Should Governments Negotiate With Terrorists?

By Bohdana Kurylo
2016, VOL. 2015/2016 NO. 3 |

It is sometimes said that governments should never talk to terrorists. What light does the Northern Ireland experience cast upon that question?

In 1993, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin dismissed the possibility of negotiating with leaders of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), claiming that there is no sense in talking to a terrorist organization. Meanwhile, as it later became known, secret negotiations to set conditions for the Oslo Accords agreement with the PLO leaders were, indeed, being conducted.1 A similar case was the maintenance of a secret back-channel between the British government and the Irish Republican Army (IRA) in 1972 and 1990.2 These historical records exhibit that governments broke the taboo of talking to terrorists, both doing so even at times of the cruellest terrorist attacks. The reason for such a taboo is clear: ‘Democracies must never give in to violence, and terrorists must never be rewarded for using it’.3 However, the case of the Northern Ireland conflict sheds a different light on the issue, showing that negotiations with terrorists can be productive in maintaining peace. This essay will examine the issue, offering an explanation why and how the negotiations with terrorists succeeded in Northern Ireland.

The most common argument against negotiations between government and actors who use methods beneath democracy and diplomacy is their likelihood to give legitimacy to terrorism. Such negotiations are not only likely to ruin the continuous global attempts to outlaw terrorism; they can also establish an extremely undesirable precedent for the future.4 Succumbing to terrorist manipulation, a government exposes its weakness and lack of authority, which can destabilize a country. Moreover, one victory achieved by terrorists might be enough to encourage such violent methods of achieving goals, leading to a domino effect and undermining actors who have pursued political change through peaceful means. Stating that “there will be no negotiations with terrorists of any kind’, Ronald Reagan clearly demonstrated the common assumption that the best way to fight terrorism is to stop participating in it in order to erase any incentives for further attacks.5

Instead, governments can use methods such as internment, military repression and marginalization. However, the problem with them is that they are intended to punish terrorists, which in itself can worsen the situation by provoking further aggression from them. According to a research from the University of Denver and the University of Maryland that studied the Israeli-Palestinian conflict between 1987 and 2004, governmental measures aimed at appeasing terrorists and responding to their more tangible demands is more effective in solving the issue.6

Surely, this does not always prove to work, differing from case to case. It is essential to consider terrorist motives and aims before starting negotiations. The distinction should be made between nihilistic terrorists, who achieve self-realisation through violence, often with religious or ideological aspirations, and terrorists, who use violence to achieve specific, often political, goals.7 The second category of terrorists usually represent beliefs and aims that have a long history of being neglected and suppressed and have the potential to compromise. The IRA and ETA are the primary examples of it: both have a long history of thought, promoting political beliefs of nationalism and separatism. In such cases, it was argued that a government could achieve peace by negotiating with them.8

Indeed, the Northern Ireland peace process is one of the few cases of progressive negotiations with terrorist organizations. When the Anglo-Irish Treaty established the partition of Ireland in 1921, the Irish War of Independence officially came to an end leaving six counties of Ulster with the United Kingdom as Northern Ireland. However, it did not stop the Irish Republican Army (IRA) from fighting for the overthrow of the British rule, using violence for achieving its aims. The Northern Ireland ethno-nationalist conflict involved Irish Republican Army (IRA), the pro-state loyalist paramilitary groups of the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) and Ulster Defence Association (UDA), the ‘regular’ pro-state forces of the British Army and Royal Ulster Constabulary, as well as ordinary citizens. Deaths of over than 3,600 people and thousands injured were caused in a country of only 1.6 million inhabitants, as a result of the terrorist attacks from republican and loyalist paramilitaries and the security forces, with its beginnings being rooted in a civil rights march in Londonderry on 5 October 1968.9 The end to violence came with the Downing Street Declaration, symbolizing the step forward to mutual peace.

One of the common explanations for the apparent success of the negotiations between the terrorists and the governments in the Northern Ireland case is a stalemate that led them to realize that the alternative to violence is more productive. The initial aims of Irish republicans and the British and Irish governments, the withdrawal of the British claim to Northern Ireland and the entire military defeat of the IRA respectively, were clearly unreachable. As Tony Blair’s special adviser throughout the process, Jonathan Powell, claimed both sides ‘knew that neither side could win, that it was possible the stalemate might continue indefinitely’.10 Therefore, it is quite likely that ripeness for the peaceful resolution of the conflict was based on a ‘mutually hurting stalemate’ basis.11

