‘There is no conflict in the world that cannot be solved’: Jonathan Powell on talking to terrorists

A new book by Tony Blair’s former chief of staff makes the provocative claim that it is always worth talking to the men of violence

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The Independent Online

Jonathan Powell came to King’s College London on Thursday to talk about his new book, Talking to Terrorists. This was a transitional event: the Mile End Group at Queen Mary has been wound up and Jon Davis, now at the Policy Institute at KCL, will be launching the new Strand Group in January. Jon and I had been eager for Powell to come to discuss his book for some time, so we used the occasion to try out our new academic home, and most wonderful it is too.

Powell gave an impressive short account of his thesis, which can be simply stated: that it is always worth talking to “terrorists”. Drawing on his experience of negotiating for 10 years in Northern Ireland, he now works as an international mediator through his own charity, and says that the same principles apply in every case.

Controversially, when he published a book about Ireland, Great Hatred, Little Room, after leaving government, he said that Western governments should talk to the Taliban and even to al-Qaeda. This was considered outlandish at the time, he reminded us, but talking to the Taliban through intermediaries is now considered sensible, and Barack Obama authorised negotiations to secure the release of Bowe Bergdahl, the hostage. Now Powell says that it is even worth talking to Isis. Even Isis – although its ideology is about many other things – represents the political demands of Sunnis in Iraq and Syria. “There is no conflict in the world that cannot be solved,” he said.


He went on to explain that this was not peace-and-love idealism, but a pragmatic analysis. He admitted that he had changed his mind since being in government. The Irish problem was assumed to be insoluble, and once it had been solved the conventional analysis immediately switched to its solution being inevitable. Neither was true, he said.

There are conditions that have to be met for successful negotiations. Ideally, there has to be a state of “mutually hurting stalemate”, in which both sides can be brought to realise that their interests are served by compromise. And there has to be leadership on both sides.

This, incidentally, is why the tactic of decapitation is often a bad idea, he explained, in answer to questions. The aim of disabling a terrorist group by taking out its leaders rarely works and is often counter-productive, because it is often long-time leaders who have the perspective to want to make a deal and the authority to take their supporters with them. Killing them often means they are replaced by younger, more extreme leaders who are less ready to talk.

Powell talked about academic analyses of conflicts, which often postulate the idea of ripeness, when the conditions for dialogue are met, but he pointed out that in practice it is hard to know when the conditions are ripe, and so the best thing to do is always to try to engage, and to keep trying until it works.

Jonathan Powell (centre), with Jon Davis (right) and me


________ (Thanks to Michelle Clement for the photo)

He discussed the skills of negotiating, and said that they should be studied and taught more. (He was asked a question by a civil servant in the audience who was responsible for training Whitehall in the art and science of negotiation.) So much of effective negotiating is counter-intuitive, Powell said. This is not just a matter of thinking that it is always worth trying to talk to “terrorist” groups, but that it is unhelpful to call them “terrorists”. Terror is a tactic, and it is always appalling, but moral revulsion is no basis for negotiation. He made the mistake, initially, of refusing to shake the hands of Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness. Tony Blair, with a better intuitive understanding of psychology, had no such inhibition. 

Powell made a similar point about setting conditions for talks. This is always a mistake, he said. The first thing Blair had to do in 1997 was to reverse out of John Major’s refusal to talk to the IRA until it renounced the use of arms. The same applies to the American insistence that Hamas must recognise the right of Israel to exist before entering negotiations. That is the end objective of negotiations, not the starting point, he said.

This was an unusually provocative talk. I certainly changed my mind about talking to terrorists as a result of it. And I do recommend the book. There is a good review of it by Anthony Loyd in the New Statesman. Not only does it develop these arguments in more depth, but it is a rattling good read.

Talking to Terrorists: How to End Armed Conflicts, by Jonathan Powell. Bodley Head £20.