Talking to Terrorists
By John Bew, Martyn Frampton and Iñigo Gurrachaga
Columbia University Press, 2009, 259 pp., $27.50

“Governments talk to terrorists. This is a statement of fact.” Thus John Bew, Martyn Frampton and Iñigo Gurruchaga begin their sober and useful study of peacemaking in Northern Ireland and the Basque country. Bew and Frampton, two British academics, and Gurruchaga, long-time London correspondent for the Basque daily El Correo, acknowledge that any democratic government faced with terrorism will want to do things that involve interacting with adherents of a terrorist group or apologists for it. But “talk” can be direct or indirect, continuous or intermittent, sought or undertaken in response to an invitation. And talk is not synonymous with negotiation.

The essential message of Talking to Terrorists is simple enough: Details and context matter. It is an important message, too. Bew, Frampton and Gurruchaga are mindful of the many attempts by academics, activists and certain politicians to extrapolate broad lessons from the British government’s interaction with terrorists in Northern Ireland. With few exceptions, these extrapolations argue for continuous engagement with terrorists and supporters of terrorism. Indeed, as the authors show convincingly in their introduction, a virtual cottage industry has arisen whose aim is to internationalize the Northern Ireland “model” as a conflict resolution instrument, an instrument often aimed accusingly at Israel, the United States, Sri Lanka and others. And it very much matters, for purposes of establishing the authority of this model, that the titans of this industry include former senior members of the British government, some of whom are evidently inclined to tell the Northern Ireland story in ways that exonerate their own past judgments.

There are only two problems with all this, argue Bew, Frampton and Gurruchaga. The first is that “just as this analysis has become more pervasive and influential, it has drifted ever further from a detailed understanding of what occurred in Northern Ireland over the last forty years.” In other words, the conflict resolution model purported to have arisen from the Northern Ireland experience in truth did no such thing. The second problem is that it is by no means clear that “there really are lessons that can be extrapolated from the British government’s experience in Northern Ireland.” Heeding Regis Debray’s warning that “nine out of ten political errors result from reasoning by analogy”, they insist that “terrorism is not a generic phenomenon.” Republicans in Northern Ireland wanted to wrest it away from the United Kingdom, but never assaulted the legitimacy of Great Britain or aspired to destroy it. Why, then, should lessons from the British-IRA conflict apply to that between Israel and Hamas or Hizballah, when the latter terrorist organizations declare Israel illegitimate and vow to destroy it?

This does not mean that there is nothing to learn from the Northern Ireland experience. But it turns out that a genuinely sound understanding of what happened gives rise to lessons far more subtle than those generally bandied about. Talking to Terrorists is so far the most accurate description of the “troubles” and their resolution to date, undertaken in the book’s first three meticulously researched chapters. It may also be the most careful description of the ETA’s relationship with the Spanish state, the main subject of chapters 4 and 5.

Above all, the lessons the authors draw strike me as right in the main, and here I must engage in an act of disclosure: Not only was I a principal for many years in the Northern Ireland issue, so that I know much of what the authors discuss from the inside-out, but I, along with many others, shared my views in interviews with them during their research. Now that I see what Bew, Frampton and Gurruchaga have written, I am glad to have helped and hope that their effort to correct the record and introduce some common sense into discussions about Northern Ireland makes headway.

If there is a master lesson that comes out of the Northern Ireland experience, it is this: What matters is not whether a democratic government talks to terrorists, but how and under what circumstances it does so. Is “talking”, in whatever form a government chooses, part of a strategy with clear goals? Or is it a substitute for deciding a strategy that unwittingly forecloses options? Is talking undertaken in a condition of superior intelligence and consensus within one’s own side, or in ignorance and disarray? Are the connections among various levels of talking, from the informal and indirect to face-to-face negotiations at high levels, properly understood? The answers to these questions make all the difference between engagement with terrorists leading to peaceful resolution, or sparking more violence and preventing any resolution at all. The real story of Northern Ireland bears this out this cardinal lesson.

