Kath Noble

Talk, but don’t be stupid!

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on April 2, 2008

How the British did a deal with the IRA and why the LTTE won’t follow suit.

It is always interesting to see what happens when somebody suggests that Western governments should talk to terrorists. Advice given to this country with so much energy and enthusiasm over the years is shamelessly abandoned in the time it takes to summon up a mouthful of bile.

Such despicable people cannot be reasoned with, we are told. Military solutions become viable and political compromises are suddenly unthinkable, while debates on the subject are reinterpreted as unacceptable signs of weakness. Concerns are aired about setting precedents that might encourage others to use violence in advancing their pet causes, and patriotic speeches are made emphasising the greatness of their enduring democratic traditions. Negotiations are simply and very firmly dismissed from the agenda.

Britain had one of those moments last week. Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair’s Chief of Staff throughout his ten years as Prime Minister, published a book about the peace process in Northern Ireland. Labour came to power in May 1997, and the following decade saw the IRA reinstate its ceasefire in July 1997, Sinn Fein sign up to a framework agreement with the British and Irish governments in April 1998, the IRA start putting its weapons out of use in October 2001, the IRA declare that its war was over in July 2005, and Sinn Fein enter the Northern Ireland executive with its chief negotiator as Deputy First Minister in May 2007.

Terrorists gave up their guns and an unpleasant chapter in our history was over. It was a triumph that many people would dearly love to see replicated elsewhere.

Jonathan Powell thinks he knows how to do it. The British government tried for long years to wipe out the IRA, but Labour apparently solved the problem by abandoning the old policy of not talking to terrorists and enthusiastically engaging in a political process with Sinn Fein. The IRA was transformed.

Dialogue is said to be the answer. And Jonathan Powell claims that it will even work with Al Qaeda. 

Al Qaeda has a political project too, although it is nowhere near as clear cut as that of the IRA. Osama bin Laden sometimes talks about the establishment of a caliphate from Spain to Indonesia, but his statements most often refer to Western support for Israel and for the current regimes in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and Pakistan, and to Western troops invading Iraq and Afghanistan and setting up bases in other Muslim lands. We don’t know. Al Qaeda might just want to destroy the West. Osama bin Laden might not be satisfied unless the whole world converted to his peculiar version of Islam.

Jonathan Powell wants to find out. Al Qaeda is popular in parts of the Muslim world, just as the IRA was amongst Catholics in Northern Ireland. Jonathan Powell says that he would already be seeking to open a channel to Osama bin Laden if he were still working for the British government.

Britain was pretty much universally shocked. Gordon Brown made it clear that he was going to do no such thing by maintaining a very stony silence, and the Foreign Office statement was acerbic in its brevity: ‘It is inconceivable that Her Majesty’s government would ever seek to reach a mutually acceptable accommodation with a terrorist organisation like Al Qaeda.’

The Sri Lankan government has more important things to worry about than whether its counterpart in Britain talks to Al Qaeda. Sri Lankans have suffered a lot during the long years of conflict here, and most people would be happy if a deal could be done with the LTTE. Principles are very nice, but practical solutions are needed too. 

Northern Ireland was the same. The British government prioritised peace over justice, and this judgement met with the approval of the vast majority of both Catholics and Protestants. The IRA compromised.

Sri Lankans might well wonder why there has been no such success in this country. The Sri Lankan government has long accepted the idea of a negotiated settlement, and official delegations have talked on numerous occasions and at great length with the LTTE.

Jonathan Powell is deceiving himself and misleading the rest of us with regard to Northern Ireland. It was what happened before he got involved that really mattered. Labour had a relatively easy time bringing the peace process to an end.

The IRA had come to two important conclusions by the 1990s. First, the British weren’t going to be forced out of Northern Ireland. The IRA was able to inflict considerable economic damage through its bombing campaigns, but it couldn’t destabilise the country. The British Army was increasingly able to counter its tactics, and it was seriously infiltrated by British intelligence. Fewer soldiers were getting killed. The British government was willing to absorb the cost of maintaining its security apparatus and rebuilding the destroyed infrastructure, and the British public had almost become used to the idea of IRA violence.

