Talking to Terrorists: The Myths, Misconceptions and Misapplication of the Northern Ireland Peace Process

, July 17, 2008

No. 566    August-September 2008

  • It has become fashionable to look to the lessons of the peace process in Northern Ireland as holding insights for other areas of conflict in the world. However, this has been done in an uncritical way, often more focused on contemporary agendas than on the core realities unique to the region, which do not necessarily translate elsewhere.

  • In some instances, the willingness of a state to negotiate might encourage the terrorists to believe that their opponents are ready to concede – even when this is not the case. In June-July 1972, for example, top IRA operatives were flown to London in order to meet senior British politicians, leading the IRA to believe its violent campaign had forced the British to the negotiating table. After the talks failed, on 21 July 1972, the IRA exploded 22 bombs in Belfast in the space of 75 minutes – killing 9 and injuring another 130 on what became known as “Bloody Friday.”

  • By the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Republic of Ireland had become a force for stability and peace in Northern Ireland and worked in close cooperation with the British government in the search for a settlement. The same cannot be said of Israel’s neighbors. On the contrary, Iran and Syriacontinue to support Hamas and encourage its violent campaign, offering it arms, funding, training, and sanctuary.

  • For the British government, formal negotiations with the IRA could only occur in a context in which republican violence had been brought to an end. With the IRA in a position of declining military and political fortunes, it sought to extricate itself via the peace process. The perception of the republican leadership had become – rightly – that IRA violence had held back the political prospects of Sinn Fein.

  • The aims of the IRA posed no existential threat to the British. This is not the case where Israel and Hamas are concerned, however. The objectives of Hamas require the destruction of the State of Israel. Moreover, whereas the political goals of the IRA were confined locally to the future of the island of Ireland, Hamas, by its own admission, is part of a global Islamist movement, known as the Muslim Brotherhood. Thus, diplomatic engagement with Hamas has broader international implications.

 

 

Bringing In The Extremes: A Necessary Evil?

 

Since the Belfast Agreement of Easter 1998, the lessons of Northern Ireland’s peace process have often been employed by leading statesmen, policy-makers and commentators across the global stage. To a great extent, this is understandable. In an international arena littered with problems of ethnic and religious tension, paramilitary violence perpetrated by non-state actors and, above all, the growing specter of terrorism, the apparent end of one of the longest-running conflicts in the world provides a welcome point of contrast.

The release of an insider account of the Northern Irish peace process by Jonathan Powell (formerly Chief of Staff to Prime Minister Tony Blair) has led to a new round of speculation about the “lessons of Ulster” and the possibility that there exists a “model” of conflict resolution that can be applied elsewhere. Powell, who was Blair’s principal negotiator in Northern Ireland, has lent credence to such suggestions, arguing that, while Northern Ireland was “sui generis,” there are”lessons to be learned.”Not least among these, he argues, is the fact that “only by refusing to accept ‘no’ for an answer” was a “lasting settlement” achieved in Northern Ireland. Powell likens the peace process to a bicycle: “we had to keep things moving forward….If we ever let the bicycle fall over, we would create a vacuum and that vacuum would be filled with violence.”2 On the basis of this reasoning, he states that: “One of the lessons that comes most starkly out of the Northern Ireland experience is the importance of maintaining contact. It is very difficult for governments in democracies to be seen to be talking to terrorists who are killing their people unjustifiably. But it is precisely your enemies, rather than your friends, you should talk to if you want to resolve a conflict.”3

At the crux of the case made by Powell is the idea that unfettered dialogue offers the only way out of what seem to be intractable conflicts. Thus, governments should initiate such dialogue with all parties to a given conflict – without preconditions – with an emphasis on bringing in the extremes, because only by so doing can lasting peace be achieved. This is the model that is being promoted elsewhere in the world, particularly the Middle East.

