Tag Archives: Irish Republican Army

How to talk to terrorists

Terrorism can never be defeated by military means alone. But how do you go about negotiating with people who have blood on their hands? Britain’s chief broker of the Northern Ireland peace deal explains how it can – and must – be done (for a start, always shake hands)

In 1919, the British government had its first major encounter with terrorism, when the Irish Republican Army was established to drive the British out of Ireland. The government responded to the IRA’s acts of terror – which included the assassination of civilians as well as soldiers – with indiscriminate reprisals; these were met in turn by further escalation from the IRA. The prime minister, David Lloyd George, declared that the British government would never talk to the “murder gang”, as he described the IRA. But by 1920, it became clear to both sides that a military victory was impossible. Lloyd George secretly began to initiate contact with Michael Collins and other IRA leaders, using a relatively junior former customs official, Alfred Cope – who managed to open up a channel to the rebels and negotiate a ceasefire. This led to full-blown talks in Downing Street in 1921, and eventually to an agreement, albeit a flawed one that later unravelled.

Seventy-six years later, in December 1997, Tony Blair and I sat down in the same cabinet room in Downing Street with Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness; the negotiating teams, from Sinn Féin and the British government, even sat on the same sides of the table as they had in 1921. On both occasions, the meeting was a big event. There were more TV cameras outside Downing Street than there had been on election day seven months earlier, and we were all nervous. Alastair Campbell had ordered the Christmas tree be removed from in front of the door of Number 10, so that there could be no pictures of terrorists in front of festive decorations.

In 1921, Frances Stevenson, Lloyd George’s secretary and mistress, said she had never seen the prime minister “so excited as he was before De Valera arrived. He kept walking in and out of my room and I could see he was working out the best way of dealing with Dev … He had a big map of the British empire hung on the wall in the cabinet room, with great blotches of red all over it. This was to impress on Dev the greatness of the British empire and the King.” In 1997, before we sat down Martin McGuinness tried to break the ice, and said: “So, this is where all the damage was done, then.” We thought this was a reference to the IRA attack on Downing Street in 1991, and I responded by saying “Yes, the IRA mortars landed in the garden behind you, and blew the windows in. My brother dragged John Major under the table and four overweight policemen came running in waving their revolvers.” McGuinness was horrified. “No, I didn’t mean that,” he said. “I meant this was where Irish Republicans gave everything away all those years ago.” As is so often the case, the terrorists had a better memory for what had gone before than the government. (I use the word “terrorist” here for the sake of simplicity, but it isn’t a particularly useful term to define a group – terror is a tactic employed by governments, groups, and individuals. I mean it to refer to non-state armed groups that use terror and enjoy significant political support.)

When it comes to terrorism, governments seem to suffer from a collective amnesia. All of our historical experience tells us that there can be no purely military solution to a political problem, and yet every time we confront a new terrorist group, we begin by insisting we will never talk to them. As Dick Cheney put it, “we don’t negotiate with evil; we defeat it”. In fact, history suggests we don’t usually defeat them and we nearly always end up talking to them. Hugh Gaitskell, the former Labour leader, captured it best when he said: “All terrorists, at the invitation of the government, end up with drinks in the Dorchester.”