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Alastair Campbell interview: Northern Ireland, David Kelly, Margaret Thatcher and Leveson

29 October 2013

10:37 AM

29 October 2013

10:37 AM

Alistair Campbell began his career as a journalist. He started working for The Daily Mirror in 1982 and then moved onto Today, a former British leftwing tabloid. In 1994 Tony Blair asked him to become his press secretary, and Campbell worked on Labour’s media campaign, where he helped them achieve a landslide victory in 1997.
That same year he became both the Prime Minister’s Chief Press Secretary and Official Spokesman. In Labour’s second term he took on the role of Director of Communications for the party.

Campbell has just published The Irish Diaries (1994-2003). The book describes the various ups and downs of the Northern Ireland peace process over a period of nine years. Written in real time, as historical events were unfolding, the diaries reveal in an intimate and informal tone, the last minute negotiations that went on through the early morning of April 10 1998, just moments before the Good Friday Agreement was about to be signed . Other highlights of the book include accompanying Tony Blair to the White House to seek advice from Bill Clinton about diplomatic protocol in international reconciliation politics.

The more sobering moments here are when Campbell recalls the aftermaths of the Real IRA bombing in August 1998 in Omagh, when it appeared as if a violent struggle- where bullets took preference over the ballot box- would continue for some time. Campbell explains in a candid manner the delicate balancing act of bringing unionists and nationalists together to sign the most significant agreement between Britain and Ireland since the Anglo-Irish-Treaty of 1921.

At his home in North London, Campbell talked to me about some of the more controversial figures he met on both the Republican and Unionist side of the negotiating table: many of whom were still involved in paramilitary organisations at the time. He also discussed why he believes the Conservative Party presently lack a strategic plan, how New Labour gleaned much of their ideology from Margaret Thatcher, and how the death of Dr David Kelly has affected his own personal and professional life.

In this book you talk about how Tony Blair reckoned he could see a way of sorting out ‘the Northern Ireland problem’. What did Blair think he could apply to the politics of Northern Ireland that hadn’t been tried previously?

Well he made the point that when you are trying to make change happen, it’s best to do it with an intellectual and strategic framework. The first step was to assure the unionists that we were committed to the principle of consent, but also make it clear that we totally got the nationalists and Republicans feelings, about being hard done by. Once that framework was set, we never really moved off it.

Do you think that particular Labour government may have been more sympathetic with the nationalists than had previously been the case?

No, on the contrary I think Tony felt that, historically, the Labour Party had been insufficient to the Unionist cause, and much more supportive of a united Ireland. He also said at the time that he wouldn’t be a persuader for a united Ireland.

You say Sinn Fein really picked up on how the media was portraying them, leading up to the Good Friday Agreement. Did they ever give you hassle over stories they didn’t like?

Yes. Martin McGuinness always had this view that I was up to something. And he wasn’t quite sure what it was. And I wasn’t! Black humour was always very important though in getting through all of this. I remember one time I had done a briefing and there was a knock on the door and Jonathan Powell [then Chief of Staff for the British government] said, some of your friends are here to see you. So I went out, and there was Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness, Gerry Kelly, and Martin Ferris. And I was thinking, fuck, what I have done now! I think it was something about the IRA coming out with a statement. But they weren’t happy. And McGuinness was saying ‘we want clarification’! That was the big difference between dealing with Sinn Fein and the UUP. Sinn Fein were a solid, smooth operation, who worked as a team. They battered their position and they never stopped negotiating.

You’ve said that Tony Blair called them ‘unity in motion’.

They were. I never knew what their purpose was at some meetings, but they certainly did. Tony was really good at empathizing with all of their positions. He said [during the talks] that we had to try and understand their opinion, not from an intellectual standpoint, but really try and understand how they feel. There really were some amazing moments. For example, when Ken Maginnis said,’ I’m sitting in a room with people who have tried to kill members of my family’. That shows you just how far we had come, even to get them in the same room. There was another time when we had a meeting with the UDA/ PUP, and I can remember scribbling a note to John Holmes [then Foreign Affairs Advisor to the Government] and asking, who is that guy? And he just said ‘double murder’. These guys were sitting in Downing Street.

Did Tony Blair ever have conversations with you in private, where he felt that Gerry Adams had more involvement in the IRA than he was letting on at the time, during these negotiations?

I think Tony definitely made a judgment early on that these guys[Sinn Fein] wanted to move. But there were a couple of times when he lost it with them. I remember the day before he came into Number 10, Gerry Adams said something that was quite threatening. A prisoner escaped, and he said, ‘Oh good on him’. But look, to some extent, we all went along with this ‘Sinn Fein isn’t the same as the IRA thing’.

