Walking the talk: Jonathan Powell’s optimistic account of how terrorists are brought to the negotiating table

As Tony Blair's chief of staff, Powell saw how an organisation like the IRA was persuaded to put down its weapons.

Members of the IRA in Ulster in June 1972. The group and the British state eventually negotiated the Good Friday Agreement. Keystone-France / Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images
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There will be some who see a contradiction in the title of Jonathan Powell’s new book. Talking to terrorists, many would maintain, is precisely what you don’t do to end armed conflicts. You wipe out the terrorists and attempt to cleanse the soil from which they sprang. As the United States president Barack Obama recently said of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL): “There can be no reasoning – no negotiation – with this brand of evil. The only language understood by killers like this is the language of force.” Governments around the world have consistently made similar statements about militant groups.

And yet, as Powell points out with great clarity and detail in Talking to Terrorists [Amazon.com; Amazon.co.uk], time and again they have done the opposite; and not only have talks often led to negotiations and peace, but once outlawed or imprisoned leaders have frequently become great statesmen. Nelson Mandela was at one time branded a terrorist, but on his death he may well have been the most admired person on the planet. Powell quotes a former leader of Britain's Labour Party, Hugh Gaitskell: "All terrorists, at the invitation of the government, end up with drinks at the Dorchester." They may not literally have been invited to knock back the sherbets at that illustrious hotel's bar, but Archbishop Makarios of Cyprus and Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya are two more examples of "terrorists" who later became respected leaders of their countries.

In the Middle East, the Palestine Liberation Organisation was once designated a “terrorist organisation” by the US, but has long been viewed as the most moderate representative of the Palestinian people and the one most willing to extend its hand in peace. As Powell argues: “No group is irreconcilable forever.”

Powell has first-hand experience of the process of persuading armed groups to set down their weapons and attempt to find a political solution. As chief of staff to Tony Blair throughout his premiership, Powell led the negotiations in Northern Ireland which yielded the Good Friday Agreement and an end to the Troubles. He knows well the moral dilemma – and the extreme distaste – experienced by many at the prospect of sitting down with men and women responsible for violent outrages.

His father, an air vice marshal, was shot by the Irish Republican Army (IRA) in 1940, and his brother Charles, who was chief foreign policy adviser and close confidante to another prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, was on the group’s death list. The first time Powell met Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein, he refused to shake their hands – “a petty gesture I now regret,” he writes, “but one that recurs again and again at encounters between governments and terrorists”.

Why the regret? Ultimately, he concurs with the view of a former head of Israel’s Shin Bet that “anything you can do to shorten war is ethical” and that of the country’s former foreign minister, Abba Eban, who said: “The issue is how to quench the fires, not to hold interminable debate about who kindled them … Negotiating with terrorists is not a question of forgiving or forgetting the past, but holding a pragmatic position about the future. It is an ethical perspective that is based on humanistic precepts that place the saving of lives and the cessation of bloodshed as the highest ­priority.”

This argument – that it is a moral duty to talk to terrorists – is at the heart of the book, and in it lies its importance to the general reader. Few, after all, are likely to be involved in such negotiations. The question of why one should talk rather than how is the crucial one.

Powell makes a powerful, impassioned case, but with some notable distinctions. He suggests it is best not to waste time trying to agree on too close a definition of who are or aren’t terrorists (most people thus labelled will insist they are freedom fighters); and he restricts the groups under discussion to those that have or had significant political bases, such as the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, the IRA and the African National Congress in South Africa. He thereby excludes the Baader-Meinhof Gang in Germany, the Italian Red Brigades and the Symbionese Liberation Army in America. Their type, he writes, “can either be wrapped up by police work or fizzle out as the activists get too old for conflict or as fashion changes”.

An iron-fisted attempt to eradicate groups that represent a cause with strong roots in a society – whether one agrees with it or not – he thinks, however, is doomed. “In democracies we cannot kill all the terrorists, so we will have to talk to them at some stage.” He concedes that if “you adopt a no-holds-barred military approach, have no concerns about human rights abuses or the rule of law, and the media can be kept out”, then such campaigns can appear to triumph. But what they really do, he says, “is stick the underlying problems in the deep freeze and they reappear once the repression is reduced”.

In this he is surely right; and he might have added the warning that peace deals that leave the underlying conflict in the “deep freeze” are also likely to be fragile. The 1995 Dayton Peace Accords brokered by the late US diplomat Richard Holbrooke are cited several times, but while they may have ended the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina, they are no blueprint. As the veteran journalist Ed Vulliamy recently put it, the establishment of the Republika Srpska – a de facto Serb state-within-a-state – effectively “rewarded” the efforts of the Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, currently on trial in The Hague, and is the reason why there has been neither reconciliation nor a reckoning.

Once Powell turns to the nitty-gritty of the “how” to talk, the book loses some steam. It is entirely understandable that he has chosen to divide it into sections taking the reader through the different stages – How Governments Engage with Terrorists, Starting a Negotiation and so on. But this means that the examples he gives – talks between the ANC and the National Party in South Africa, the relevant factions in Northern Ireland, separatists in Indonesia and Spain and their respective governments, the FMLN in El Salvador, and the Tamil Tigers and the Sinhalese leaders in Sri Lanka, among others – are all sliced up for comparison in each chapter. Unless you are an expert on these conflicts, as Powell obviously is, this makes for a confusing read with an overwhelming profusion of characters cropping up. A straightforward account of each process would have been far more compelling and would still have allowed Powell to make his points.

That said, various sensible rules emerge, such as the necessity of building up the moderates at the expense of the hardliners (and recognising that such a spectrum exists, even in extremist organisations, will be a challenge for some). There are plenty of charming anecdotes, some of which illustrate the unusual techniques necessary at times. In the Northern Ireland negotiations, Gerry Adams found at first that none of the Unionists would talk to him directly, so he used to wait in the bathroom and catch them in conversation when they were unable to move. When Martin Griffiths, the founding director of the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue in Geneva, was trying to locate Hasan di Tiro, the leader of the Acehnese separatists, all he knew was that he lived in Stockholm. So he went through the city’s telephone directory and called everyone with the surname di Tiro until he found the right one. After many stops and starts, this initial approach eventually led to a peace deal between the rebels and the Indonesian government in 2005.

There are one or two surprising errors. The leader of the UNITA guerrilla group in Angola was not Joshua but Jonas Savimbi. Thaksin Shinawatra is a former prime minister of Thailand, not a former president (the country is a monarchy, so the latter position does not exist). Overall, however, Powell manages to cover an impressive amount of history, and his arguments are persuasive when it comes to “traditional” political or territorially minded terrorist groups. Of Al Qaeda and ISIL, though, he says too little and too late. “It is not obvious why this process of persuasion should not help moderate the demands of … Al Qaeda over time, so they too are prepared to settle for something we regard as reasonable,” he writes near the end of the book. Alas, it is not obvious that Al Qaeda and ISIL are open to anything we might call reason. Optimism is certainly a good quality for a peacemaker to possess – but not, however, if it is of the incurable variety.

Sholto Byrnes is a Doha-based ­writer and commentator.