In the small pantheon of memorable political diaries – Dick Crossman and Alan Clark, more recently Chris Mullin – Alastair Campbell’s gripping chronicles from the cockpit of Tony Blair’s leadership are at the very top. During his seven years’ service, nobody was more intimately placed in this cockpit – and, of course, he is a gripping writer.
There will probably not be a better insider journal of the highs and lows before, and for five years after, the 1998 Good Friday agreement. Jonathan Powell was Blair’s indispensable memory bank and a forensic negotiator, Campbell his expert communicator, cajoler and companion, political touchstone, blunt private critic and morale-booster.
Where Powell’s book, Great Hatred, Little Room, provides comprehensive insight, The Irish Diaries give real texture and a whiff of cordite.
The peace and democratic settlement in Northern Ireland was arguably Labour’s greatest achievement in office, and I do not believe it could or would have occurred without Blair, ably supported by Powell and Campbell. For Blair’s great virtue was to grip and micromanage the Irish conflict at the highest level, not intermittently but continuously, whatever breakdowns, crises and anger got in the way.
The contrast with the Middle East could not be starker, as efforts and initiatives have come and gone, and violence has returned to fill the vacuum. Fly-in, fly-out diplomacy to fit with the American presidential election cycle has so far failed Israelis and Palestinians. If that had been the pattern in Northern Ireland we would have failed there too.
Blair also had a better, more intuitive, understanding of the tangled history, culture and politics of the island of Ireland than probably any of his predecessors. Unlike Tories who carried a unionist veto in their back pockets, or the Labour left with its republican sympathies, he carried no baggage.
Campbell’s Irish Diaries capture all this with portraits which are both illuminating and captivating. Martin McGuinness ‘with a smile that veered from charm to menace’, Gerry Adams ‘more prone to philosophising’ – ‘both impressive in different ways’.
There is a lovely vignette from No 10’s legendary messenger, Vera Doyle, whom I remember well, an Irishwoman and ‘clearly a fan’ of the Sinn Fein pair. As they were leaving Downing Street after their first big meeting, she told them both: ‘Now you two just behave and help out our man here.’
One quibble. Especially in Powell’s account, but a bit here too, secretaries of state are accorded little influence or importance – but then I would say that, wouldn’t I? Like Powell, Campbell was not writing from our vantage points, he was writing from Blair’s.
I keep urging the now-retired but brilliant chief press officer in the Northern Ireland Office, Dennis Godfrey, a wonderful wordsmith, to write the definitive story, because he was right there from Good Friday under the unique Mo Mowlam, under Peter Mandelson, John Reid and Paul Murphy, to the 2007 settlement under me and the final deal on devolving policing and justice under Shaun Woodward. Now, that would be some book to line up alongside Campbell’s excellent one.
Peter Hain MP is a former secretary of state for Northern Ireland
The Irish Diaries 1994-2003
The Lilliput Press | 320pp | £15
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