Partly in response to the increased status and influence of groups like Hamas and Hizbullah in recent years, the notion that talking to terrorists is a pre-requisite of peace has attained greater traction than ever. In June 2007, Peter Hain, the Labour Party MP and former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, made the case that peacemaking in Northern Ireland should serve as a “model for conflict resolution.” He argued that this peace process should stand “as an inspiration – and perhaps guidance – to others as they go about the business of conflict resolution.” “Preconditions,” he warned, with specific reference to the Middle East, “can strangle the process at birth.”4

By the same token, in July 2007, Michael Ancram, a senior Conservative MP and former Minister in the Northern Ireland Office under John Major, argued that the British had “danced with wolves” in the search for a settlement in Northern Ireland. In order to achieve peace in the Middle East, he asserted that the West must now start “engaging” with Hizbullah and Hamas.5

Across the political spectrum, it would seem that a significant portion of British parliamentarians are moving further down this road, using the example of Northern Ireland as justification. In July 2007, a subcommittee of the House of Lords’ European Union Committee released a report recommending that the EU avoid “an undesirably rigid” approach in dealing with Hamas. A spokesman for the Foreign Affairs subcommittee said that, while pressure should be put on Hamas to recognize Israel and accept previous agreements, “progress should not be scuppered because of this.” The report also stressed that any peace process should be inclusive, and once again cited Northern Ireland as a “positive source of inspiration” in this regard.6

Subsequently, a separate report from the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee recommended that the UK government should “urgently consider ways of engaging politically” with moderate Hamas groups, in order to encourage them to meet the Quartet principles (of non-violence, recognition of Israel, commitment to previous agreements). The committee also called on the government to engage with Hizbullah parliamentarians, while continuing to refuse to engage with Hizbullah’s military wing (a move that would mirror the way in which the British government itself allowed and engaged with Sinn Fein, even as it continued to proscribe the IRA in Northern Ireland).7

As the Israeli Ambassador to Ireland has commented, suggestions that his home country should “learn from Northern Ireland’s peace process and apply some of its principles” have become a feature of “almost every conversation” he has in Dublin.8 The appointment of Tony Blair to the role of the Middle East peace envoy of the Quartet in 2007 only added further momentum to this line of reasoning. Shortly after his appointment, Daniel Levy, Director of the Prospects for Peace Initiative at The Century Foundation and the son of Tony Blair’s former Middle East envoy, Lord Levy, told the Sunday Telegraph that: “For any process to have sustainability, legitimacy, and to guarantee security, it will have to be inclusive, not divisive and to bring in Hamas over time.” “Mr. Blair,” he added, “with his Northern Ireland experience, may understand this better than most.”9

 

 

The Creation of the Northern Ireland Model

 

These frequent references to the Northern Ireland model rest on a set of widely held assumptions about the factors that generated a peace process there. At the most basic level, common understanding of the narrative of the transition from war to peace in Northern Ireland runs as follows:

1.         For much of the conflict, the British state faced the problem of an organized terrorist threat from the IRA. The latter demanded a British withdrawal from Northern Ireland.

 

2.         The British state tried to defeat the IRA through military means but it could not do so and both parties were left in a stalemate after two decades of conflict. At the same time, the government had pursued a variety of constitutional innovations, based on accommodating the moderate political center ground, but these also failed to deliver peace and stability in Northern Ireland.

 

3.         In the third decade, the 1990s, there was a change in approach and the British government decided to negotiate with the terrorists; henceforth, the focus was on an inclusive settlement which would bring in the paramilitaries who had been excluded hitherto. This was a lengthy and difficult process but it ended in a negotiated settlement and an end to the violence. The terrorists were persuaded to swap bombs for ballots; yesterday’s terrorists became today’s statesmen.

 

The assumptions or lessons that are generally derived from this basic narrative are as follows:

1.         The state should be prepared to talk to terrorists; it is of critical importance to bring in the extremes of the political spectrum, even if this risks undermining the moderates who occupy the center ground.

 

2.         Maintaining the process of negotiation is, to some extent, an end in itself, as it encourages terrorists to think that they can achieve results without violence; it forces them increasingly to choose between the apparently incompatible spheres of war and politics with the likelihood being that – given the right incentives – they will choose the latter.

 

3.         Finally, and most controversially, rigid pre-conditions should not be set for these negotiations, because they discourage terrorists from taking up the process of dialogue. Instead, talks should be inclusive and open.

 

 

Challenging the Misconceptions: Northern Ireland Reassessed

 

Despite the fact that the Northern Ireland analogy pervades swathes of the foreign policy establishment, serious critical analysis of the nature of what happened in Northern Ireland over the last thirty years is in short supply. Among many of those who advocate this model, there is a tendency to use loose platitudes and generalizations rather than hard analysis of the peace process and the war that preceded it. It has become commonplace to assert that it is “good to talk.”  But the peace process of the 1990s was superimposed onto a political landscape that had been shaped by almost three decades of violence.

