Leading Article: The risks of secret talks with terrorists

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The Independent Online
IT WAS foolish of Sir Patrick Mayhew, the Northern Ireland Secretary, to deny a recent meeting between a senior officer of the Royal Ulster Constabulary and a leader of the Ulster Defence Association. Evidence for the meeting is strong, and it was not the first of its type: low-level contacts are frequent, as they are among all parties to the Northern Ireland conflict. Perhaps Sir Patrick was misinformed. Certainly he was embarrassed. But he could have handled the problem differently.

In principle, the Government is right to refuse talks with illegal terrorist organisations rather than enhance their status, raise their hopes and appear to legitimise their activities. Past British contacts with the IRA and Sinn Fein only encouraged those organisations to take a harder line, in the belief that they would soon be negotiating British withdrawal. Parallels with Israel's refusal, now weakening, to talk to the PLO and South Africa's refusal, now abandoned, to talk to the ANC are not valid because those organisations represent people whose agreement is necessary for a settlement. The UDA is not in this category, even though popular support for it is rising. Sinn Fein might be worth talking to one day, but it still shows no interest in the necessary compromises.

Low-level contacts come in a different category when they are about practical arrangements for managing conflict. The RUC/UDA meeting at the weekend seems to have reached an understanding to end a particularly vicious round of violence by the UDA against the RUC, reflecting growing militancy among Protestants. Most people will have welcomed the respite. But it is still necessary

to question the wisdom of senior police officers doing secret deals with illegal organisations.

Sir Patrick would have been better advised to admit to the meeting, and defend it for having saved lives. He could have made a reasonable case. But without openness there is no public check on what the servants of the state are doing. That could lead down a slippery slope towards more dubious secret deals.