The following piece is part 1 of a 4 part review of Great Hatred Little Room

It is about 18 months since I read Great Hatred Little Room. Getting around to writing about what I read was subject to a review delay mechanism – little free time. Like so many other books that made it into the holiday flight bag, their post-read hibernation detained them unduly long before permitting them to venture out again.

I am never quite sure that it is good for the health to be whisked away from Ireland to sunny pool strewn climes only to allow the tentacle of a book about the county’s conflict to wrap itself around the mind and leech the attention from poolside to political ringside. That said, there are much worse booky-traps to step upon than this one by the former British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s chief of staff, Jonathan Powell. In its pages he explains that his main aim in writing the memoir was to explain why the Blair government did what it did.

When published, Great Hatred Little Room made quite a splash. The memoirs of a political insider always stir curiosity even if they fail to satisfy it. The disparity between promise and delivery is particularly true in the case of insiders who do not want to face the cold elements of life on the outside. As Tony Blair’s key mandarin on the North, Powell was much better positioned to access vital strategic intelligence than the opening pages of his political memoir would suggest. There Powell floats the notion that the Blair strategic network had no inkling of how the process of engagement with republicans that it had embarked upon might end.

It is hard to see how this can even begin to feign accuracy. The reader is invited to believe that the British lacked strategic prescience. There were many others, without the means to access the information available to those involved in the Blair Project, who were quite able to foresee the outcome. It was hardly rocket science. It is not sustainable to believe that so much premium prime ministerial time was devoted to the Northern conflict without the certainty of a handsome dividend for the investors. Blair was not about to be interred in the Northern Irish political graveyard. He came to bury not to be sucked into the ground himself.

Blair, like Prime Ministers before him, did not operate in an information vacuum. He made judgements shaped by what was conveyed to him by among others Sinn Fein.

In fact, as back as 1986 the British state was made aware of the likely direction in which the then – and still – Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams wished to steer the republican project. He had conveyed his strategic intentions to both it and later the Irish government. The idea of an unarmed struggle had already been floated towards the end of 1982. By 1986 there was some additional evidence beginning to emerge that not every member of the seven man army council favoured a continuation of the war. The task of the British state once it had this knowledge, was to facilitate the Sinn Fein leadership in beaching the republican project, albeit hesitatingly managed by the British in fits and starts.

The exercise was once described to the journalist Ed Moloney by someone on the British side as ‘turning the Titanic in a bathtub.’ Observers may not have felt that this particular Titanic would end up as badly holed as it eventually was but it was always a matter of degree rather than kind. The British intention was to ensure it would never sail again. The purpose of the Blair Ditch Project was to let republicans into the constitutional political arena but to ensure that republicanism never crossed the threshold. No matter how much republican leaders might prosper in terms of their political careers the republicanism which they had utilised as the booster rocket was to be rendered barren as a political entity.

The strategic theatre was set: the Provisionals were to be encouraged into constitutional politics while facing no limits on their political growth in the North. So long as every concession ceded by the British was ring fenced in by the consent principle – always the commanding height never to be ceded to Irish republicanism by the British – nothing else mattered. Endless reconfigurations of the internal sinews of an equally internal solution would be put up with. That strategic objective was an unqualified success for Blair.

Powell points out just how well the British Prime Minister understood the strategic significance of having the Provisionals sign up to the consent principle, long described by them as the ‘unionist veto.’ Enshrining the veto as the measure of the unit of national self determination was the crucial strategic objective:
Tony had zeroed in on the fundamental principle: what was the unit that had the right to national self-determination? …It had to be the people of Northern Ireland who should have the say. For the unionists this was of fundamental importance.

