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The End of the Northern Ireland Model for Negotiating with Terrorists?

For the past few days I’ve been in London, where I was presenting a paper at the Counter Terror Expo. I had the privilege to sit-in on other talks far more interesting than mine revolving around British preparations for the Summer Olympics; strategies to counteract terrorist charities; and very practical tactical approaches to the counter terror fight.

A few items jumped out at me during the course of the two-day conference which I simply had not known or previously thought about at length. For example, while American counter terror officials will confront terrorist charities and shut them down, the British believe (naively, in my view) that they can excise the terror influence yet preserve the charity. Likewise, while the U.S. Treasury Department is expert at tracking U.S. dollar transactions in order to deny terrorists funding, I had never fully considered the problem of laundering such transactions via the Mexican Peso, an increasing problem especially given the interplay between terrorists and drug gangs and the prevalence of informal Peso transactions in the American southwest.

Perhaps the most important fact I learned was that British security officials believe that their pact with the Irish Republican Army (IRA) may be unraveling.  British intelligence and counter terror officials are now tracking and interrupting more IRA terror planning that at any time since before the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. The problem is not simply IRA dissidents, as some reports suggest, but mainstream IRA upset that their goals are not being fully met through the political process.  The reason why the collapse of the IRA model is so important is because it has increasingly been the key justification for negotiation with terrorists. When former Sen. George Mitchell took over as President Obama’s Middle East envoy, he repeatedly justified Obama administration actions with the IRA analogy.  “In a sense, in Northern Ireland, we had about 700 days of failure and one day of success,” Mitchell remarked in 2010. The Washington Post’s Jackson Diehl noted that there was seldom a press conference in which Mitchell did not make reference to the Northern Ireland peace process as a model and inspiration. German diplomats have also cited the IRA model to justify their engagement with Hezbollah, and British and American diplomats have cited the Northern Ireland process to justify negotiation with the Taliban.

The analogy has always been faulty. The IRA never had a Pakistan or Iran to support it, nor was it committed to wiping Great Britain from the map. The IRA may have been noxious, but its basic platform did not seek to deny women schooling. Still, if the British could bite their lower lip, talk to terrorist enemies, and strike a deal, why couldn’t other Europeans or Americans?

With the IRA’s resurgence, hopefully the arguments for engaging and appeasing terrorists can be put to rest. The Northern Ireland process rewarded IRA violence and may have brought some quiet. But just as terrorist leaders like Muammar Qaddafi never change their stripes no matter how much money they donate to British universities or how they enrich Western diplomats, terrorist groups never fully embrace rule-of-law and the democratic process. Rather, they abide by the philosophy so elegantly stated by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan: ‘Democracy is like a streetcar. You ride it as far as you need, and then you get off.’ It’s time Western policymakers deny them entry in the first place, rather than fall all over themselves to provide free tickets.