I recall a friend saying in the mid-1970s that anyone could sketch the outcome of the Northern Ireland conflict, so simple and straightforward it was, on the back of an envelope. Yet it took nearly thirty years to achieve a stable outcome. Bew, Frampton and Gurruchaga rightly attribute the delay partly to the internal sectarian dynamic within Northern Ireland, but also, crucially, to the destabilizing effect of the British state’s failure to establish clear constitutional red lines during the onset of the troubles. . . . It was this absence of a long-term strategy which was to be one of the key contributory factors to the sharp increase in violence from 1969 to 1975–6. The rapid oscillation of policy in these years proved particularly damaging: from an ‘ostrich-like’ policy of neglect as the province spiralled towards collapse, to full-blown intervention and ‘Direct Rule’, to negotiations with the IRA in 1972, to an abortive attempt at power-sharing with moderate parties in 1973–4, only to return to more exploratory talks with terrorists in 1975. What characterised this era was the inability of the state to recognise how its own behaviour could exacerbate the situation.

The 1972 encounter is noteworthy. Talks between the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and an IRA delegation—including Gerry Adams, who had been released from jail for the purpose—took place only days into a flimsy, temporary ceasefire. The results were disastrous. Sinn Fein chief negotiator Martin McGuinness later recalled that the IRA delegation left “quite clear in our minds that the British were not yet in a position whereby we could do serious business.” The IRA thus increased its violence, culminating in “Bloody Friday”, when 22 bombs were detonated in under an hour and a half in Belfast. Loyalists, who also interpreted the 1972 talks as a sign of British government weakness, responded ferociously, and the whole situation rapidly descended into bloody mayhem. Bernard Donoughue, then a Downing Street aide, has detailed how close Prime Minister Harold Wilson came to making withdrawal British policy in 1974.

The situation began to turn around after 1976 when the British government finally realized that it needed to accept full responsibility—politically, financially and in terms of security—and settle in for the long haul. Its attempts to “normalize” the security situation and ameliorate social grievances and economic problems took the initiative away from violent groups, reassured moderate opinion in Northern Ireland, and paved the way to a more stable relationship with the Irish Republic. The channels of communication that had been created for the abortive talks between the British government and IRA terrorists in the 1972–75 period remained in existence, but were dormant throughout this period. “Talks” of a very different sort, however, went on.

It is axiomatic that you cannot defeat terrorism unless you first gain the advantage in intelligence. This means more than identifying key terrorist personnel and learning their plans. It means a thorough understanding of them, of what and how they think. Thus, hand in hand with gaining intelligence is winning the intellectual war. There are few truly “mindless” terrorists. Their actions may revolt us, but they are invariably motivated by a set of beliefs, and these beliefs we need to understand. We then need a public communications strategy in which terrorist ideology is confronted and refuted. Such a strategy bolsters one’s own society and its morale, and it undermines the recruiting and unity of terrorist groups. It is often the case that not until one is succeeding in the ideological struggle can one make decisive progress in gathering intelligence, for that prior success expands the possibilities of turning individuals within the orbit of the terrorist group to one’s own purposes.

Acting is also a form of “talking.” Some terrorist grievances may have a basis in reality, and addressing them can be acts of loyalty to one’s own principles, not concessions to terrorism. Acting badly also “speaks”, however. Mistakes in the conduct of operations obviously come under this heading. So too did the occasions when British Army leaders, viewing matters from a military perspective, made statements that were inappropriate from a political perspective. In addition Irish republicans have described many instances in which members of the intelligence and security agencies contravened government policy, leading to a litany of accusation and complaint about who did what to whom and in what circumstances. In Northern Ireland we call this “whataboutery.” It may be tiresome to constantly rebut it, but it has to be done. Better, however, to act in ways that minimize its creation. Note that in all these circumstances there is no need for government to talk directly to terrorists. Debate is public but indirect; intelligence gathering is direct but private. And when there is a purpose to direct talks, the importance of context does not abate; it grows. Thus, there came a time in the saga of Northern Ireland, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, when the lines of communication devised years earlier were reactivated. Doing so, however, had most unexpected results.

In the first instance, reactivating the lines of communication enabled a compromise that ended the first hunger strike in December 1980. But the terms were vague, and the hunger strikers felt they had been misled when they saw the details. A second hunger strike followed within three months, during which more extensive use of the channel ensued. This use has generated much controversy in recent years that need not detain us here. The upshot, as our authors say, “is that the hunger strikes sustained the entry of Sinn Fein into modern electoral politics in the years that followed.” For better and for worse, British communications strategy helped them do it.