In seeking to comprehend the Northern Irish experience in a holistic way, it is important to emphasize that the points that follow are not intended to provide a rigid model or template in their own right. Instead, their purpose is two-fold: first, to challenge some of the myths and misconceived commonplaces that have become associated with events in Northern Ireland; and second, to make it clear that the problem was characterized by a number of core realities, unique to the region, which do not necessarily translate elsewhere.

 

1.         The British state never had an overriding selfish strategic interest in Northern Ireland. Yet, it still took thirty years to find a solution to the conflict.

One of the central (and most misguided) mantras of Irish republicanism was the notion that it was the nefarious, “colonial” interference of the British state in Ireland that was at the root of the conflict. It was this interference that was assumed to underpin the existence of the Northern Irish state and thereby stand as the only real obstacle to Irish unity and a harmonious co-existence for all peoples on the island, whatever their creed or origin.

The reality is that the British state had no real geopolitical or strategic interest in maintaining a domineering presence on Irish shores, north or south. If this was in doubt at all before 1989, it was certainly confirmed by the end of the Cold War. As the Northern Ireland Secretary of State, Peter Brooke, officially affirmed in 1990, Britain had “no selfish strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland.”

The chief impetus behind British government policy toward Northern Ireland over the last thirty years or more has been to stabilize rather than dominate and, where possible, to withdraw itself from the affairs of the province. Northern Ireland has been a burden in financial, military, and political terms. Indeed, at some points – such as the first half of the 1970s – it might be said that the British were rather more willing to accede to a united Ireland than the Irish government. In other words, even though its immediate interests were not under serious threat in Northern Ireland, it took the British state almost thirty years to successfully play the role of “honest broker.” It is an obvious point that many other states do not have the strategic room for maneuver afforded to the British over this period.

 

2.         The British state’s failure to establish constitutional red lines (an unambiguous commitment to preserving Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom, for example) was a hugely destabilizing factor in the early years of “the Troubles.”

The state actors tied to the conflict – the United Kingdom and the Irish Republic – were not directly responsible for the explosion of violence in Northern Ireland in 1968. Nevertheless, it could be argued that their behavior in the following years, 1969-1975, contributed significantly to the escalation of the crisis. During this period, the British government failed to develop a coherent political or security strategy as it lurched from one position to another in an effort to respond to successive crises.

Particularly damaging was the fact that senior British politicians (including Prime Minister Harold Wilson) openly discussed the scenario that Britain might withdraw from Northern Ireland. This was destabilizing for a number of reasons. First, it encouraged the IRA to believe that the British were wobbling and that one last push (a surge in violence, or a bombing campaign in England) might force them over the edge. Second, this move caused suspicion and distrust in its relationship with the Irish government, which was terrified that a withdrawal of British troops would lead to a vacuum of power and perhaps even a civil war on Irish soil in which they would have to intervene in the north. Third, the perception that they could not trust even their own government for protection contributed to an upsurge in violence from elements of the loyalist community, who organized themselves in paramilitary groups against the threat from the IRA. It is no surprise that 1972 marked the nadir of the conflict, with more lives lost in that year than any other. That this should have been so was a consequence of the British decision, first to suspend local government in the province and then to talk to the IRA shortly afterwards – a move that fueled the perception that withdrawal was imminent. What followed was a sharp increase in sectarian blood-letting as rival groups sought to strengthen their position ahead of the carve-up of power that was expected to follow that withdrawal.

 

3.         It was necessary to establish a constitutional “bottom line” to end the instability on which the terrorist campaign had thrived.

After a period of uncertainty in the early 1970s, the British government affirmed its commitment to a constitutional “bottom line” on Northern Ireland from 1975: the “principle of consent,” which held that the territory would remain part of the United Kingdom for as long as a majority of the people there wished it to be so. With this unlikely to change in the foreseeable future, the British thereby settled in for a long-haul approach to Northern Ireland, ending their flirtation with withdrawal and postponing constitutional experiments for the foreseeable future. This delivered a huge blow to the IRA campaign and it was no surprise that the IRA faced some of its worst years – losing support and operational capability – in the immediate aftermath.

