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Former Northern Ireland Negotiator Says There Are Still Lessons To Learn From Bloody Sunday

Thousands of people joined marches in 2022 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday (Alamy)

7 min read

Jonathan Powell, an instrumental figure in the negotiation of the Good Friday Agreement, has said the UK government must learn from Bloody Sunday and involve victims in truth and reconciliation processes in Northern Ireland.

Powell was Downing Street Chief of Staff for ten years under former prime minister Tony Blair and was chief British negotiator on Northern Ireland. He was a key figure in the Northern Ireland peace talks that led to the 1997 Good Friday Agreement, ending decades of violent sectarian conflict. He now runs a charity called Inter Mediate which works on peace negotiations in armed conflicts around the world.

Tuesday will mark the 52nd anniversary of Bloody Sunday, when 13 people were shot dead by British soldiers who opened fire on civil rights demonstrators in Londonderry, Northern Ireland, on 30 January 1972.

There are still many unanswered questions surrounding other crimes carried out during the Troubles: an issue which many governments have struggled to contest with and remains a political challenge for the government today.

Describing Bloody Sunday as a “terrible mistake” by the British state, Powell told PoliticsHome that his experience in peace negotiations in Northern Ireland and other countries had shown him the importance of involving victims in truth and reconciliation exercises. 

The UK government passed the Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Act into law in September last year, offering controversial conditional amnesty to people accused of murder during the Troubles, in exchange for their cooperation with a new independent commission that will look into more than 1,000 unsolved killings from the period.

Before Christmas, the Irish government announced it would bring a legal case against the UK under the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). The legislation has also been opposed by many of the victims’ associations as well as all the major political parties in Northern Ireland.

Powell said that while something needed to be done as victims’ families “deserve the right to know what happened”, this act was unlikely to bring “satisfactory closure” when such key groups are not on board.

“I think the government made a mistake in terms of its process approach, just trying to push ahead unilaterally is unlikely to work if your aim is to satisfy people,” Powell said.

“Just trying to cut through it by doing it was probably a mistake; they'd have been better off consulting with the Irish government, consulting the political parties, and consulting the victims’ organisations.

“Even if it's painful, even if they couldn't immediately get to a solution, just keep going until they did because it's much more likely to work in those circumstances, if everyone signed up to it.”

The former No10 chief of staff said that when in government, he had been “sceptical” of the need for a separate inquiry looking into the events of Bloody Sunday, as he thought it would be a waste of resources and would aggravate historic tensions. However, the Bloody Sunday Inquiry went ahead and was published in 2010 with the findings that the civilian victims had presented no threat and that British paratroopers had "lost control”. 

Powell said he was glad in hindsight that the Bloody Sunday Inquiry took place, as it gave victims' families a chance to speak. 

“It did have a positive effect in terms of reaching some closure and getting some reconciliation,” he said.

“What we've learned is having a proper inquiry like that, even if it's very, very expensive and very lengthy, if it allows that cathartic moment, can be a really important way to try and heal or reconcile communities that have been very badly alienated by the way they've been treated.”

Agreement would still not be easy to reach, he explained, stressing that no truth commission would provide a “magic answer” for the pain experienced by victims’ families and the ongoing sectarian divides that affect the country.

He insisted, however, that there were processes that worked, citing an example that he had worked on in Colombia where they had set up an “elaborate court” to address crimes carried out by paramilitary groups.

“It's too early to say if it's been a complete success, but certainly it had some really very cathartic moments of military officers coming and saying ‘this is what happened’,” he said.

“It hasn’t satisfied all of the victims, but they involved the victims in the negotiation and they participated in the process that developed this system. So I think there are answers around the world that can work… there needs to be more thought given to finding an answer that does satisfy the victims and their families.”

Reflecting on his own time leading government negotiations, Powell explained that when he and Blair had consulted parties in the 2000s, “no-one wanted the truth and reconciliation process”. 

Jonathan Powell
Jonathan Powell was Tony Blair's chief of staff for the duration of Blair's premiership between 1997 and 2007 (Alamy)

Despite this, he believes that perhaps more could have been done then to consider truth and reconciliation in the peace negotiations, in a way that addressed the needs of victims. 

“If we started bringing this in, we might never have got to a settlement, but I think in retrospect, maybe there should have been an item on the negotiations addressing victims,” he said.

“What I learned from Colombia was we probably should have invited victims to the table.”

With negotiations as complex as they were, however, this would have made them even more difficult.

“The trouble is, victims can become very, very politicised, so if you start having people like that involved in you're simply frustrating the negotiation so even doing that is not so simple,” he continued.

A Northern Ireland Office spokesperson said: "The legislation provides a framework to deliver effective legacy mechanisms for victims and families, and to help society look forward, by making a realistic assessment of what can be successfully delivered over 25 years after the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement.

"The Government engaged extensively with a wide range of stakeholders, both in the years preceding the introduction of legislation and during legislative passage. As a result, a significant number of Government amendments were adopted that strengthened the Act in key areas in response to concerns that were raised."

They added that the new commission established by the act would was now "working at pace" and would be operational "as soon as possible".

Another lesson that should be learned from Bloody Sunday, Powell said, should be that governments cannot carry out counterterrorism campaigns purely through military means.

He agreed with a comment made by Irish Republican politician Gerry Adams that Bloody Sunday had been the “greatest recruiting sergeant for the IRA”, as the IRA got a “flood” of new members after the massacre. 

“In the international context, if you are fighting a counterterrorist campaign, that kind of action where you kill a large number of people and innocents, is very unlikely to help you solve the problem,” he said.

“It actually makes it last another 20 or 30 years in our case [in Northern Ireland]. I think that's a lesson the British government or certainly the British military and security services have learned very well and would never do again.”

This year, the Bloody Sunday March Committee has said it will focus commemorative events on raising awareness of the deaths of thousands of civilians in Gaza, where violent conflict is continuing in the aftermath of the 7 October Hamas attacks on Israel.

Powell said that while a direct comparison would be over-simplistic, there were lessons from Bloody Sunday that should be applied to the situation in Gaza. 

“The danger is the way that Israel is prosecuting the war in Gaza, the manner in which civilians are being killed and injured, is bound to lead to greater support for Hamas in the medium and longer term as it did for the IRA,” he said.

“I do think there's that lesson that you do need to be really careful when you're fighting a counterterrorism campaign: that you don't increase the support for the group you're fighting by the way that you prosecute the war.”

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