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Theresa May deluded to think DUP would back third vote: Jonathan Powell

Jonathan Powell was chief British negotiator in the Belfast Agreement talks
Jonathan Powell was chief British negotiator in the Belfast Agreement talks

By Staff Reporter

Theresa May has "misjudged the DUP in every possible way", according to Tony Blair's former chief of staff.

Jonathan Powell, who was the chief British negotiator in the talks that led to the Belfast Agreement, shared some of his memories of dealing with the DUP, saying that it "required special skills".

Given that the DUP had already voted twice to reject Mrs May's Brexit withdrawal agreement because of its backstop proposals, Mr Powell found it hard to comprehend why she and her advisers ever thought the party's MPs would change their minds to support her deal in last Friday's vote.

"Mrs May got it wrong again this week," he wrote in the Times at the weekend.

"She appeared to believe that the DUP would back her at the third time of asking, only for them to refuse yet again because of the backstop.

"I have always found it wise to take the DUP at their word.

"If they say they will oppose something, they generally do.

"They are very unlikely to surrender to pressure - especially if Mrs May cannot offer them a change on the backstop."

To illustrate his understanding of the DUP, Mr Powell recounted an incident that took place during the peace process.

"Tony Blair believed that it would be impossible to deal with Ian Paisley, the hardline DUP leader," Mr Powell wrote.

"In fact, we persuaded Paisley to negotiate with Sinn Fein and were on the verge of a breakthrough in talks at Leeds Castle in 2004.

"During the talks we met DUP MPs Peter Robinson and Nigel Dodds in Tony's grand bedroom, all perching on his giant four-poster bed.

"They all said we would only make progress if Tony built a personal relationship with Paisley.

"Tony took this advice seriously, and invited him to No.10 on several occasions."

Mr Powell records that the relationship between Blair and Paisley paid off, and the DUP finally agreed to a deal, but only after another difficult hurdle was cleared - Paisley did not want to sit beside Gerry Adams at the talks.

Powell explained how the impasse was overcome.

"A bright young civil servant came up with the idea of designing a diamond-shaped table that allowed the two leaders to sit at the apex - opposite and next to each other at the same time," he recalled.

"Peace was made in Northern Ireland."

The former chief negotiator offered Prime Minister May a final word of advice.

"The DUP will not want to face local elections having just broken their word to Northern Ireland," he said.

"If they are Mrs May's only hope of getting her deal through, she had better think again."

Mr Powell was Tony Blair's chief of staff from 1995 to 2007, the only senior adviser to last the whole period of Blair's leadership.

He is now director of conflict resolution charity Inter/Mediate.

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