Just when the canon of literature on the Northern Ireland Troubles seemed pretty much complete, along come two books which add to it hugely. One comes from journalist Ed Moloney, the other from Jonathan Powell, who was Tony Blair's long-time chief-of-staff. Ed Moloney likes the peace but does not like the peace process, regarding both Paisley and the republican movement (of which he has previously written in A Secret History of the IRA) as pestilential elements on the Irish scene. His thesis is that, although at opposite ends of the spectrum, they were of great benefit to each other.
Paisley's blood-curdling anti-Catholic rhetoric hardened attitudes and strengthened the IRA. Its terrorism would convince many Protestants to banish partnership and support Paisley as unionism's militant figurehead. This was acknowledged in the 1970s by an IRA leader, who said: "Paisley is the best recruiting sergeant we've got." The sectarian symbiosis lasted for decades.
But in recent years a new symbiosis came into play, with vociferous loyalists and violent republicans coming together not to continue the discord but to end it. Moloney burrows further into the closed world of the DUP than anyone before, exposing the internal machinations needed to convert an apparently utterly negative party into one willing to go into government with republicans.
At the heart is Paisley's deputy Peter Robinson, who has been chosen to replace him. Robinson favoured the deal and propelled his leader that way, but it could not have been done had not Paisley decided to work with Martin McGuinness (that "murderous godfather"). Why did Paisley add this astounding coda to his career? Moloney ranges through the possibilities, including the wish of a man in his eighties to do something constructive before meeting his maker, or a revenge on the Protestant establishment.
Moloney is surely right to suggest that the answer may be the simplest of all: "he went into government with Sinn Fein because he could, and because the Provos made it possible". Whatever the other reasons, it is inconceivable he would ever have agreed to serve as anyone else's number two. Only when his party vanquished its rivals, making the post of First Minister his for the asking, did he ditch the approach of a lifetime.
As a journalist, Moloney is one of Belfast's finest. As a British diplomat, Jonathan Powell has produced one of the half-dozen best books of the Troubles, telling how he functioned as Blair's negotiator with the major players, including Paisley and the republicans. He was the ultimate insider, closeted in hundreds of meetings with "the slightly threatening bearded face" of Adams and "the clear, chilling eyes" of McGuinness. It was clear that republicans were in the business of negotiation, but it was not clear they were prepared to ditch their weapons.
At every step, Powell had to judge whether the IRA was serious about discarding its armoury, and whether Adams was serious about attempting to deliver the hard men. Powell writes in a personal manner, with deft character sketches: Adams was intelligent, subtle and impressive but could be duplicitous; Paisley could appear "at his hectoring worst".
Taoiseach Bertie Ahern came within an ace of punching David Trimble. Peter Robinson was a sophisticated negotiator. All this is told without much ego, in a classically self-effacing civil-service suppression of the self. The book is also readable, avoiding getting bogged down in the minutiae.
Many people assume the ending of the Troubles was inevitable, but that is not the impression left here, with an often chaotic process disrupted by events and personalities. The players oscillate from euphoria to despair, breakthrough to setback. Blair and Powell "collapse in exhaustion-induced hysterical laughter". At one time all looks bleak and hopeless. Finally, it all came together. The sense of hope played its part; so did the evolution of one-time hardliners into capable negotiators; so did the growing sense that it was all fated to end not in victory for anyone, but in a deal including everyone.
The argument is often heard that Blair gave the IRA too much and should, for example, have kept prisoners locked up for longer. But it paid off: the peace process succeeded through diplomacy, so that Northern Ireland today is a better place than it has ever been. Powell goes on to make the case for dialogue in other parts of the world and to argue that, even when people are dying, a peace process should be kept alive. Maybe that wouldn't work everywhere but, after all the years, all the setbacks and near-despair, it worked in Belfast.
David McKittrick's 'Lost Lives' is published by MainstreamReuse content