The IRA’s announcement last week that it’s abandoning its “armed
struggle” is a great victory for peace and democracy, but also an
occasion for reflection on the strategy that made victory possible.

Force has to be met by force, and IRA assassins were rightly treated as
criminals. But the strength of democracy was that force was not the
only response; we never descended to the terrorists’ level of mindless
violence. The IRA’s political wing, Sinn Fein, was allowed to operate
as a political party, and the prospect was held out to them that their
objectives could be addressed by peaceful means. Finally, John Major and
Tony Blair took the political risks of serious negotiations.

This strategy is not likely to work for the hard-core fanatics of
al-Qaeda, but most movements that use terror as a tactic are not like
that. ETA, Hezbollah, Hamas, the Tamil Tigers, the Chechens, the
separatists of southern Thailand – all these and many more have
concrete, coherent political objectives that in principle can be the
subject of negotiation and compromise. Even the foot soldiers of
al-Qaeda seem to be animated more by American support of the corrupt
Saudi monarchy than by the hazy goal of restoring the 10th century
caliphate.

Our leaders tell us that terror is an ideology, not a tactic, but in
most cases that’s not true. And even when it is – even with groups
like, say, the Baader-Meinhof gang, where negotiations would have been
futile – the democratic world has little to lose by keeping the door
open to the possibility, while we have much to gain from being seen to
hold the moral high ground. Demonising our enemies just ends up
blurring the differences between us.

John F Kennedy put it well: “Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.”

Peter Fray

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