Donald Macintyre's Sketch: Perhaps Sir John Chilcot needs an anger management course - not to control his rage but to let it out


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Indy Politics

Maybe it’s because once a civil servant, always a civil servant. Maybe it’s because in Northern Ireland he had so much to do with some of the world’s more irate politicians. But Sir John Chilcot is so damned measured. Perhaps he needs an anger management course – not to control his rage but to let it out. Because it seemed he had something to be cross about. As, to be fair, in his unimpassioned way, he managed to make clear.

The delays in extracting documents from Whitehall departments – pulling teeth, it sounded like – had not, he thought, been the result of “bad faith”.

And Sir Jeremy Heywood, the Cabinet Secretary, had eventually – in contrast to his predecessor Lord O’ Donnell – agreed to publication of Blair-Bush traffic. But it had taken 13 months of “challenging” negotiations.

Gradually Sir Jeremy had agreed to release a point here or a passage there, so that eventually “it was no longer sustainable to argue that the documents could not be disclosed. But it took a long time to get to that point.”

No doubt Sir Jeremy can explain – if he has to – how all this squares with his assertion last week that he had resolved a “disagreement” between departments and the inquiry “over the passage of weeks”. But it was as much as Sir John was giving away.

It was all very gentlemanly. He fenced with the Liberal Democrat Sir Menzies Campbell over how many people had been sent “Maxwell” letters containing criticisms (to which his only “clue” was that they’re all witnesses, there were 150 of those, so it won’t be more than that). And there were no deadlines, though the “Maxwellees” didn’t have “indefinite” time to reply.

Sir John said sadly at one point: “I risk you feeling I am being obdurate.” To which Sir Menzies suggested he had “lapsed into mandarinese.”

Overall, though, Sir John resembled an author being pressed by his publisher for delivery of his Great Book. There had been many unanticipated threads. It was no good “scamping” the work.

It was crucial to give everyone, “and particularly all those who have been deeply affected by events in Iraq, the answers they deserve.”

Back in the Seventies a big board in the old Daily Express newsroom urged reporters to “Make it Early and Make it Accurate”. Sir John obviously believes the second exhortation matters more than the first. And he may well be right. But it had better be good.