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.

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  • Michael Henry

    You would be forgiven for thinking Powell started the Peace Process which had begun during the conflict in the early 80s-Powell and Blair’s finger-prints are all over the Iraq debacle so we know those two have not got a clue about looking for peace in a conflict zone- and the Brits are still bombing today so they are not interested in Peace-Maybe Powell should use that incredible influence that he thinks he as and try and stop the RAF bombing civilians in Iraq- that would be some feat- to try and get the Brits into a Peaceful mode-

  • given that lines of communication were open since the 1970s (and arguably before then) it took 30/40 years? At least 25 before the Belfast Agreement.

  • Slater

    Did we talk to Hitler when he was plainly defeated? Or insist on unconditional surrender.

  • carl marks

    Not the same thing, there is a big difference between regular war and guerrilla/terrorist war (it should be noted that regular war has a terrorist component, remember Shock and Awe tactics in Baghdad)
    I don’t think we would be in a very good place if we had not compromised!

  • I’ve posted a quick review of Saturday night’s conversation
    with Jonathan Powell at the Belfast Festival