By focusing their energies on a security crackdown and emphasizing the importance of economic regeneration over political innovation, the British effectively abandoned the possibility that they might settle upon a peaceful solution to the conflict within a short time frame. But in so doing, they also took the initiative away from those violent groups that were prepared to use the instrument of spectacular violence to influence political events at important junctures.

It was this change of tactics that forced the IRA to adopt its own “long war” strategy – effectively a tacit admission of weakness on the part of republicans. Under this strategy the IRA abandoned the effort to maintain a “people’s army” existence – as it had pursued during the early 1970s – and instead embraced the closed structures of the classic terrorist organization: the secret army, structured around small cells. The rationale behind the shift was to create a leaner, self-sustaining organization that was less vulnerable to the vagaries of community support. The corollary of this, however, was that the IRA had made it far easier for the British authorities to concentrate their resources against this smaller, ultimately more manageable, form of terrorist grouping.

 

4.         The close relationship between the British and the Irish governments undermined the terrorist campaign, but only when it became clear that the primary interest of both states was to achieve peace and stability.

This had not always been the case. As alluded to above, the actions of the Irish and the British governments had contributed to suspicion and instability from 1968 to 1975. From 1975, with the British settled upon a long-haul presence in Northern Ireland, there was a more solid foundation for improved relations, particularly on the issue of security. Though there were still tensions between the two governments, the destabilizing prospect of British withdrawal was removed from the political horizon.

Crucially, the Irish state’s position towards Northern Ireland evolved significantly over the course of the conflict. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, it had maintained its rhetorical commitment to Irish unification: a position it held without actually being able to manage – whether financially or militarily – the process of British withdrawal. Increasingly, however, the Irish state came to emphasize that its priority was to achieve stability. This position reached full maturity in 1998 when the Irish government successfully pushed through a public referendum that abandoned Articles 2 and 3 of its constitution, which had made a territorial claim to Northern Ireland.

In so doing, the Irish government fatally undermined the Irish republican project that drove the IRA’s campaign. The leadership of militant republicanism had long recognized the importance of winning the Irish government and the Irish people to the cause of Irish unity. The explicit confirmation that neither could be won in this way – unmistakably demonstrated by the referendum of 1998 – was a seminal moment in forcing the IRA to redefine its strategy.

 

5.         The British state, in its approach to Irish republican terrorism, has nearly always countenanced the possibility of engaging in dialogue with those terrorists who have threatened it, whether directly or through intermediaries.

At the highest level of the British body politic there has long existed an impulse – not always dominant, but always under the surface – that seeks to establish contact and enter into negotiations with terrorists. The very foundation of the Irish Free State in the 1920s came after the British government negotiated a settlement with Michael Collins, the key military leader of the insurgency against the British presence in Ireland. In regard to Northern Ireland, since 1968, this attitude has informed the approach of successive cabinets, as well as the security services.

When it was discovered in late 1993 that John Major’s Conservative government had been maintaining close contact with the IRA, the news was greeted with dismay and outrage across a spectrum of opinion; all the more so, when it emerged that secret meetings between representatives of the IRA and civil servants from the British government had taken place just two days after the Warrington bomb of March 1993, which had killed two young children and injured more than fifty civilians.10 Major had previously told the House Commons that face-to-face contact with the IRA would “turn my stomach.”11 Yet, in actual fact, Major’s government was simply reviving contacts that had already existed under previous British governments, of various political stripes. As was later confirmed, a “line of communication” between the British state and Irish republicans had existed as far back as the early 1970s. And even the apparently hard-line Margaret Thatcher had utilized this channel during the period of the IRA hunger strikes in 1980-81.12

 

6.         It is not always good to talk and there are often logical and sensible reasons not to do so. Unless it is part of a wider and clearly defined strategy, talking to terrorists can do more harm than good.

There are clear pitfalls to negotiation, as much as there are potential benefits. In some instances, the willingness of the state to negotiate might encourage the terrorists to believe that their opponents are ready to concede – even when this was not the case. It can also strengthen the perception that it is their violent campaign that has delivered results. In Northern Ireland, during a short truce in June-July 1972, for example, leading IRA operatives were flown to London in order to meet senior British politicians. This proved to be a disaster. At the talks the IRA representatives simply read a pre-prepared statement demanding that the British withdraw from Northern Ireland entirely. Any negotiation beyond the parameters of British withdrawal was rejected outright by an IRA which believed its violent campaign had forced the British to the negotiating table.

