There is a case for talking to Isis – but Owen Smith can't make it while running for the Labour leadership

He might be right, but his remarks were unwise. Someone who wants to be prime minister cannot say this kind of thing out loud

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The Independent Online

Owen Smith made a mistake in the BBC-hosted hustings with Jeremy Corbyn this morning when he said that “at some point” we need to get Isis “round the table”. The mistake was not what he said, though, but that he, as a candidate to be prime minister, should say it. 

Asked about Isis, he drew on his experience in Northern Ireland – he was special adviser to Paul Murphy, Northern Ireland Secretary, 2002-05 – and said: “Ultimately, all solutions to these crises do come about through dialogue.” 

This is a conventional view about Ireland, but it is controversial to extend it to Isis. One person who did so was Jonathan Powell, who, as chief of staff to Tony Blair, had an even more important role in the Northern Ireland peace process. Powell wrote a book two years ago, Talking to Terrorists, in which he argued that it is always worth trying to talk to violent groups. “There is no conflict in the world that cannot be solved,” he said when he launched the book at an event at King’s College, London.

Blair himself has not advocated this view publicly, but he did seem to have felt constrained, as the envoy of the Middle East Quartet, by its refusal to allow him to talk to Hamas, the Islamist Palestinian faction that rules the Gaza strip. When he stepped down as envoy, he started to talk to Hamas, although these discussions have not yet made any more progress towards a two-state settlement.

Smith was making a surprising Blairite argument, and it is worth quoting his words in full: “So eventually if we are to try and solve this, all of the actors do need to be involved. At the moment, Isil [Isis] are clearly not interested in negotiating... At some point, for us to resolve this, we will need to get people round the table.”

I think he is probably right, but it was an unwise thing to say. Someone who wants to be prime minister cannot say this kind of thing out loud.

As prime minister, his first duty is to keep the country safe; such words are too easily interpreted as meaning the UK government should negotiate with terrorists and seek to meet some of their demands. 

That is not what Smith means. As Powell pointed out, much of Isis’s ideology is nihilist and unappeasable, but it does exploit Sunni resentments in Syria and Iraq that could be undermined by negotiation. 

However, not only is it foolish for Smith to make such a distracting and needless argument, it is tactically inept to do so in a contest against Jeremy Corbyn, a man whose great weakness is that he appears to have been sympathetic to terrorist movements. At this morning's hustings, Corbyn wisely ruled out talking to Isis.

What if Jeremy Corbyn had said what Smith said? Corbyn supporters demand to know. It is no use Smith trying to point out the difference between his words and Corbyn’s. Smith, Powell and Blair accept that they have to talk to the IRA, or to Hamas, in order to try to achieve a compromise. Corbyn’s past statements of support for the IRA and Hamas implied a sympathy with their aims and a reluctance to condemn their violent methods.

By talking about talking to terrorists in the heat of the hustings, Smith muddied these waters. He made it too easy for his views to be caricatured, and for Corbyn supporters to call him a hypocrite.