On BBC Radio 4 Owen Paterson began down the well trodden road of disingenuous double speak so beloved of Shaun Woodward, Peter Hain and numerous Conservative Secretaries of State of old and avoided completely denying contacts with the terrorists.
About the only possible benefit of talking to dissidents and the reason suggested as McGuinness’s motivation for breaking the story in the first place was to discredit the dissidents’ image amongst their supporters as a pure and unadulterated military organisation devoted to removing “the Brits” by force alone. There may be some people who will be put off the dissidents by this revelation though it is genuinely difficult to conceive that there will be many and there is a larger danger that these contacts will gain the dissidents greater credibility and hence, more likely increased popularity. The fact that “the Brits” are negotiating with them even in the most tentative fashion is more likely to send out the message that they (“the Brits”) want to hear about what they want and are interested in making concessions to them. This holds out for such republican fantasists the standard pseudo colonial analysis (so beloved of republicans) that the British government might leave what is, to republicans, the artificial state of Northern Ireland and its government. Using a further leap of republican fantasy the British leaving would then usher in the united national socialist paradise of Ireland.
The British Government suggestion is that somehow establishing the political objectives of the dissidents and drawing them into dialogue will result in them ending their campaign of violence. However, as I mentioned above it is more likely to be seen by the dissidents as an example of their violence working: indeed it is extremely difficult to see it any other way. Furthermore if the dissidents are interested in something more attainable than their national socialist dystopia clearly they are after concessions. In the zero sum analysis of NI to which the dissidents most certainly ascribe that means erosion of the position of unionism and promotion of that of republicanism (along most likely with benefits for the dissidents themselves). Hence, to the dissidents talks are a way of subverting the democratically expressed wishes of the people of Northern Ireland. To quote Jim Allister: “Unionism has no more concessions to make, yet talking to terrorists is premised on fresh gains for republicanism.”
The reality is that this is an extremely and unnecessarily dangerous game from the British Government. The dissidents do indeed seem to have very little support and it is much more likely that talks will strengthen rather than weaken them. The government may point back to history and suggest that this type of strategy worked with the republican movement in the past. That is a moot point as suggested by Gregory Campbell. The current situation, however, is actually different from the late 1960s and early 1970s. Then there was a considerable level of nationalist discontent with the state and many people who, whilst they were unwilling to support the IRA’s campaign of murder, were willing to take to the streets to object to the Stormont regime.
Now the situation is very different. If one wishes to find parallels it would be much more useful to look at the IRA’s Border Campaign of 1958 – 1962. That campaign was not met with political negotiations but rather an effective policing response. On this occasion again an effective security response, avoiding over reaction but dealing with politically motivated crime in much the same way as other crime is much more likely to bear fruit. Indeed the strategy behind negotiations with mainstream republicans was always suggested to be to bring a critical mass into the process and then deal with the others by a policing response. There was always going to be a rump left outside the process but it seems that if the rump becomes even half effective or goes on for a number of years some in the British government revert to type and try to parley with them rather than stop them.
Part of the problem is that the British Governments of recent years have always been intent on “solving” the Northern Ireland problem rather than managing the situation. They seem incapable of seeing that this is in effect an ethnic conflict (yes of course there are no ethnic differences, but the terminology is widely used internationally and highly applicable to NI). Such conflicts are rarely if ever solved for good short of complete ethnic cleansing. Rather they depend on creating a situation whereby most people accept the arrangements and then one deals with the violent malcontents by a security response. Only naïve idiots like Blair truly believe that they solved problem of Northern Ireland forever. The appropriate management of the dissidents is policing not politics.
Two other groups also benefit from the existence of the dissidents and the willingness of the government to entreat with them. One is of course the mainstream republican movement which whilst threatened at some level by them can also use them as a stick with which to beat unionists and the government. Hence, they can suggest that unless republicanism as a whole is given additional concessions then the dissidents will grow in popularity and they (Sinn Fein) will be compromised. A figure as Machiavellian as Martin McGuinness will undoubtedly have known that as well as potentially damaging the dissidents with his revelations, he was by mentioning the contacts with them, utilising them as a stick with which to beat the government.
The final group to benefit of course are the loyalists. Unlike the dissidents they always want to talk to anyone who will listen to them. They will have taken note of the fact that the dissidents’ violence and ownership of weapons gives them credibility beyond their derisory level of political support. Equally the loyalists and their political mouth pieces gain derisory levels of political support and will see the obvious logic that retaining the capacity to be violent is much more useful than relying on the working class unionist electorate who unfortunately for the loyalists will have no truck with them.
Although the government can mount a case for talking to dissidents the simple reality is that a much greater logical case can be made against talking to them even before one gets into the morality of talking to people who see no problem with murdering children. However, such logic let alone morality has rarely occurred to some in politics and as such the self defeating answer of pandering to a tiny group of murderous thugs will no doubt continue.