The sovereign can no longer say, "You shall think as I do on pain of death;" but he says, "You are free to think differently from me, and to retain your life, your property, and all that you possess; but if such be your determination, you are henceforth an alien among your people."

(Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 1835)

Friday, 13 August 2010

Talking to the enemy - post scriptum

The BBC has an interesting story on alleged back-channel communications between dissident Irish Republicans and the British and Irish governments respectively. The claim was made by Sinn Féin chief negotiator Martin McGuinness, who must be considered a credible source given his own considerable experience of just this kind of back-channel communication. Having said that, it would be interesting to know why he chose to reveal this as I'm not quite sure what purpose he is serving in doing so.

I just wanted to highlight this briefly as an illustration of some points I made earlier this week. The Continuity IRA would be just the organisation who, according to the notions I expounded in my previous post, would not really be worth talking to on account of their lack of political nous.

However, this news raises a point which I probably should have dwelled on more in my previous post. The IRA in the early 1970s also had zero political nous - their entire political manifesto was 'Brits Out'. Some have argued that the political path on which the republican movement would eventually embark began at the Cheyne Walk talks in London in July 1972, which Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness attended and at which they realised that armed struggle alone would not be enough to achieve their objectives.

[NB: Peter Taylor's books Provos and Brits gives an in-depth and highly informative account of these initial talks. Ed Moloney's A Secret History of the IRA gives an excellent account of the way in which Adams and McGuinness would subsequently lead the republican movement down a political path.]

In short, by opening dialogue with armed groups you might be able to get them to think differently about their position, their methods and their objectives. That would have to be the aim of these back-channel contacts with dissident republicans, as Martin McGuinness has said. Incidentally, I think this quote answers the earlier question as to why he chose to reveal these talks - he's trying to put public pressure on dissidents to accept the inevitable, that the armed struggle is long over and to stop stirring up trouble which might hinder the perceived mainstream republicans from achieving their political goals.
"That suggests to me that these groups are recognising that at some stage they are going to have to wake up and smell the roses in terms of their inability to destroy the peace process," he said."
Ordinarily, the success of this kind of outreach would depend on many factors - for example, the leadership of the armed group itself, the background of the government negotiators (who must also be politically aware) - but it could be a worthwhile enterprise, albeit one that usually does not bear fruit immediately and the IRA are a prime example of precisely that.

Of course, this outreach must be done in such a way that it is easy deniable - note the strenuous British and Irish denials in the article, e.g. "it has never been our practice to speak to these people" - and indeed, according to some people mentioned in the article, these contacts have been very indirect and carried out by people from government bodies representing the intelligence agencies. In other words, this is not an official government policy.

However, the comparative lack of public or political outcry (aside from the occasional blustery comment from unionist politicians) perhaps shows to what extent people have accepted that talking to the enemy is a necessary and inevitable part of any kind of peace process.

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