll moments in the book: the description, for instance, of Peter Robinson of the DUP turning up dressed as a ‘mafioso in black shirt and black tie’. Commentators used to say that Downing Street always fed Gerry Adams first and thus undermined the centre parties in Northern