The channel appears to have fallen inactive again until the early 1990s, when the exchanges that led to what is now called the peace process began. But first, it is important to note the change in the security situation in the decade between the hunger strikes and the peace process. Put simply, in that decade the security forces won the intelligence war. By the late 1980s, the IRA had been heavily infiltrated, and the security forces claimed that routinely they foiled four out of five terrorist operations. The public may remain sceptical of such claims, but we as unionist elected representatives knew them to be true, if only from the timely and detailed warnings we received of terrorist operations directed at us.

Another indicator of the changed circumstances can be seen in the losses republicans sustained: British security forces, particularly the SAS, killed 35 IRA volunteers between 1983 and 1992. As Bew, Frampton and Gurruchaga explain, Forced to look elsewhere to sustain its campaign, the IRA shifted focus to comparatively softer targets—principally, off-duty RUC [Royal Ulster Constabulary] and UDR [Ulster Defence Regiment] men—though again, this merely fuelled the perception that republicans were primarily engaged in an assault on the Protestant community.

That contributed in turn to an increase in violence from loyalist paramilitaries: In 1991–92, loyalist killings approached parity with republican ones and in 1993–94 exceeded them. Most of these were the sectarian killings of innocent catholics, but they also impacted on the republican movement. Between 1989 and 1993 the Ulster Freedom Fighters and Ulster Volunteer Force killed at least 26 members, or relatives of members, of the IRA and Sinn Fein.

The effect of all this was to drive republicans toward a negotiated settlement. Gerry Adams started a dialogue with other nationalists, with the Irish government and, acting through the Redemptorist priest Alec Reid, the British government, as well. Before long, however, some more unfortunate forms of talk occurred. Michael Oatley, an intelligence officer known as the “Mountain Climber”, had handled the British end of the channel of communications for decades and was approaching retirement. In October 1990, he arranged a meeting for his successor with Martin McGuinness and, while “accounts of what happened subsequently diverge”, our authors suspect that the agent who replaced the Mountain Climber “may have significantly over-stepped his brief” in meeting face-to-face with republican leaders and suggesting that unauthorized concessions were on the table. Indeed, they think that a stepped-up IRA bombing campaign on the British mainland, (on London in particular), probably resulted from their perception of a weakening in the British position.

Two key points emerge from this period of negotiations: that authenticating indirect communications can be difficult and a source of dangerous misunderstanding; and that sometimes a collapse of confidence in a line of communication can be a clarifying event, not a damaging one. In February 1993 the British government, newly led by John Major, received a message supposedly from Sinn Fein chief negotiator Martin McGuinness saying, “The conflict is over, but we need your advice on how to bring it to a close.” It was not from McGuinness, however. It had been invented by a go-between named Denis Bradley in an effort to advance a line of policy he thought McGuiness favoured. The authors quote John Chilcott, the head of the Northern Ireland office, who said, that after receipt of the celebrated message, The Prime Minister asked us quite explicitly, was this message authentic? Did it come from McGuinness, was McGuinness speaking for the IRA leadership? What we told him, having worked it through and done some digging, was that yes, it was authentic, it was from McGuinness and it was spoken with authority.

Thus, Prime Minister John Major believed that he was responding to new approaches from the IRA. And while McGuinness may still deny that the message was his, it should be said that throughout the subsequent events, he acted in accordance with it.

The result was a clarification of British policy. While the government may have contemplated acceptance of an IRA offer of a two-week ceasefire, it also indicated in the starkest terms that it could not allow the republicans into talks unless it was clear that there was a new departure point and repeatedly emphasised the problem caused by continuing violence. The British response fell into a new context when Gerry Adams and John Hume, the leader of Ulster’s Catholic-based Social Democratic and Labour Party, announced that they had passed a draft declaration to the Irish government. It was then that all these matters came into the public domain, and the preconditions of both governments for entry into talks were clarified. But these revelations also destroyed confidence in the communications channel that had been used. As our authors say, Communication between the IRA and the government had stuttered to a halt in 1993 but, ironically, it was the collapse of this channel—rather than its continued existence—which provided the context for this new initiative: a seminal moment in the formation of the peace process in Northern Ireland.

