Negotiating with Evil: When to Talk to Terrorists

A former American diplomat has written a book which helps focus on how Ireland should deal with the terrorism of the people responsible for the murder of PSNI constable Ronan Kerr, and attempts at various other atrocities.

Mitchell Reiss is well known in Ireland from his lengthy involvement in the Irish peace process. He was also involved in limiting nuclear proliferation in Korea and deepened his understanding of conflict resolution by a self-styled listening tour to Spain, Sri Lanka, Israel/Palestine, and Iraq. The lessons he has drawn from that experience apply to the increasing dissident republican threat to peace in Ireland. While his book is not specifically about this dissident attempt to unwind the peace process, it does provide a useful framework for evaluating how to approach the issue.

Firstly and crucially Reiss characterises a successful long-term effort to resolve a conflict through negotiation as in part “the search for Gerry Adams”. The ideal negotiating partner is one “who can imagine an end to the armed struggle, who has the physical and moral courage to pursue that path, who has won the respect of his comrades in the movement, who can speak with clarity and act with discretion, and perhaps most important, who can bring his people along, whether by persuasion, intimidation, or force. Without such a person, talks are doomed to fail.” The examples of Spain and Sri Lanka, prove this point. Despite numerous ceasefires and substantial government concessions, ETA ,with no comparable leader, has not made peace with Spain. The inflexibility of the Tamil Tigers’ leader eventually led to the group’s brutal military suppression.

The second, related, lesson is establishing whether terrorists are really open to resolving the conflict through compromise.

The third unpleasant lesson, clear from the Northern Ireland conflict, is the need to “soften up” the militants before they are willing to turn to non-violent alternatives. Reiss pulls no punches-“no government can hope to win at the negotiating table when it can’t defend on the ground. There is little point in even attempting to start a peace process with terrorists if the state has not already generated significant negotiating leverage on the battlefield”. The Provisional IRA (IRA) was not prepared to consider a serious ceasefire until it had been significantly penetrated by intelligence operatives, weakened by counter-terrorist operations (both by the state and non-state actors ) , and even its own nationalist constituency had begun to doubt the wisdom of the armed struggle.

Unfortunately, applying these lessons to the current dissident republican threat, gives little comfort. There is currently no leader meeting the requirements set out above, no obvious path of compromise, and while the dissidents have minimal (but some) support in the nationalist community, they clearly have not been “softened up “through intelligence and counter terrorist activities.

These are serious issues. The British government spent 25 years trying to negotiate with the IRA before their effort bore fruit. Ireland cannot afford, in any sense, another 25 years of conflict, even if at a presumed lower level. In the absence of any obvious path to or point of compromise, and with the obvious ability of dissident republicans to manipulate history to continue the conflict, another avenue for conflict resolution is clearly necessary.

Third-party intervention, in that case the US, helped resolve the conflict in Northern Ireland. Referring the dissident republican war (for that is what it is) to international jurisdiction such as the International Criminal Court, or the European Court of Justice, or the International Court of Human Rights, to have it formally declared an unjust war might end the interminable attempted manipulation of history by dissident republicans.

The criteria for the right to go to war, jus ad bellum, include just cause, comparative justice, legitimate authority, right intention, probability of success, last resort, and proportionality. While all these criteria have to be met before a struggle can be defined as a just war, the dissident republican campaign does not appear to meet any of them , making the current struggle an unjust war. (Legitimate authority can refer to the public authorities or in the absence of such the will of the people. Clearly neither supports this struggle.)

Without such third-party “intervention”, and even allowing for the current overwhelming condemnation of their actions, dissident republicans are likely to continue to manipulate history to continue a costly and bloody struggle whose only realistic objective is to give the tiny number of active militants and their supporters some sense of satisfaction.

The April-May 2011 issue of Survival, the bimonthly of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, has a review essay on this subject by Jonathan Stevenson titled Awkward Conversations, www.iiss.org/publications/survival/. The book is Negotiating with Evil: When to Talk to Terrorists, by Mitchell B. Reiss ( New York: Open Road Integrated Media.)

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