Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Talking with terrorists 20 years on

Gerry Adams, the leader of the IRA's political wing Sinn Féin, writes in the Guardian about his hopes and doubts for the new Northen Irish peace talks due to take place later this week, nearly twenty years after the IRA nearly succeeded in wiping out the entire British Cabinet. What he says is, as can only be expected from a man who has spent the majority of his life talking in doublespeak, a combination of sensible-sounding insanity and attempts to do down his opponents. His words need not be paid attention to too much - that is not the point.

What this article does do is demonstrate how opening up a political dialogue with terrorists can work. After all, when was the last IRA bomb in mainland Britain? . Not all the problems have been sorted out, and wreckers from both the "loyalist" and republican sides have doen their utmost to destroy any chance of the Good Friday Agreement working, but the violence has calmed down, and both sides have, on occasion, felt that they are actually being listened to. Britain has learned from her mistakes. Gone are the days when Gerry Adams' voice could not be heard on British television or radio. Gone are the days of IRA attacks.

In Spain, as the superb documentary Basque Ball makes abundantly clear, the old Anzar government closed all lines of communication with ETA, even outlawing their political wing. They have yet to learn from Britain's mistakes.

In Russia, as we have learned these last couple of weeks, attacks by Chechen rebels are met with extreme force, calls for revenge, press censorship, illegal detentions, and ever-increasing central control. They have yet to learn from Britain's mistakes.

In Israel, each new suicide bombing leads to attack helicopters being sent into the Palestinian territories and the massacre of tens of supposed militants, the demolition of entire villages, the erection of "security fences", and violent rhetoric attacking any Palestinian with whom the Israelis may stand a chance of opening a dialogue. They have not learned from Britain's mistakes.

In America, we all know what happens after a terrorist attack - the most disproportionate response imaginable (full text here). They have not learned from Britain's mistakes.

The list goes on. And for those who argue that Britain's case is the exception, or that Islamic fundamentalists are impossible to reason with - read up on the Irish situation. Twenty years ago the idea that the British government would find itself sitting at the same table as the terrorists, who were about to launch an attack on its very heart, would have prompted derision from both sides. (Speaking of which, there's an interesting interview here with the Brighton bomber.)

The IRA were fanatics. It has taken time to talk them around to a more civilised way of working out their grievances, but come around they (just about) have. There remain a few hardcore psychopaths in the so-called "Real IRA" who continue to cause trouble, but the majority have - at least for now - packed away their guns and their bombs. It will take time to talk around al-Qaida, the Chechen rebels, the Palestinian freedom fighters, the Basque Seperatists, and all of these lot as well. Simply saying "they're fanatics - they can't be reasoned with" is rubbish until this has actually been tried and perservered at. Sadly it appears that very few countries in the world have the patience of Britain when it comes to tackling terrorists.

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