Since 1970 the one consistent strategic objective of the British state was to secure the defeat of the IRA. The type of political arrangement most likely to secure and sustain that defeat was secondary to it being put in place. The British had neither the will nor the ability to overcome the existence of partition. The political parameters it laid down were regarded as a fait accompli within which the British state would have to operate. But in relation to the political arrangements governing the North once the partition/consent principle was enshrined and acquiesced in by republicans, the British genuinely were neutral. Whatever worked and kept the place quiet was all that was required. It did not have to be just or fair, merely workable. Get the Provisionals to work rather than wreck Northern Ireland was the prize.

When Powell said that consent would be the most difficult concession for republicans to make he was simultaneously saying it was the most important republican position for the British state to seize: ‘If they accepted the principle of consent … what had the armed campaign and the suffering been for?’

Hardly the first one to have asked that question Jonathan.

Jonathan Powell, 2008. Great Hatred Little Room. The Bodley Head: London
Book Review in four parts:
1. Great
2. Hatred
3. Little
4. Room


  1. Mackers, brilliant review.

    Never really knew much about Jonathan Powell, other than the fact he had invited Mc Guinness and Adams to his wedding.
    I think he was a shrewd cookie though. Certainly shrewd enough to recognise the smell of desperation.
    Just wonder would Gerry and Marty have been performing on one of the young Blair's skateboards, had they known someone would eventually write it in their memoirs?

    Watched him (Powell) one day on the Andrew Marr show, he was speaking about Sinn Fein.
    I remember him saying, how he faced a real "moral dilemma" engaging with people who had been in the IRA. (WELL EXCEPT GERRY OF COURSE)
    Thought it was a bit rich coming from someone who was an advisor to an arch butcher!

    Anyway, just like the people he describes as "personal friends"
    He has moved onto to bigger and better things, certainly a more lucrative lifestyle.

    Still think I would enjoy his book though.

  2. From what I have seen and heard of this man I have found him to be an arrogant upstart who like the rest of the Blair goverment were nothing more than lying b.....rds,and who would have been just at home with Thatcher, and that included that other two faced git Molam, they arent called prefidious Albion for nought, fair play to you Anthony for sparing your time to read his book ,I would just hang it in the bog

  3. Marty, my dear friend I have to disagree. Irrespective of our personal opinion of people like Jonathan Powell, they offer a invaluable insight into what happened in the corridors of power.

    I have not read the book, however after reading this initial part of the reviews I intend to.

    Marty I know Powell ended up classing Adams and McGuiness as personal friends. However, I am sure there are parts in that book they would much rather people did not read.

  4. Nah Nuala how do you distinguish between fact and fiction ,truth and lies, these spinners, would try and sell sand to the arabs,the parts they dont want you to read have not been published ,like their expense accounts

  5. keeping your friends close but your enemys closer is an old saying, to old for the way of life now, for IRISH life now anyhow, the arabs would buy all the sand that they could get there tents on marty, they can afford to as well, i have a few books to read before mr powells, when people find out that i am a mostly full time reader they go through there attics to give me there old books, there old favourites, they do not mean any harm, its just that these books have to be read, and talked about over a pint or two.

  6. Go easy on the falling down water michaelhenry its affecting your thinking process,but your right about the attic bit , I think your mates are trying to lock you up in one, if they ever succeed I will organise a book collection to keep you occupied for many a long day ya rascal

  7. michael henry, maybe they give you the books to keep you quiet for a while. I don't have an attic or I would be up there getting you a few myself.

    They must like to get very close to their enemies the shinners.
    Never seen anyone who cosied up to former enemies the way they do.
    Apparently Mr Mc Guinness frequents the Paisley home.
    Hope we don't hear he was frequent visitor to the Robinsons!

  8. martin mcguinness is to good of a family man fionnuala and to busy with the struggles, i see that caoimhe butterly went into stormont 2 weeks ago with gerry adams and martin mcguinness either side of her, miss butterly is an aid worker and an IRISH ambulance driver in gaza, she was shot by the israeli army a few years ago for helping the wounded,she was also involved this week in trying to get through the israeli illegal blockade, good luck to the aid workers and the palestinian people.

