Talking to Terrorists
Making Peace in Northern Ireland and the Basque Country
The peace agreement in Northern Ireland is now held up as a beacon for conflict resolution around the world. The ‘lessons of Ulster’ have been applied by prime ministers, presidents, diplomats and intelligence agencies to numerous areas of violent conflict, including Spain, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Afghanistan and Iraq. In early 2009, US President Barack Obama appointed Senator George Mitchell, former special envoy to the Northern Ireland peace process, to fulfill a similar role with regard to the Israel-Palestine dispute.
On the basis of the British experience in Northern Ireland, the notion that it is necessary to engage in dialogue with one’s enemies has become increasingly popular across the political spectrum. It is now widely believed that talking to terrorists is a pre-requisite for peace, and that governments should avoid rigid pre-conditions in their attempts to bring extremists into the political process. The British Foreign Office has revived contacts with Hezbollah and many suggest that it is now time to ‘engage’ with Hamas and the Taleban, just as the British did with the IRA in Northern Ireland.
But does this understanding really reflect how peace was brought to Northern Ireland? And can it be applied to other areas where democratic governments face threats from terrorist organisations, such as in the Basque region of northern Spain? In challenging this notion, the authors offer an analytical history of the transition from war to peace in Northern Ireland, alongside a study of the violent conflict in the Basque country over the same period. On the basis of expert research, they demonstrate how events have developed differently from how many advocates of ‘the Northern Ireland model’ have suggested.
Governments have often talked to terrorists and will continue to do so in the future. Yet the authors argue that what really matters is not the act of talking to terrorists itself, but a range of other variables including the role of state actors, intelligence agencies, hard power and the wider democratic process. In some cases, talking can do more harm than good. But above all, there is a crucial difference between talking to terrorists who believe that their strategy is succeeding and engaging with those who have been made to realise that their aims are unattainable by violence.
At a time when there has been a resurgence of republican violence in Ulster, Bew, Frampton and Gurruchaga call for a reassessment of the basis on which peace was made in the first place.
John Bew is Lecturer in Modern British History, Harris Fellow and Director of Studies at Peterhouse, Cambridge.
Martyn Frampton is a Research Fellow at Peterhouse, Cambridge, and an expert on the Irish republican movement.
Iñigo Gurruchaga is the London correspondent for the Basque daily, El Correo.
‘Talking to Terrorists is a dangerous book, one that will disturb those who maintain that states should never talk to terrorist groups and others who believe that states should always do so. As the three authors demonstrate through expert case studies, reality is far more complex. The political context in which talks take place, their timing, how they are conducted, whether to impose preconditions, and whether negotiations are part of a larger strategy for peaceful resolution are all essential in determining the wisdom of engagement and likelihood of success. Talking to Terrorists combines first-rate scholarship with relevant policy analysis, illuminating a shadowy diplomatic history that can help states decide if it may be advantageous to talk to their enemies. It is by far the best book to date on a widely misunderstood, contentious and important issue.’ –– Hon. Professor Mitchell B. Reiss, US Special Envoy to the Northern Ireland Peace Process, 2003-7 and Vice-Provost of International Affairs, College of William and Mary
‘Those who say “we must talk to the terrorists” should read this book. Some will be surprised to see just how much talking there was in Spain and Northern Ireland. However, the authors make crucial distinctions between the different forms of communication with terrorists. They show how talking in the wrong context can make matters worse. Eventually, in Northern Ireland, the right conditions for talking were meticulously established, with largely successful results. Sadly, this success was partly undermined when the government lost sight of the conditions for the initial peace.’ –– Rt. Hon. the Lord David Trimble, Nobel Peace Laureate 1998 and former First Minister of Northern Ireland, 1998-2002
‘This book is a welcome corrective to the idea that soft power is the only fruitful strategy in the fight against terrorism. It reminds us of the crucial role played by the security services in making the terrorists realise they could not win by bullets and bombs, creating a more stable atmosphere in which talks might finally succeed.’
–– General the Lord Charles Guthrie, Former Chief of the Defence Staff and former Chief of the General Staff of the British Army
‘With leading members of Sinn Fein descending on the world’s trouble-spots to teach the “lessons” of the Northern Irish peace process, this book is a bracing corrective to the conventional wisdom that talking to terrorists is a prerequisite for putting an end to violent conflicts.’ –– Professor Henry Patterson, University of Ulster