Political Purgatory: The Battle to Save Stormont and the Play for a New Ireland


Brian Rowan

April 2021

Political Purgatory sets the three years from collapse to Covid-19 – and the breaking and making of Stormont – into a wider frame of building peace on top of conflict.


This is a book about political stasis; the purgatory that Stormont became, and the sins of that long standoff. The story begins in January 2017, with Martin McGuinness’s dramatic resignation as Deputy First Minister, and chronicles all the behind-the-scenes negotiations that ultimately resulted in the restoration of the Executive in January 2020, with the ‘New Decade, New Approach’ agreement. Then, that new fight with a fearsome and unknowable foe: coronavirus.

Political Purgatory charts the three years from the collapse then restoration of the northern Executive to Covid-19 in the wider frame of building peace after conflict, and it turns the next corner into the centenary of Northern Ireland and that louder call for Irish unity since Brexit, like a piece of heavy machinery on fragile ground, has left cracks across the Union.

Spanning several decades, some of the biggest names on the inside of Irish and British politics, including Gerry Adams, Naomi Long, Peter Robinson, Robin Swann, Julian Smith and Simon Coveney, help veteran journalist Brian Rowan turn the pages in what President Clinton has called the ‘long war for peace’.


Foreword by Julian Smith MP
Preface: Political Purgatory
Prologue: A cake with 100 candles – but how many more?

1 Resignation – the nuclear option
2 ‘Shadowy figures’ in the Stormont corridors
3 See you later, alligator
4 McGuinness – ‘part of the rage of his time’
5 A stage in the London lights – balance of power
6 Adams – the person least forgiven
7 Nearly fixed, but still broken – ‘keep your ears open’
8 Stormont breakfast – ‘tell me more’
9 No more road – election then agreement
10 ‘Project Dignity’ – politics and pandemic
11 Centenary and uncertainty – Union versus unity

Afterword: Hume – ‘his long war for peace’
Chronology: From ceasefires to peace


Brian Rowan
is a journalist, author and broadcaster. He was the BBC security editor until 2005, and reported on the major developments in the transition from conflict to peace. He has written several books on that process, including Behind the Lines: Story of the IRA and Loyalist Ceasefires (1995), How the Peace Was Won (2008), and Unfinished Peace: Thoughts on Northern Ireland’s Unanswered Past (2015). He has been a category winner in the Northern Ireland Journalist of the Year awards four times, including twice as specialist journalist.

Praise for Political Purgatory

‘Political Purgatory is an important book. … Thoughtful, informed, challenging & fair. I can think of quite a few TDs & Senators who would benefit from reading it.’
Eoin Ó Broin

‘Brian Rowan is brilliant when it comes to the forensics of local politics … That’s the strength of Political Purgatory. Rowan takes us up to and through the last crisis step by step. He doesn’t do broad brush, big picture stuff. He hears the rustles, he observes the seeming trifles, he talks to the horses’ mouths rather than third or fourth hand sources. More important, he joins the dots dispassionately and allows the evidence to take him to a conclusion.’
Alex Kane, News Letter

‘This latest fascinating offering from the pen of veteran journalist, author and political commentator, Brian Rowan, is required reading all serious observers or participants in the benighted politics of this place. Anyone wishing to fully understand both the malaise at the heart of the Stormont Institutions and the torturous path which led to the collapse in 2017 and the eventual restoration in 2020, need look no further than this insightful book. … As our political purgatory continues and as we face into the uncertain times ahead, those looking for a compass to help guide them through the torturous and labyrinthine twists and turns could do worse than follow the writings of Brian Rowan, a man who clearly has his finger on the pulse of our dysfunctional political scene.’
Jake Mac Siacais, Andersonstown News

‘Throughout his reporting on the peace process, ceasefires and agreements, Rowan kept fastidious notes, filing away original copies of statements and creating a rich archive that he can dip back into … The book is peppered with statements provided from politicians and police. But Rowan’s own voice shouts through the pages much more loudly than usual. He has some things to get off his chest, warnings about the inability of Stormont to survive another stoppage, and pointers to where the wheels could yet come off the political wagon.’
Alan Meban, Slugger O’Toole

‘The Northern Ireland Troubles prompted the emergence of some major journalists, whose daily work at local level necessarily involved addressing a world-significant conflict. Brian Rowan, a long-time BBC correspondent and security editor, was one such figure. His compelling book on recent Ulster politics, Political Purgatory: The Battle to Save Stormont and the Play for a New Ireland, reflects his very good access to wide-ranging actors, and also his strong grasp of the messy intricacies of politics in the North … Based on long journalistic experience and insight, and allowing many such voices helpfully to be heard, Brian Rowan’s book makes a valuable contribution to understanding the difficulties and challenges ahead in the North.’
Richard English, Books Ireland

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