  9. michaelhenry, what is it he currently struggling with his conscience?
    I know he met with miss Butterly, he also met with Israels ambassador.
    He and Gerry met with her when the prisoners were getting stripped and beaten in Maghaberry.
    Must be taking a leaf out of Maried Corrigan Maguires book.

  10. SINN FEIN met with the prisoners in maghaberry finnuala, you have a problem now with them meeting caoimhe butterly or the israeli ambassador, because the prisoners at maghaberry had no problem with this when they met with SINN FEIN, maried corrigan was only interested with british peace in the past, SINN FEIN works for IRISH peace, plenty of struggles around the world, peace with justice to all.

  11. michaelhenry, how do you know what the prisoners in Maghaberry have or do not have problems with?

    The point I was trying to make was, why did Mc Guinness and Adams not see fit to go and visit their own people instead of doing a photo shoot with Miss Butterfly?

    Just wondering, did they show her the photo's they had taken the year before with the Israeli ambassador during the "Friends of Israel" bash in Stormont?

    While Gerry and Marty were wining and dining with the Israeli delegation at the taxpayers expense, the people of Gaza were being bombed and murdered.

  12. fionnuala, i do not believe in being smart to people, i say what i believe, but i listen to what others have to say, but to be honest i listen to republican people first, no matter what there view point is, i know one of the prisoners in maghaberry like i knew prisoners in long kesh / maze, but you are right i do not know what they all have problems with or not, but they still met with SINN FEIN despite these problems, and there is another meeting shortly to talk about some thing that you might not agree with, but thats life, are you trying to say that caoimhe butterly is not one of our people, yes she knows whats going on with some of the leadership meeting the israeli delegation at your expence, but those shot by the israelis would rather be seen in a photograph with SINN FEIN leaders, go figure,

  13. michaelhenry. If Sinn Fein cared about what was happening to the Palestinian people why did they meet with "Friends of Israel" and their Ambassador?
    Surely the logical form of protest would have been to refuse to show up at the Stormont bash.

    Why did the run over to meet Bush for a St Paddy's celebration, before he bombed Iraq?

    Probabaly for the same reason they sat tightlipped in the City Hall.
    When a Palestinian protester was dragged out for calling Bill Clinton a mass murderer.

    They do not want to rock any boats.
    They will align themselves with anyone who will further their cause. (Whatever that is?)
    They will run with the fox and claim victory with the hound.
    When you sell out you own cause, it surely should not prove too problematic to sell out others.

  14. you are not that big on diplomacy fionnuala, hard to work out why, but thats your business, i am sure that you are opposed to the so called prison governor and his staff, but are you opposed to any of the prisoners at maghaberry being delegated to talk to the governor or any of his staff, this has always went on, if you are not opposed to this then it is maybe time to get off your high horse.

  15. michaelhenry there is a big difference between being diplomatic and prostituting yourself. (No disrespect to the women who choose that trade)

    They will tout for business anywhere. They will hook up with any cause as long as something profitable comes their way.
    If they are so diplomatic, Gerry and Marty why did the not go into Maghaberry and delegate?
    I dare say Madame Mc Guinness could not face the prisoners and big Gerry by his own admission had to run to Stormont to get his cake, and eat it of course.

  16. no disrespect to women and men who choose that trade, women hire men you know, and its not for putting floor tiles in the bathroom.

  17. michaelhenry you are totally right!
    And I must admit I sort of like the sound of that, women using men for a change.

    Hope no-one is going to come on and now and say I'm being sexist. Sometimes it is just nice to sit back and watch things coming full circle.

  18. Great


    That’s right about the wedding. It gets a touch in the final part of the review. It contrasts with other views expressed by him in the book. I hope you enjoy the book when you get around to reading it.

  19. Mackers, looking forward to reading it. Just finished the Ed Moloney book which I found fascinating.
    Would like to write my own views on this book for the blog this week if that is okay?