In the late 1980s, the IRA failed in an attempt to intensify the conflict after receiving a major arms shipment from Libya. The British response was harsh. Special Forces stepped up their ambushes on IRA members, and Loyalist paramilitaries initiated an assassination campaign against Sinn Fein and Catholic civilians. The IRA wasn’t defeated, but its leaders understood that military action was never going to bring them to their goal of a united Ireland.

Prabhakaran, on the other hand, clearly hasn’t yet recognised that further years of fighting are not going to result in him being handed Tamil Eelam. The LTTE can kill plenty of civilians and the occasional politician, and the war is costing the country an awful lot, but life goes on in Sri Lanka.

Maintaining control of the organisation is gradually becoming a problem for Prabhakaran, and holding onto territory is looking like being a challenge too. The Sri Lankan government may not be strong, but it has managed to find allies in the likes of the Karuna Faction. Prabhakaran probably knows that the leaders of this country will never give in to him of their own accord, but he does seem to think that the international community will eventually come to his assistance and deliver another Kosovo.

Secondly, the IRA realised that it would need to work hard to capitalise on the potential it had to come to power through the political process in Northern Ireland. Sinn Fein built up its base and contested elections throughout the 1980s. And it was led by senior figures from the IRA. Sinn Fein and its work in the Catholic community were also seen as a means of politicising the IRA cadres. And the IRA itself was somewhat democratic in its ways, in that the most important decisions were taken after a vote of members and the leadership was vested in a council whose composition varied over the years. The IRA killed informers, but people were free to support other political parties if they didn’t agree with the policies of Sinn Fein.

From the early 1980s, the IRA showed increasing concern for its popularity by putting a stop to the practice of killing Protestant civilians in retaliation for attacks on Catholics and by being careful to give warnings of its bombs in public places throughout the UK. So Sinn Fein gradually became almost as important to the Republican movement as the IRA.

Prabhakaran, of course, has another approach. The LTTE presents itself as a purely military force and hasn’t invested any effort in political work. Prabhakaran has developed it as a kind of personality cult. There is no internal democracy and competition from other organisations is crushed. LTTE cadres are largely recruited by force, and people in the areas under its control have no option but to provide at the very least moral support or face severe punishment. Prabhakaran doesn’t show the slightest bit of interest in the organisation’s image, regularly targeting civilians from all communities in Sri Lanka. And the LTTE couldn’t be sure of winning a genuinely free election anywhere in this country after the treatment it has meted out to Tamils.

Jonathan Powell wasn’t actually the first person to think of talking to the IRA. The British government made contact in the 1970s. Even Margaret Thatcher made an attempt in the early 1980s. These efforts were all secret, because it was believed that negotiations themselves were a concession that shouldn’t be given without a reasonable prospect of reaching an agreement, and they all came to nothing. The IRA simply wasn’t ready to do business. Then, in 1991, John Major received a message saying that it might finally be time to talk. He responded positively, and it was his work that prepared the ground for a settlement. Labour came on the scene when the play was almost over, so Tony Blair got away with what seems to have been incredible innocence in his handling of the IRA.

The Sri Lankan government doesn’t have that luxury. The LTTE seems to be every bit as inflexible as the IRA was in the 1970s. The British government couldn’t have solved the problem at that point other than by agreeing to withdraw from Northern Ireland, and that wouldn’t have gone down well with the increasingly violent Loyalists. Sri Lanka is in a similar situation, except worse. Sri Lankans care rather more for the North and East of this country than the British public ever did about Northern Ireland.

The British government didn’t negotiate in public until it was convinced that there was something to talk about, and then only under strict conditions. British leaders only ever met representatives of a political party with a popular mandate, and there was certainly no question of foreign diplomats nipping over to the Falls Road every time they set foot in the UK. Britain did its best to suppress the IRA, and it kept at it until the last of the weapons were put beyond use.

Labour deserves a bit of credit for that, at least.

Sri Lanka has to suffer the interference of other countries in its problems, but these lessons from their own experiences could usefully be explained.

It seems as though the rather more relevant thing to tell Western governments is not to talk to terrorists, but to remember when and how they have done so. Meanwhile, this country ought not to listen to any more advice that doesn’t correspond with what the givers practise at home.

This article was published on the editorial page of The Island on April 2nd, 2008. The internet version can be accessed here.

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