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Talking to Terrorists: Making Peace in…

Talking to Terrorists: Making Peace in Northern Ireland and the Basque…

by John Bew

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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. ( )
  HurstPub | Nov 8, 2010 |
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"Northern Ireland's peace agreement, which put an end to IRA aggression, has been widely admired as a model of conflict resolution ... Many now believe that intelligence agencies should follow the lessons of Ulster in their efforts at brokering peace. Yet two difficult questions remain: has history provided us with a clear picture of Northern Ireland's peace process, and does the 'talking cure' work with all democracies? The authors present a history of Northern Ireland's transition from aggression to peace, but also demonstrates how these events developed quite differently than many proponents of the Northern Ireland model believe. They then contrast their findings against incidents in Spain's Basque country during the same period. The authors point to a range of variables at play in the Ulster negotiations, such as the selection of state representatives, the information provided by intelligence agencies, the wielding of hard power, and the wider democratic process. Above all, they draw a line between talking to terrorists who believe their strategy is succeeding and making overtures to those who realize their aims are no longer attainable through violent means"--From publisher description.… (more)

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