It's amazing what you can find out reading books. Did you know, for example, that the key passages in one of the most important speeches made by Gerry Adams during the peace process were actually written for him by a top official in the British government?
No, me neither. But I was on a sunshine break a couple of weeks ago and the book I brought with me for the beach was "Talking to Terrorists," written by the very same official, Jonathan Powell.
Powell, you may remember, was Tony Blair's chief of staff in Downing Street from 1997 to 2007 and played a crucial role in the Northern Ireland peace process.
I know, I know, I should have brought the latest Jack Reacher thriller with me like a normal person. But I'm interested in this stuff, having worked as a journalist throughout the period, and the publishers had sent me an advance copy of Powell's book.
Powell played the leading role on the British side in negotiating peace in Northern Ireland. He was the point man who did all the talking with Adams and Martin McGuinness.
He's written about this before, but this new book, published on your side of the Atlantic on October 2, has a wider focus.
These days Powell runs Inter Mediate, a London-based charity for negotiation and mediation that tries to find solutions to bloody conflicts around the world, using the same skills he developed in the Northern Ireland peace process.
He believes that Western governments have to be willing to talk to organizations like the Taliban, Hamas, al-Qaeda and presumably even Islamic State if they want to find solutions to conflicts. It may often be stomach-turning, but the only way to end violence is to talk, he says. Which is why his book is called "Talking to Terrorists."
In it he lays out various strategies for such talks, the various stages involved and the different methods he has used to make progress at times when it seemed impossible. One of these was what he calls "constructive ambiguity" and it was an important factor in making the Northern Ireland peace process work.
It was in the middle of this section of Powell's book – on page 262 to be exact – that I found the extraordinary revelation about him writing the speech for Adams.
In the book, Powell explains that he wrote the speech for Adams at a critical point in the peace process, and that he did so at Adams' request. Adams added to the text, but the key passage in the speech in which Adams said he could see a future without the IRA was written by Powell.
Powell says in the book that the Adams speech, a keynote address given by the Sinn Fein president at the Hillgrove Hotel in Monaghan on Saturday October 26, 2002, came at an absolutely critical time in the peace process. The Good Friday Agreement (the basis for the peace settlement in the North) which had been signed in 1998 was in danger of collapse at the time because of the failure of the IRA to decommission.
"Constructive ambiguity made the Good Friday Agreement possible, but it became destructive over time," Powell writes.
"We could have sat for three years rather than three days and nights (in 1998) if we had insisted on resolving the issue of decommissioning of IRA weapons there and then. The Unionists and the Republicans just weren’t ready to reach an agreement on it. Instead we had to reach for language that could be interpreted in different ways by the two sides.
"For the Unionists it meant that the IRA would have to disarm before Sinn Fein could join the government, and for the Republicans it meant that the Unionists would have to demonstrate they would share power before the IRA would decommission their weapons."
Powell says that the ambiguity made the agreement possible, but that within a few years Unionist support for it had declined dramatically because the IRA had not disarmed.
"We felt that we had to address the ambiguity or lose the agreement, so Tony Blair made a speech in Belfast in which he demanded that Sinn Fein choose between the Armalite and the ballot box. We were nervous about the response but Adams called me a few days later and said, to our relief, it was a good speech. To my surprise he asked me if I would draft his response," Powell says in the book.
"I tried to write in Republican-speak and composed a passage that ended with: ‘People ask me do I envisage a future without an IRA? The answer is obvious. The answer is yes.’
"I turned on the television a few days later to see Adams deliver the speech unchanged."
The full text of the lengthy Adams speech, which came 10 days after the speech by Blair, is available on line on various websites, including that of An Phoblacht. The key passage delivered by Adams is:
"I want to see an end to all of the armed groups on this island. That has to be the aim of every thinking Republican. So if you ask me do I envisage a future without the IRA? The answer is obvious. The answer is yes. And who can influence the IRA most? The British government – the Unionists – the Irish government and us as well of course. All of us have to make politics work."
As Powell says in his book, it is the same wording as what he sent to Adams. Given that this speech by Adams – especially the reference to a future without the IRA – was a vitally important statement at a make-or-break time in the peace process, it is interesting, to say the least, that it was written for Adams by Powell, the top British official at the time.
With my old newspaperman's nose twitching I realized that this was something significant that should be reported. So I hauled myself off the beach, got out the laptop, and the next day's Irish Independent carried the story on the front page. And after that various papers and websites in Ireland and elsewhere picked up the story and ran it.
The reaction from some papers in the U.K. was amusement, and the suggestion that Adams had been heavily influenced by the clever British during the peace negotiations. Which of course was also the reaction from dissident Republicans who have always regarded the peace settlement as a sell-out and Adams as a traitor who was led by the nose to the peace table by the Brits.
But the reality is much more nuanced. The fact is that by October 2002, when Adams made the speech, he and Powell were friends who trusted each other, despite representing different interests.
This had involved a significant journey for both of them, as Powell says in the book. In the early 1990s, when he was still in the diplomatic service, Powell was in the British Embassy in Washington leading the campaign to prevent Adams getting a visa. Looking back now he thinks this was misguided, although at the time he was not a policy maker and was just doing his job as a career diplomat.
He first met Adams and McGuinness in 1997 after Blair had become prime minister and he had become Blair's right hand man, a position which gave him real influence on policy. At that first meeting he did not even want to shake hands with Adams, he says in the book, but he was already beginning to realize that the conflict in the North had to be solved by intensifying the talks with all sides, including the IRA.
The relationship developed over the following years and they have remained friends ever since, as is clear from the fact that Powell invited Adams and McGuinness to his wedding party in 2007.
By 2002, four years after the Good Friday Agreement had been signed, the relationship between Adams and Powell had become one of mutual trust and respect. They had the same goal, which was to make sure the peace settlement did not collapse and to end the remaining violence in the North, even if they did not always agree how that could be achieved.
It is also clear that by this time Adams and McGuinness were ahead of many in the IRA in their thinking and they were listening to suggestions from various players – Irish America, the Irish government, and even people on the British side like Powell – on how best to proceed.
It is in that wider context that Powell writing the key passage in the Adams speech must be seen. It was not that unusual for both sides to share positions behind the scenes.
In response to the Irish Independent story, a Sinn Fein spokesperson said the party had often exchanged phrases with the British government or had notice of what was in speeches.
"All of this was as part of ongoing efforts to help the situation. However, Gerry Adams is very clear that 'any remarks I made were entirely my responsibility and not scripted by anyone outside Sinn Fein,’” the spokesperson added.
Which is a sort of half denial, illustrating that even 12 years later it's still an embarrassing revelation that Powell wrote such a sensitive passage in the speech for Adams, envisaging a future without the IRA.
Apart from its interesting revelations about the past, Powell's book has particular relevance now, faced as we all are with the extreme violence of Islamic State.
Should the West try to talk to them? It may seem unthinkable now. But it was equally unthinkable once to talk to the IRA when it was also up to its neck in blood.