How Blair's Mr. Fix-it holds all the cards
The PM's right hand man who is pushing for peace
By Gary Kent
He's Tony Blair's Mr Fixit. The man at the centre of the Prime Minister's high-profile efforts to secure the peace in Ulster. Jonathan Powell knows Northern Ireland inside out and his influence has been critical to effots to settle the Province's centuries old conflict.
But just who is the Downing Street guru who is overseeing talks betwen the Orange Order and the residents of Portadown's Garvaghy Road? To say that he is Tony Blair's most trusted lieutenant is an understatement. The Prime Minister consulted just one Cabinet Minister - John Prescott - about his dramatic ministerial reshuffle last week. But he spent the weekend at his country residence, Chequers discussing the Cabinet changes with a highly powerful Downing Street figure who is little known to the public. A former high-flying British diplomat, Jonathan Powell is Blair's main fixer and right-hand man as Downing Street Chief of Staff.
Being a powerful courtier seems to run in the Powell blood. Jonathan's brother Sir Charles was Mrs Thatcher's key foreign policy adviser for 7 years. Another Powell brother works for an advertising agency which helped run Labour's 1997 General Election campaign. Their father was an Air Vice-Marshall.
Jonathan studied history at Oxford and the University of Pennsylvania. After a brief stint in television, he joined the Foreign Office in 1979. He served in Portugal, Sweden and Austria before landing a prestigious posting as First Secretary at the British Embassy in Washington between 1991 and 1995. The Embassy is an important centre of social and political activity for the American elite.
In Washington, Powell had a spectacular stroke of luck in being assigned to follow the campaign trail of the then little-known Arkansas Governor and aspiring Presidential candidate, Bill Clinton. He spent a month on the road with the Clinton team and formed important political relationships with key staff. This lucky investment in the Clinton stock paid handsome political dividends when Clinton won the White House. Powell's diplomatic duties also led him to arrange Tony Blair's visit to Washington before Labour won the election in 1997.
There is considerable crossover between the Blair project and the Clinton experience. Blair eventually persuaded Powell to relinquish his diplomatic career and join him as his Chief of Staff. His elder brother is reported to have been surprised at his new public allegiance to Labour. But those who know the man dismiss such claims and point out that he had been attracted by New Labour's vitality and verve.
In any case, Powell is now one of the most powerful people in UK politics. One of his main briefs has become Northern Ireland. This builds on his Washington experience. He was there when the Major Government tried to influence the US Administration over the peace process. A highly vexed question was Bill Clinton's decision to grant Gerry Adams a visa for fund-raising. The Major Government was bitterly disappointed at this decision. But it only had itself to blame for crassly assisting the US Republican campaign against the President-to-be.
No blame attached to Powell for this. As Blair's Chief of Staff in Opposition, Powell played a role in preparing Labour for pwer after 18 years in the political wilderness. Powell also played a part in managing Labour's relatively painless transition from Kevin McNamara's "unity by consent" to Tony Blair's neutrality on the border question. This year, Powell has gained a higher profile in Northern Ireland. He accompanied Blair in the final few frenetic days of negotiating the Good Friday Agreement. Powell is something of a workaholic, regularly putting in 16 hour days.
It is said that he didn't sleep for days during the Stormont negotiations - although one participant recalls seeing him sleeping whilst standing. He played a massive role in securing the successful agreement. Those who have seen him up close say he has "boundless energy" and is "stunningly bright" and "very patient." More recently he has been heavily involved in efforts to negotiate a solution to the Drumcree impasse. Blair despatched him again and again to Armagh to hold the ring at the proximity talks between Portadown Orangemen and Catholic residents. The Secretary of State previously carried out this job.
Both sides have publicly praised his role in this, although efforts have not yet produced a solution. Powell also recently found himself at the centre of controversy when it was revealed that he had held meetings at Downing Street with the former senior IRA commander, murderer and high-ranking Irish Police agent Sean O'Callaghan.
It appears that Powell has no hang-ups about meeting anyone who can help boost the Belfast Agreement and avert violence. It was also reported that O'Callaghan and others provided Powell with a draft speech for the Prime Minister. The speech has been inaccurately described by nationalist writers - none of whom had seen it - as pro-Orange or pro-Union. But informed sources insist that it aimed to bolster those unionist and nationalist forces which had averted civil war for many years. The speech explicitly backed the Belfast Agreement, the rule of law and the Parades Commission. 42 year old Powell has had a meteoric rise and is well respected across the political spectrum.
He is one of the main gatekeepers to see before gaining access to the Prime Minister. People and their ideas must go through Powell first. He has huge responsibilities for ensuring the success of Labour's Irish policy. Much depends on this little-known but pivotal figure in the Blair administration.
Gary Kent is the Westminster Correspondent of the Belfast based Fortnight Magazine. This article appeared in the Sunday World on August 2, 1998.