Thursday, 3 September 2009

Two takes on terror - Review of 'Terrorism: How to Respond' and 'Talking to Terrorists'

In a recent article, Simon Jenkins wrote about the ‘raucous child’ which inevitably accompanies history, ‘lessons to be learned’. Over the past few days I have been immersed in two separate accounts which attempt to portray this difficult infant, chaperoned by partial histories of terror campaigns.

Richard English’s ‘Terrorism: How to Respond’ purports to take an essentialist approach to its topic, but it is a puzzling book, that stresses the importance of the unique context in which each terrorist group operates, yet attempts to apply principles which it derives from Northern Ireland’s experience rather widely.

In contrast, ‘Talking to Terrorists’ by Bew, Frampton and Gurruchaga, consciously rejects the notion that a particular template can be exported internationally. Importantly, it contends that the Ulster peace process has in any case been misinterpreted, even as its purported lessons have been cited as a model that can help resolve conflicts elsewhere.

English’s short book is the more conceptual work and its author has a track record of informed writing about violent republicanism in Ireland. Devoting substantial space to defining terrorism, he completes the job with admirable rigour, before turning his attention to an examination of its purported root causes. There then follows a lengthy chapter dealing with ‘terrorism past’, which is overwhelmingly preoccupied with the IRA’s ‘struggle’. In conclusion, English tries to apply various Wittgensteinian ‘family resemblances’, crafted mainly from the Irish experience, to form some effective rules of ‘response’.

English’s argument is carefully formulated, but I wonder whether, in places, he does not infringe some of his own conceptual precepts. Mining the religious ideology of al Qaeda and other Islamist groups to recover identifiably ‘political’ aims, the author makes a persuasive case. Hanging most of his conclusions on Northern Ireland’s experience, however knowledgeable a chronicler English might be of IRA terrorism, is rather reckless considering the writer’s self-professed emphasis on context.

To take, as an example, one instance of this approach - he is particularly adamant that terrorists, because they are politically motivated, should not be subject to a policy of criminalisation. Predictably, the evidence offered to support this contention consists of the Thatcherite attempt to enforce criminalisation in Northern Ireland’s prisons, and the subsequent hunger strikes, which are held to have amplified the IRA’s appeal to the wider nationalist community.

In hindsight, within the precise sequence of events which unfolded between the late seventies and 1981, there is a line of cause and effect which is almost incontestable. But is that enough to develop a hard and fast rule? Although terrorists might be motivated mainly by politics, they are more often gaoled for criminal means than for political ends. It is an important moral distinction, and upholding it can be integral to defeating terrorism’s ‘political argument’ (another key imperative which English propounds).

Even considering only the episode’s significance within the tangled history of Northern Ireland, it is impossible with complete accuracy to assert that the state’s policy of criminalisation popularised the Provisionals’ cause, rather than the sympathy which they commanded around this period being attributable to the government’s mismanagement of Republican protests. It is certainly a stretch to claim, axiomatically, that terrorists should always be treated as political prisoners.

Although English’s examination of terror is a provocative, thought-provoking and enjoyable read, Bew et al’s take on the political violence pursued by ETA and the IRA offers the more balanced assessment of its material.

Essentially the premise of ‘Talking to Terrorists’ argues that the common interpretation of Northern Ireland’s experience (popularised by Jonathan Powell and others), which holds that to combat violence one must always talk to its perpetrators without precondition, does not comprise a credible lesson, and, in any case, neither does it accurately reflect the sequence of events which are commonly known as ‘the peace process’.

In order to bolster its thesis, the book provides a second case study, based on the Basque regions of Spain. In fact, solely as a concise history of two of Europe’s most enduring terrorist campaigns, and a synopsis of peace initiatives aimed at solving them, this volume has considerable value.

The authors faithfully record that, in pursuance of an end to conflict, both the Spanish government and its British counterpart have frequently engaged with the requisite terrorist groups. Only within a particular context, however, in which republican paramilitaries became convinced that their campaign had lost its leverage, did dialogue engineer an end to violence. During the 1970s, talks with the IRA tended to encourage the notion that ‘one more push’ could dislodge the British government from its presence in Northern Ireland. Similarly, ETA has proved intractable in negotiations with Madrid, merely strengthening its conviction that murderous campaigns were proving fruitful, when the Spanish administration showed a will to compromise.

It is important to note that whilst the authors do not consider the accord reached in Northern Ireland to be perfect, neither are they entirely sceptical as regards the Belfast Agreement. It is rather that they believe that the ‘peace process’ story has been warped in retelling. In 1998 a dispensation was reached by moderate unionists and nationalists, which, as well as commanding ‘sufficient consensus’, managed additionally to accommodate a violent republican movement which was fast running out of options. Unionism was able to engender considerable concessions at crucial junctures during negotiations and, constitutionally, the deal was highly convivial to the unionist position.

It is true that, subsequently, Sinn Féin returned to the table with further demands, and the British government was not resolute enough to insist that republicans delivered on their commitments. The result was a process which slid towards the extremes, with the resultant establishment of an ‘Ourselves Alone’ coalition, between the Provisionals and the DUP, currently operating at Stormont. Bew et al contend that although this post 1998 slippage took place in Northern Ireland, it is by no means authoritative. The moderate input on which the agreement was built, should not be forgotten, or underestimated.

As for the book’s title, and talks with terrorists, they should be based on context, rather than pursued as a virtue in themselves. Backchannels form a separate case, but formal negotiations between governments and terror groups should be based on clear preconditions, otherwise they can easily serve as a pretext to encourage further violence. It is a longer book, with a narrower focus, but for that ‘Talking to Terrorists’ is more convincing than Richard English’s ‘Terrorism: How to Respond’.

Both books are available from the Three Thousand Versts bookstore.

1 comment:

Belfast Gonzo said...

I find it difficult to see how the lessons of NI could be applied to dealing al-Qaida. The types of terrorism involved and the reasons for conflict seem too diverse, though obviously I've yet to read English's book. I might take a trip to the bookshop this afternoon.

You might enjoy Bobbitt's Terror and Consent for a provocative read on dealing with the kind of globalised threat al-Qaida represents, although the author sees it as a precursor of what is to come. You won't agree with everything he writes, but it's a excellent starting point for the debate on how states deal with the new non-state forms of terror that have and will supercede the current forms. (Arguably, al-Qaida-style globalised, networked terrorism was also a factor in ending the comparitively puny nationalistic terrorism here.)