This new initiative was the Downing Street Declaration of December 1993, in which the British and Irish governments effectively took control of the process. That declaration set out the three elements that remained as the key building blocks of the entire process: a permanent end to violence; a commitment to exclusively peaceful means; and an acceptance of the democratic process. It took a long time, however, to bring the conflict first to a negotiating table and then to a conclusion. And the process needed outside help, as well. The republicans did not entirely accept the three key elements of the Downing Street Declaration, and tried to water down or wriggle out of their requirements. Much of their recalcitrance focused on the question of the decommissioning of paramilitary weapons. Ultimately, an international body under the chairmanship of former U.S. Senator George Mitchell produced a report in January 1996 that proposed, among other things, that parties wishing to be involved in a formal dialogue should affirm their “total and absolute commitment” to six principles of democracy and non-violence:
a. To democratic and exclusively peaceful means of resolving political issues;
b. To the total disarmament of all paramilitary organizations;
c. To agree that such disarmament must be verifiable to the satisfaction of an independent commission;
d. To renounce for themselves, and to oppose any effort by others, to use force, or threaten to use force, to influence the course or the outcome of all-party negotiations;
e. To agree to abide by the terms of any agreement reached in all-party negotiations and to resort to democratic and exclusively peaceful methods in trying to alter any aspect of that outcome with which they may disagree;
f. To urge that ‘punishment’ killings and beatings stop and to take effective steps to prevent such actions.
The Report was seen in some quarters as involving a climb down by John Major, but the principles are a faithful development of the Downing Street Declaration. The decommissioning card was reshuffled, but the fundamental preconditions for dialogue remained unchanged, and it was those preconditions, and their enforcement by the British and Irish governments, that led ultimately to the Belfast Agreement, reached on the afternoon of Good Friday in 1998.

The 15 months that passed between the promulgation of the Mitchell principles and the Belfast Agreement involved a good deal of pushing and pulling, with the republicans trying to push reality outside of the negotiating room in directions they had not achieved inside it and other parties pulling back. Thus, while the governments had committed themselves to commencing inter-party talks in June 1996, republicans were unable to join because they had resumed violence, not restoring the ceasefire until July 1997. Inter-party talks in 1992 had settled questions of procedure, and these were adopted for the 1996 talks. They included the concept of “sufficient consensus”, meaning that agreement would not require unanimity; it would be sufficient if a matter was agreed upon by the two governments (the British government only for matters internal to Northern Ireland), and a majority of nationalists and a majority of unionists. Majorities were to be determined by reference to the electoral support the parties received in the 1996 elections. In those elections John Hume’s moderate SDLP outpolled Sinn Fein. That meant that Sinn Fein did not have a veto in the talks. Since the Mitchell principles contained a commitment to accept the outcome of the talks, republican acceptance meant risking entry into a process that might produce an outcome with which they disagreed. Indeed, the Downing Street Declaration had made it clear that self-determination in Ireland was to be “on the basis of consent freely and concurrently given, North and South.” This effectively guaranteed the continued existence of Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom.

It is consequently no surprise that concern about a serious split in the republican movement opened up at this point, and that decommissioning became the lightning-rod issue going forward. The concern was real enough, but more interesting in the course of events was the manipulation of that concern to create bargaining leverage on the republican side throughout the period when the first Northern Ireland Assembly was suspended or collapsed (between most of 2000 and 2007). That manipulation helped enable the extremes to eclipse the centrist parties that made the Agreement.

What went wrong? During the last days of the talks in April 1998, as our authors detail for us, there was doubt that republicans would accept the deal. Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern later recalled that on the last night “it looked as if Sinn Fein was not going to be part of it.” Alistair Campbell in his Diaries records McGuinness delivering “a veiled warning to Tony Blair, ‘Believe me, this is not a threat, but they could be a return to violence’”, a message that runs as a thread through the post-agreement phase. Prime Minister Blair’s Downing Street point man for Ireland, Jonathan Powell, records Gerry Adams saying in April 1999 that if there were a decommissioning, “there would be a split in the IRA.”

