Center for Strategic Communication

By Patricia H Kushlis

Terrorists at the Table 9781250069887I was skeptical about the durability of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement when I first saw the news of its signing.  It seemed to be too good to be true. The bitter civil war between the Ulster government and the IRA that had engulfed Northern Ireland for twenty years appeared endless – one of those never ending intractable sectarian and destabilizing conflicts.  Yet a friend of mine who knew the negotiations intimately told me that he was optimistic that the peace would hold.  That both sides were exhausted, a reasonable deal had been reached and that, in fact, the US mediation efforts under George Mitchell had primarily provided a cover for a peace accord in the making.  He was right.

Jonathan Powell was then UK Prime Minister Tony Blair’s Chief of Staff and his point person on those difficult negotiations.  Powell’s latest book Terrorists at the Table:  Why Negotiating is The Only Way to Peace to be released in the US June 30, 2015, tells the Northern Ireland story from the position of one of the major negotiators.  But he does much more. He uses it as a vehicle, an example of lessons learned (and too often forgotten), to argue that there are times when governments need to talk with an opposition that uses violence to fight for its goals because, he argues, violence is not an end in itself but a means to an end and that end is foremost political and access to the state’s scarce resources.       

Powell is a practitioner, not an academic theorist.  

He writes from real world experience – his own as well as those of other experienced international mediators and negotiators.  He draws, however, on selected scholarly work as needed but in particular highlights Nelson Mandela’s role in leading the ANC and Finnish president Martti Ahtisaari’s experiences as an international mediator in helping nudge various seemingly endless conflicts to closure.      

Powell makes most of his points using examples from lengthy real world conflicts including the ANC and South Africa, ETA in Spain, the FARC in Colombia, the Aceh rebellion in Indonesia, the Bangsamoro (Moro Islamic Liberation Front) in the southern Philippines as well as, of course, Northern Ireland.  In all such conflicts the disputes have involved significant parts of a country’s population whose leaders have turned to violent “solutions” for economic and political redress from which they were blocked through nonviolent means.

In essence, these were civil wars that occurred within national boundaries although many had international dimensions as well. Their resolution often involved devolution of authority from a central government, demobilization of the armed group and increased minority rights for the affected regions.  

Such disputes may take years and any number of failed attempts to resolve – but, Powell argues, even failed attempts can build a path to future peacemaking.   A natural disaster – as happened in Aceh or a generational change in leaders – may turn the tide.  Other disputes remain frozen in amber like the Cyprus impasse or the Arab-Israeli dispute but roadmaps are there waiting for political leadership on both sides to put reconciliation and peace beyond short term political goals.      

Powell’s chapter on the Art of Negotiation (and in my experience he’s right – negotiation is an art learned through experience under the tutelage of skilled mentors) is particularly noteworthy for negotiators, mediators and would be negotiators or, for that matter, anyone interested in understanding how government negotiations and negotiators function – including the importance of secrecy before a deal is done. 

Moving parts and trade offs

If nothing more, negotiations involve far too many moving parts and trade-offs that have to be worked out far from the media’s eye.  This is particularly true of multinational negotiations but even the simplest and most straightforward bilateral ones are unlikely to survive public scrutiny simply because of conflicting vested interests prior to their conclusion.

Terrorists are not likely to hang out shingles

Powell emphasizes that the most demanding challenge is the negotiations that take place within a government or an armed group.  It seems to me that the very practical problem of just locating and engaging the group’s leaders come a close second and Powell addresses the problem well.  That is, unless the leader is in jail – as is the case of PKK head Ocalan who was imprisoned in 1999 and has subsequently been in talks with Turkish authorities or Nelson Mandela – just finding the leader or leaders is often difficult.  After all, groups using terrorism are unlikely to hang out shingles that publicly identify their whereabouts.  Powell also argues that both sides need to possess the motivation to settle and that both need to realize that neither has the ability to prevail. 

Perhaps most importantly, Powell concludes that it is possible to learn from experience, that there is no such thing as an insoluble conflict but that conflicts won’t be resolved if people sit around waiting for them  “to  ripen” or “the forces of history to resolve” them.   In short, this is an excellent and readable book which I would highly recommend to students and practitioners of international affairs and negotiations.  Academics and journalists could and should learn a lot from it as well. 

Jonathan Powell, Terrorists at the Table:  Why Negotiation is the Only Way to Peace, Palgrave-MacMillan, June 30, 2015, pp 301.