On Jonathan Powell – a vision is needed for talking to terrorists

I haven’t yet managed to read Jonathan Powell’s new book: Talking to Terrorists: How to End Armed Conflicts”,  but potted  versions like this one in Prospect magazine  delivers his thesis with his usual crispness.

“In democracies we cannot kill all the terrorists, so we will have to talk to them at some stage!

And just in case you think  he has been seduced by his own experience, he anticipates  the obvious criticism.

I am not suggesting that there is a Northern Ireland “model” that can be deployed elsewhere unaltered—that would be ludicrous: each conflict has different causes and will have different solutions—but it would equally be nonsense to suggest that none of the lessons we learned in the negotiations in Northern Ireland, from our successes and our failures, could be applied elsewhere.

Powell chose his examples astutely, from the contemporary world than from the end of Empire where contrary to common  belief most British withdrawals were not carried out at the point of insurgent guns. The book is sympathetically reviewed by perhaps the best reporter of the Iraq-Syria crisis, Patrick Cockburn. This is a telling point, also highlighted by Cockburn.

When governments do engage with terrorists they almost always leave it far too late. General David Petraeus admits that in Iraq the US government delayed too long before talking to those “with American blood on their hands.” In the case of the Taliban, despite a long mating ritual, a sustained peace process with the US has still not begun, even though NATO forces will leave Afghanistan in the course of 2014. The process of engaging with these groups and winning their trust takes a lot longer than people realise. They need time to adjust to the outside world and grasp what might be a realistic demand and what is not. When we do eventually engage, we forget the techniques and skills we learned last time.

But success is about more than technique and more even than talking to terrorists. A vision of outcome is needed to talk about. In our case this was lamentably absent for decades as governments havered between a barely suppressed  urge to scuttle and  upholding  what was  – just about –  a defensible constitutional position. This political vacuum was arguably a bigger problem than the pitfalls of counterinsurgency among a civil population. The political uncertainty lasted so long because the normal pressures which usually lead to accommodations inside a state barely existed, as Northern Ireland is largely outside the party system of government. It is this system that really holds the Union together – shakily as we see it today.

Despite all the moral ambiguity embedded in the  GFA, I remain a fan of Powell and Blair who  had one vital perception  different from all  that had  gone before – the  leap of imagination which made  Northern Ireland a  priority, powerfully aided by the fact that New Labour had won a landslide and could count on two terms in office to finish the job.

We should also consider the advantages of talking for the terrorists themselves, who want a way out of a cycle of violence that is sustained by its own momentum and at some indefinable  point begins to sap the will.  Critics might also reflect that such settlements are a beginning more than an end. Once the deal has been done it’s up to dealmakers to make it work or come up with a viable alternative.  People like Jonathan Powell move on.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London