The republican negotiating style subsequently consisted of variations on this theme. During the review of the Agreement conducted by George Mitchell in 1999, for example, the republican leadership said to us that they could not persuade their members to decommission before the formation of a governing Northern Ireland Executive, but could do so after they had been included in one. I decided to put that to the test by forming the inclusive Executive. I well recall the final meeting we had in George’s Belfast hotel room on October 31, 1999. Until then, Adams and McGuinness had not been sure which way I would jump. When they realised that the challenge was about to pass to them, they soon qualified their estimate: “We might not succeed in persuading republicans to disarm.” George turned on Adams, saying, “Now Gerry I want it clearly understood: 31 January is the final cut-off date.” Later, Seamus Mallon revealed that when he asked George what the deal was, he was told simply that if the Executive were formed in November, decommissioning would start in January.

In the event it did not start, and the British Government brought forward legislation to suspend the Executive. The republicans then made a half-move: According to Powell, they had prepared an IRA statement on decommissioning, but Adams told them it could not be published because “the text would cause a violent backlash.” Powell says the draft statement “sort of suggested they were willing to disband and decommission without actually saying so.” The best Blair could think to do was tell McGuinness to meet me and explain. I agreed to the meeting, but remained in listening mode. I cannot better Powell’s description: “McGuiness was at his charmless worst, threatening and failing to tell him anything new.”

But why did this style of negotiating work? It had nothing to do with a lack of talk, but rather with a lack of understanding about what the talk signified. Blair had achieved progress before in compelling Adams and McGuinness to accept the Mitchell principles and acquiesce in the Agreement. Why after the Agreement did he acquiesce in the republican position? A commentator once said to me that Blair, in order to get the Agreement, had leaned toward the unionist position in constitutional terms and then, after the Agreement, felt he had to cut republicans some slack on other issues. But if that were the case he would have leaned the other way after 1999, when it was clear that the unionist electorate was increasingly disenchanted with the implementation of the Agreement. Instead Blair’s pro-republican leaning became, if anything, more pronounced. Adams certainly was not going to abandon a tactic that worked. As our authors say, “As late as 2006 Adams was claiming that his ‘leadership would be finished’ if republicans did not obtain a satisfactory result from ongoing talks”—this, after Blair had sacrificed first the SDLP and then the Ulster Unionist party to appease Adams!

There had been a split in the IRA, of course, but that had been in 1997 and had been relatively modest in import. It seemed clear to us and most commentators that the Adams/McGuinness leadership was secure. President Bush’s Special Envoy, Mitchell Reiss, has written that “the consensus of the U.S. and Irish governments was that Adams was in control of the movement and had been since the Good Friday agreement.” In a conversation with Powell after the publication of his book, he told me that the intelligence services were giving briefs to the British government until a very late stage saying that there could be a republican return to violence. I told him that that ran counter to everything I was seeing and hearing. On many occasions during these years I asked Blair if he feared such a return, and he denied any such concern. In an interview on BBC Northern Ireland in April 2008, Blair said that the intelligence service had described the same picture as had Reiss, but “he chose to ignore it and instead follow his ‘instincts’ which told him that [the republican] leadership needed to be protected.”

In the event, the republicans overreached themselves, most clearly in the huge Northern Bank raid and the MacCartney murder. This was not the only republican murder: Our authors summarize about thirty murderous episodes of republican post-agreement criminality. But thanks to the courage and persistence of MacCartney’s sisters, the crime gained international attention. The International Monitoring Commission, created after our lobbying in 2002, kept the spotlight on continuing paramilitary activity. Mitchell Reiss brought pressure to bear by means of the occasional denial of visas to visit the United States, or by attaching conditions to those visas that were granted. These actions, as well as shifts in public opinion in Ireland and the United States, convinced republicans that the game they had played on Blair and Powell was no longer worth the candle.

The conclusion, then, is that the post-Agreement weakening on the principles of exclusively peaceful and democratic means had delayed, but not prevented, the final positive outcome. What had worked was not the mere fact of talking to terrorists, but the insistence on those conditions and the intelligence and hard power context that compelled terrorists to accept those conditions in the first place. That, at least, is perhaps a lesson one might usefully apply beyond Northern Ireland.

David Trimble was the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party from 1995 to 2005 and was First Minister of Northern Ireland from 1998 to 2002.

November 2009


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