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Tony Blair's former right-hand man takes on Ulster role

He was New Labour almost before Blair and was seen as the ultimate backroom fixer in the peace process. But Jonathan Powell's Machiavellian reputation will be sorely tested in his initiative with loyalist paramilitaries, reports Alex Kane

Tony Blair’s former right-hand man takes on Ulster role
Tony Blair’s former right-hand man takes on Ulster role

The presence of Jonathan Powell at the launch of the Loyalist Communities Council initiative on Tuesday afternoon turned a potentially low-key story into a front page event.

He had, after all, been Tony Blair's right-hand man from 1995 to 2007 (the only person to serve him through that entire period as Opposition leader and Prime Minister), as well as his principal adviser and chief negotiator on Northern Ireland.

He now runs Inter Mediate, which specialises in conflict resolution and reconciliation and "strives to ensure that meaningful and confidential dialogue is initiated wherever the appropriate fora for dialogue are non-existent or ineffective".

The loyalist project is billed as "unfinished work" - a title that may reflect Powell's personal view that he had left loyalist parties and concerns in the shade in his determination to keep both Sinn Fein and the IRA on board the peace train.

In the spring of 2000, he was, according to one key player at the time, making "flying visits across the Irish Sea to negotiate with the Provisionals" - leading another senior figure to the conclusion that, "Jonathan was always more susceptible to the republicans' arguments than Peter Mandelson".

Powell has mentioned on a number of occasions since 2007 that the "sense of isolation within pockets of loyalism" is damaging the peace/political process. So, when David Campbell, David Trimble's former chief of staff, approached him 18 months ago, it provided him with an opportunity to readdress a problem which he may have felt partially responsible for creating.

And since Inter Mediate specialises in below-the-radar meetings and negotiations, it also meant that the project could be conducted on a need-to-know basis. The fact that the story only broke - or was "carefully leaked" - a few days before his arrival is, in itself, a small triumph for Powell and Campbell.

That said, rumblings of disapproval from some elements of loyalism hint at internal problems and possible divisions further down the road. Or, as one loyalist put it to me: "Powell shafted us before. He'll do it again. This is about PR for his own company and trying to take all the credit for the Northern Ireland peace process. And it will be the same wee clique who get the new suits and the new jobs."

Jonathan Nicholas Powell is a living embodiment of New Labour, and of the sort of person who realised that the Labour Party would never return to power if it didn't shake off the shackles of socialism, trade unionism and public ownership.

And he was also one of the key architects of their sweeping electoral victory in 1997, and of their subsequent wins in 2001 and 2005. It is maybe over-egging the pudding to say that New Labour wouldn't have been possible without him, but it would certainly have been much more difficult for Blair to carry it through at key moments.

Powell was born on August 14, 1956, the third son of John Frederick Powell (who was appointed an Air Vice-Marshall in 1967) and his wife, Ysolda. Charles (now Baron Powell of Bayswater), his eldest brother, served as Margaret Thatcher's key foreign policy adviser during the 1980s. Christopher (knighted in 2008), the next eldest, is CEO of the BMP advertising group and former chairman of Labour's shadow communications agency. A fourth brother, Roderick, is a wealthy computer executive who lives in America.

Powell was educated at King's School, Canterbury, read modern history at University College, Oxford and then gained a Master's degree at Pennsylvania University.

After brief periods with both the BBC and Granada Television, he joined the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in 1979. His rise, as one profile noted, "was steady rather than spectacular, but by 1991 he held the coveted First Secretary post in Washington, where he was to establish links with the Clinton camp, recognising early on that George Bush would lose".

It was Powell who introduced Blair - then shadow home secretary - to Clinton in January 1993, when Blair flew to Washington to learn the lessons of Clinton's campaign success.

Powell was impressed by Blair and joined the Labour Party a few weeks later. The following year, when Blair became leader of the party, he asked Powell to become his chief of staff, which Powell duly did in 1995.

When Blair became Prime Minister, the new role of Downing Street chief of staff was created for him, including the unprecedented power to issue orders to civil servants. He sat in with Blair as ministers were hired, fired, praised and criticised, leading one former minister to note: "He's the reason all of our reshuffles have been messed up. He's not got a feel for politics, but he's got this political role. He's one of the unelected gang that Blair has surrounded himself with. They are out of touch with the party."

But so long as Blair was winning elections, Powell was to remain untouchable - untouchable even when it came to Northern Ireland and the peace process. Former Secretary of State Mo Mowlam claimed that Powell was briefing against her, rubbishing her and allowing her to be bypassed and ignored at crucial points.

There were also persistent rumours of "sticky relations" with her successor, Peter Mandelson. Indeed, David Campbell says that at a meeting in January 2000, "Powell openly contradicted Mandelson. It was startling to observe an unelected aide cut across this particular senior minister in front of outsiders".

As John Sergeant, the BBC's former political editor noted: "Alistair Campbell and Jonathan Powell may be unelected, yet they are much more powerful than Cabinet ministers."

Like all truly powerful advisers - and he has often been likened to Machiavelli - Powell has preferred, unlike Alastair Campbell, to remain in the background. He sums it up thus: "It is very difficult to conduct diplomacy effectively when your confidential deliberations are made public in this way. Mutual trust is the basis of such relations, and once that trust is breached, candid conversations are less likely. It is like having a conversation in the pub with your best mate about problems with your girlfriend, then finding the content, possibly with a bit of spin added, posted on the internet. You won't be having that conversation again anytime soon."

But it's that Machiavellian aspect of his career and "hidden hand influence" that makes people - many of them from the Labour Party - mistrust him. The fact that he remains close to Blair - from one of whose funding sources the Loyalist Communities Council was hoping to benefit - is another source of concern for some.

He may have been surprised that Sinn Fein, with whom he had built up a good relationship, seems so lukewarm about his involvement with the loyalist initiative. Maybe that's why he threw the "legalising the IRA" comment into the mix: because all that comment actually did was annoy almost every other mainstream party.

Given the secrecy that surrounds so much of what Inter Mediate does, it's hard to know if the group has banked any successes yet. Although it is worth noting that, in May 2014, David Cameron appointed Powell as the UK special envoy to Libya to promote dialogue between rival factions in the country.

Ironically, the rival factions that Powell now has to deal with are the three proscribed paramilitary organisations - UVF, UDA and Red Hand Commando - who will be the cornerstones of the new council. There is no love lost between these groups, and there is a high probability that they'll fall out with each other sooner rather than later.

This initiative is a big risk for him. It is unfinished work dating back over a decade. In many ways, it's also very personal, because he will know many of the key players.

The New Labour project that he helped to build doesn't exist any more. The political institutions that he helped to build here are, at best, pretty shaky. The chances of the new Loyalist Communities Council delivering the goods are not high.

So, maybe, like Machiavelli, Powell will be remembered more as an influential background figure rather than as a leaver of anything permanent or substantial.

A life so far

He was born in 1956, third son of an Air Vice-Marshall

His eldest brother, Charles, is a former special adviser to Margaret Thatcher

He joined the Labour Party in 1994, shortly after meeting Tony Blair

The post of Downing Street chief of staff was created specially for him in 1997

He was Blair's chief adviser and negotiator in Northern Ireland

He has been twice married and has two boys and two girls

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