Why? Was it a case of: let’s put aside finger pointing for now and get on with negotiating?

Yeah, there were several times when I can remember Tony saying, ‘ you have to remember these guys are coming into these negotiations thinking that there are people within the IRA who think they are moving too fast, and they could just take them out’. That is a sobering thought. There were times when you couldn’t get hold of any of the Sinn Fein guys. They were just off doing whatever it was they did. And they didn’t take their phones with them and so on.

You’ve written in The Burden of Power that when Dr David Kelly’s body was found in July 2003 it was perhaps the worst day of your life. When you think about that subject, what goes through your mind? Do you feel any guilt over his death?

It’s very hard to answer that. I do feel sad about it. I think most people would be very surprised to learn that I have never met David Kelly. But the way the story is now told is like I knew him very well.

It’s odd to have somebody who is defined as being an important part of my life, and yet I have no impression of him. The impression I do have is formed by this huge drama that played out between the government and the BBC.

People say to me if only you could admit that [his death] was partly your fault. But I don’t want to say things that I don’t feel. Labour have been so defined by what has happened in Iraq. Tony takes most of the heat on this. But then I seem to be second in line. But actually, there is also a cabinet, a Foreign Secretary, and a military as well.

It’s interesting that I was the guy who was part of shaping Tony Blair’s relationship with the media, but then my own relationship with the media became poisonous and nasty. Today there are some journalists who I’ll never talk to.

Like who specifically?

Well you know which paper I hate more than any other. The Daily Mail’s coverage of David Kelly’s death was disgusting. And it always has been. Here’s another reason why I despise the Mail: when Andrew Gilligan first broadcast [that Blair had allegedly misled Parliament over the Iraq War in 2003] on the BBC, there was no mention of me at all. It was in the Mail on Sunday where my name became the headline in the story. Now, whether they got Gilligan to do that I have no idea. It also says a lot about journalism that he could be so discredited by his evidence at the Hutton Inquiry. And now Gilligan is an advisor to the Mayor of London on cycling. It’s just obscene, you couldn’t make it up! Some people say [about me] that I had to go because I became the story: like I had set out to do that. They made me the story. There is no point in complaining about it though. Let’s be honest, one of the reasons I have such a good life now, and why I do lots of interesting things is partly because I have reached a level of recognition, and notoriety, that actually, very few of the politicians have. And that is just the way the world has worked out. I am fine about it. But when David Kelly died, it was one of the worst days of my life, without a shadow of doubt.

What do you think the current Tory Party lack in terms of ideology, leadership skills, and other qualities needed to win an overall majority in the forthcoming general election?

I don’t think it’s about ideology. It’s simply a lack of clarity or strategy.
When Cameron talked about the Big Society, what was that about? What has he driven through in terms of policy? He is defined by welfare cuts and privatization. With New Labour, it was driven through in policy: which was to modernize the party, and show the public that they can trust us to modernize the country. If you were to define David Cameron’s strategic purpose, what is it? Compassionate conservatism? I don’t know. The Big Society was Cameron’s way of saying Mrs Thatcher’s message was wrong.
In the Irish Diaries you write about the death of Margaret Thatcher and say that the right wing press went into overdrive with what felt like a canonization plan. But Tony Blair was inspired by Thatcher’s success was he not?

Oh yeah. It’s obvious that he admired Thatcher, particularly her enterprising approach to the economy, and issues like tackling abuses in the trade unions and so on. But he also said that Thatcher underestimated the social aspect of her economic policies, particularly with mass unemployment. She was wrong to think that the state couldn’t have more policies to address that. Her vision of Europe was also fundamentally wrong. It has always suited the Conservative Party to have this definition of British politics that the Conservatives do economy, and Labour does society. It’s suited the Conservatives because ultimately the economy is more important. What New Labour was about was this: you cannot have a strong economy unless there is a commitment to social justice, and you are never going to have social justice unless you have a strong economy. That was what framed our politics. I accept that Blair was an admirer of Thatcher. New Labour forced the party to face up to things that Thatcher had to do. But it also built on her failings as well.

As a former journalist, what has been your overall impression of the outcomes of the Leveson inquiry?

I’m not surprised but a little bit disappointed. Because I honestly don’t think that the press has anything to fear. I don’t believe that what Leveson has proposed, or what is on this Royal Charter, should lead to any of the fear that is being ventilated by the press. The reason journalism shouldn’t be worried about this is because all the pressure and trends lead towards transparency. I think an independent self-regulator is fine. The PCC is perfectly good. But it’s never been implemented. Every single editor has put their name to that code of conduct. But what they have never put their names to is implementing it.

The Irish Diaries is now available from Lilliput Press

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