'Talking to Terrorists: How to End Armed Conflicts', by Jonathan Powell - Review

By Judd, Alan | The Spectator, October 4, 2014 | Go to article overview

'Talking to Terrorists: How to End Armed Conflicts', by Jonathan Powell - Review


Judd, Alan, The Spectator


Talking to Terrorists: How to End Armed Conflicts Jonathan Powell

The Bodley Head, pp.407, £20, ISBN: 9781847922298

Jonathan Powell is best known as Tony Blair's fixer. He was intimately involved with the Northern Ireland peace process, about which he has written authoritatively, and since leaving office has set up his own NGO which advises on negotiations with terrorists worldwide. This book, subtitled 'How to End Armed Conflicts', is offered as a guide to negotiators.

They should find it very useful, packed with quotes and anecdotes from negotiations with, amongst others, the Tamils, ETA, the IRA, the ANC, Columbia's FARC and, of course, that hardiest of all perennials, Israel-Palestine. It is liberally sprinkled with good advice and wise observations -- that terrorist groups often start with unrealisable demands but change their aims over time, that in negotiations process begets progress and, most fundamentally, that if a political issue lies at the root of the conflict, and if the armed group enjoys significant political support, then there will in the end have to be a political solution and that will involve talking.

Powell stresses the need to take risks in starting negotiations (well illustrated by his own early contacts with the IRA), the importance of the personal in establishing trust, how the hardest negotiations are often with your own side, and the need to establish, face to face, absolute dependability -- never promising what you can't deliver. He quotes that supreme negotiator Henry Kissinger on denying your negotiating team any knowledge of a formulated Plan B in the event of failure, since if they know it they will nearly always tack in that direction from the start.

All this is good, but it is underpinned by some wobbly assumptions. Predominantly, Powell asserts that we (governments) always end up talking to terrorists, no matter how often we say we won't. Up to a point: it's been calculated that only about a fifth of terrorist groups negotiate strategically with governments and, when they do, it generally benefits the government. Powell makes much of the fact that British governments talked intermittently to the IRA over many years while denying that they did so. But he doesn't sufficiently allow for the fact that in disputes over sovereignty or territory there is always something to talk about.

These are the -- relatively -- easy cases which he probably has in mind when he asserts that there is no such thing as an insoluble conflict. However, if a group is motivated by religious, class or caste hatred, or a simple desire for conquest, there's really nothing to talk about. …

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