Consequently, senior figures in the IRA concluded that the British were not yet in a position to negotiate, but they might be moving in that direction. The IRA believed that the tide of history was moving its way; a conviction that only fueled the notion that its strategy was yielding political results. Just two days after the talks, the IRA staged a confrontation with the army and ended their truce. Not long after this, on 21 July 1972, the organization exploded 22 bombs in Belfast in the space of 75 minutes – killing 9 and injuring another 130 on what became known as “Bloody Friday.” “For the future,” concluded the Northern Ireland Secretary of State involved in the talks, “I had learned a lesson which taught me the dangers and risks of dealing with terrorists.”13

Furthermore, talking to terrorists also risked undermining more reliable partners for peace. In 1974-75, for instance, when Harold Wilson’s Labour government engaged in further secret talks with the IRA, this provoked an angry response from the Irish government, which remained suspicious of the British inclination to talk to terrorists throughout much of the period.

 

7.         Bringing in the terrorists was not the absolute priority at the outset of the Northern Irish peace process and there were “preconditions” placed on IRA involvement within it. Much more importantly, it was state actors who decided the “bottom line” on which any future deal would be based, and this was done without the consent of the terrorists.

Article 9 of the Downing Street Declaration – a joint initiative announced by the British and Irish governments on 15 December 1993 – established that the conditions for peace negotiations were as follows:

The British and Irish governments reiterate that the achievement of peace must involve a permanent end to the use of, or support for, paramilitary violence. They confirm that, in these circumstances, democratically mandated parties which establish a commitment to exclusively peaceful methods and which have shown that they abide by the democratic process, are free to participate fully in democratic politics and to join in dialogue in due course between the governments and the political parties on the way ahead.14

While there was to be some ambiguity as to how this commitment to “exclusively peaceful methods” was to be demonstrated, it did establish some ground rules for conduct, resulting in an IRA ceasefire on 31 August 1994. Moreover, without injecting too much retrospective wisdom into the government’s policy, it is now possible to view the debate over preconditions as a sideshow to the real significance of the Downing Street Declaration.

Much more important was the fact that the British and Irish governments had already agreed on what the basic outline of any future peace agreement would be before the process of bringing in other players even began. The Declaration set the terms of debate; and anyone wishing to participate in that debate would be effectively agreeing to operate within those parameters. Most significantly, the document was not a charter for negotiation with terrorists. Rather, the heart of the Declaration stated simply that in the absence of violence those parties that enjoyed a democratic mandate – including, but not exclusively, Sinn Fein – would be party to a talks’ process. In other words, in the absence of violence, republicans would not be ignored, but neither would they occupy the central role in any negotiation process. Furthermore, that negotiation process was itself defined by a key constitutional bottom-line, accepted by the Irish as well as the British government: that Northern Ireland would only be transferred to the Republic of Ireland from the United Kingdom in the event that a majority of its population favored such a move.

Thus, in joining this peace process, the IRA was effectively acceding to a reality against which they had fought for thirty years, but which both governments had now declared non-negotiable. The key to understanding the early stages of the peace process, therefore, is to recognize that it had a momentum, logic and blueprint of its own that were established largely independent of the terrorists.

 

8.         The Good Friday Agreement of 1998 was triumph for moderation over extremism. It was based on the democratic principle of “sufficient consensus.”

Misleadingly, the Northern Ireland peace process is portrayed as having been a process of bi-lateral negotiation between terrorists and the British government. However, a vital aspect of the 1998 Agreement was the fact that it was ratified by a majority of people north and south of the Irish border. And the negotiations that led to the accord had rested on the bringing together of moderates from the province’s Protestant/Unionist and Catholic/nationalist communities. The logic of the agreement was that it would provide a sustainable and workable foundation

About John Bew

Dr. John Bew is Harris Fellow and Lecturer in Modern British History at Peterhouse in the University of Cambridge, and has published on aspects of British and Irish history from the eighteenth century onwards.