To implement the stalemate theory in practice, recognition of the lack of utility of continuing terrorism must be present. Combatants have to admit the potential benefits brought by peace, expressing it in the attempts to establish a dialogue.12 This is what helps the government distinguish whether the negotiations with terrorists is justifiable. All sides in the Northern Ireland conflict were sufficiently aware that the peace was more beneficial than violence: although they would not achieve all that they wanted, the price for the continuation of the struggle was too great. Over the 30-year conflict, Northern Ireland had suffered human losses and lack of foreign investment; in perspective, the economy was to be affected with unemployment already being 16.8% in 1986.13 The country still experiences the consequences of the conflict, mainly because of the inability to attract sufficient foreign investment for the strengthening of the private sector and intensifying economic growth. Besides, it was just a small minority who supported violence for political change, whereas the majority of the citizens prioritized standard of living of the country.14

By the early 1990s, the British government had made considerable attempts to stop the violence in Northern Ireland. The agreement between the parties of unionism and nationalism, which became known as the Brooke-Mayhew talks, was one of such attempts. The rationale behind this strategy lay in the assumption that the agreement would appease the extremes and make terrorism baseless. However, the talks failed to reach their aim because of the absence of mutual trust, especially when the suspects about the secret cooperation between the SDLP leader and Sinn Fein appeared, which made unionists suspend the talks.15

Searching for the solution, the government made a decision to shift its attitude from self-reliance to greater cooperation with Dublin. Nevertheless, the Sunningdale Agreement of 1973, which established a cross-border Council of Ireland and the Northern Ireland Executive, and the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985, which gave the Irish government consultative rights across most issues concerning Northern Ireland, established cooperation, but still did not stop the terrorism, becoming the most violent period in the conflict. More importantly, their efforts were likely to be futile due to their reliance on the principle of not talking to terrorists, thus, the governments shifted their policies to the idea of inclusion.16 In brief, it seems that the symmetrical situation of standstill and understanding of the potential consequences of the conflict spread the desirability of the peace process among all the sides of the Northern Ireland conflict.

Nevertheless, although stalemate may create a foundation for a potential peace process, it is not enough to begin negotiations without a transformation in the terrorist thought. Re-evaluation within republicanism started as Sinn Fein was trying to replace the SDLP as the main nationalist party in the 1980s. Undoubtedly, it proved to be difficult to win support ‘with the ballot paper in one hand and the Armallite in the other’.17 It gave way to many debates within the movement, in which strategic adaptation to circumstances overcame military dogmatism. However, some argue that the change in thinking, first of all, came ‘from below’, from ordinary fighters.18 That is why the Anglo-Irish intergovernmental cooperation alone was useless for dealing with the terrorists. Not only did it neglect the cooperation with the terrorist organizations, it also neglected the fighters themselves, forgetting that they are the ones to who approach should be found. For this reason, it is crucial for terrorist organizations to have a high level of internal cohesion.

It is highly recommended that negotiations should only be started when it is clear that the internal consensus to cease violence has prevailed within the whole terrorist group. The Northern Ireland case was a risky endeavour since the leadership was quite decentralized. That is why there are still a lot of separate extremist attacks among happening annually in Northern Ireland.19 Nonetheless, in the 1990s, the IRA had a better control over its rank and file than, for example, Al Qaeda. The government of the latter one has a limited operational function, mainly providing moral and ideological aspirations.

Finally, a great role in changing the terrorist attitude and peace development can be played by the back-channel negotiation, as it was in the Northern Ireland case. Choosing the path of being flexible rather than steadfast, both British and Irish governments have been periodically talking to the IRA. According to Ed Moloney, an indirect link to the Sinn Fein leader, Gerry Adams, was already created by the Northern Ireland Secretary, Tom King, in 1986.20 Such talks were kept in secret, whereas the governments, at first, denied their existence.

The efficiency of secret talks lay in two factors; first, the joint task shaped by secrecy gives the possibility of mutual understanding, solidarity and faster problem solving. Its long-term duration tests the attitude of both sides, confirming their willingness to compromise. Most importantly, perhaps, it creates trust and predictability of action, improving personal relationships of the negotiators. Even such seemingly unimportant factor as personal compatibility can sometimes play a significant role in persuading a peace.21 Secondly, a secret dialogue puts its participants under the pressure of the secrecy, which makes them responsible for preventing internal opposition. For this reason, in South Africa and Northern Ireland, back-channel contacts were hidden from both the public and political opponents, as well as from senior security force officials and government ministers. The fact of secrecy itself protects the process from possible external interference and disruption and makes it more efficient. In contrast, sides in open negotiations tend to be focused a lot more on the public approval, basing their actions on it. However, it is also argued that back-channel talks with terrorists produce narrowly based settlements that may be difficult to be implemented in practice because opponents may reject it. Moreover, it is also claimed that secrecy creates mistrust and does not have a wide public support.22 However, the Northern Ireland case proved these claims wrong, as the back-channel communication did establish peace and did gain a lot of public support. Overall, back-channel communication ‘permits negotiation on legitimacy without conceding on legitimacy’, and is more productive than the absence of any kind of contact with terrorists.23

The decision to negotiate with the IRA was not made without any hesitation in the British government. Scepticism of the policy of inclusion was even among John Major’s cabinet, mainly because there was a fear of worsening the relationships with the unionists, as well as the possibility of failure to persuade the terrorists to stop violence. Despite it, it is clear that the policy of marginalization was no longer practical. The Downing Street Declaration, signed on 15 December 1993, was a ‘minor diplomatic masterpiece’ that led the IRA from militarism to politics.24 It also solved the problem of the loyalist paramilitary groups whose use of violence was a reaction to the IRA’s campaign. It began to have little use for them, since the IRA agreed to cease-fire, which they perceived to be their victory, and their political objective of safeguarding the Union was achieved.25

Unfortunately, in cases such as Al Qaeda negotiations unlikely to be productive, as it does not give any signs to match the above-mentioned aspects when it might be successful. In contrast, Hamas, after winning the Palestinian parliamentary election in 2006, seems to be on the road to politics instead of terrorism, and may be worth negotiating with Israel. However, it is unlikely to be in the nearest future, as it still lacks internal consensus to end violence.26 Overall, it is evident that there are no set criteria for when the government should negotiate with terrorists, as the answer strictly depends on each case. The only set principle that can be suggested is that talks with terrorists are highly undesirable when terrorists are not willing to act according to democratic rules.

As it can be seen, it is difficult to establish a particular strategy for dealing with terrorists. Governments generally tend to follow the principle of non-negotiation with terrorists. However, the Northern Ireland case shows that an alternative can sometimes solve the situation. Firstly, its actors were clearly ‘rational’ terrorists who used violence as ‘instrumental’ means to achieve their political aims. Secondly, the situation of stalemate led both sides to seek for a compromise, changing the republican mind-set. Finally, the positive influence of back-channel communication should not be underestimated. However, it is important to remember that the efficiency of these factors might differ on who the type of terrorists, the situation and even small seemingly unimportant factors such as personal compatibility between the negotiators.


  1. Browne, J. and Dickson, E. ‘‘‘We Don’t Talk to Terrorists”: On the Rhetoric and Practice of Secret Negotiations’, Journal of Conflict Resolution, 54:3 (2010) p. 380
  2. Bew, F. et. al. Talking to Terrorists: Making Peace in Northern Ireland and the Basque Country, (London: Hurst and Company, 2009), p. 39
  3. Neumann, P. ‘Negotiation with Terrorists’, Foreign Affairs, 86 (2007) p. 128
  4. Ibid.
  5. Koebler, J. ‘Why Governments Should Negotiate with Terrorists’. Available at: [Accessed 10 February 2014]
  6. Ibid.
  7. Neumann, ‘Negotiation with Terrorists’, p. 128
  8. Koebler, ‘Why Governments Should Negotiate with Terrorists’
  9. McKittrick, D. and McVea, D. Making Sense of the Troubles, (London: Penguin Books, 2000), p. 179
  10. Tonge, J. et al. ‘So Why did the Guns Fall Silent? How Interplay, not Stalemate, Explains the Northern Ireland Peace Process’, Irish Political Studies, 26:1 (2011) p. 4
  11. Ibid., p. 6
  12. Ibid.
  13. HM Treasury, ‘Rebalancing the Northern Ireland Economy’, (London, HM Treasury, 2011), p. 10
  14. Ibid.
  15. O’Kane, E. ‘Anglo-Irish Relations and the Northern Ireland Peace Process: From Exclusion to Inclusion’, Contemporary British History, 18:1 (2004) p. 80
  16. Ibid.
  17. Ibid., p. 92
  18. Tonge et al., ‘Why Did the Guns Fall Silent?’, p. 9
  19. Peatling, G. The Failure of the Northern Ireland Peace Process, (Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 2004), p. 132
  20. Craig, T. ‘From Backdoors and Back Lanes to Backchannels’, Contemporary British History, 26:1 (2012) p. 112
  21. Dochartaigh, N. ‘Together in the Middle’, Journal of Peace Research, 46 (2011) p. 770
  22. Ibid., p. 768
  23. Ibid., p. 778
  24. David Goodall in O’Kane ‘Anglo-Irish Relations and the Northern Ireland Peace Process’, p. 96
  25. Mitchell, D. ‘Sticking to their Guns?’, Contemporary British History, 24:3 (2010) p. 343
  26. Neumann, ‘Negotiation with Terrorists’, p. 130


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