-John Bew is Lecturer in Modern British History at Peterhouse, Cambridge University. Martyn Frampton is a Research Fellow, also at Peterhouse. Their book, co-written with Iñigo Gurruchaga, is called "Talking to Terrorists: Making Peace in Northern Ireland and the Basque Country" and they blog at Talking to Terrorists. The opinions expressed are their own.-
One of the current fashions in British and American diplomatic circles is the idea that it is necessary to engage with our enemies, no matter how extreme they might seem. In response to the recent Iranian election results, for example, Steven Clemons of the New America Foundation – a think tank with strong links to the Obama administration – suggested that "nothing at all has changed in the equation that Obama set out during the campaign: we have to deal with out enemies – we must engage".
Equally, many observers now suggest that the same logic should be applied to non-state actors including Hamas, Hezbollah and even "moderate" Taliban in Afghanistan. Earlier this year, the British Foreign Office reanimated contacts with Hezbollah and several senior British MPs invited Hamas to participate in a video-link discussion in Westminster.
On May 17, we will discuss some of these issues in a lunchtime event run by the Henry Jackson Society in the Houses of Parliament. As we point out in our book, Talking to Terrorists, this belief in the need to "engage with the extremes" often takes the example of Northern Ireland as an inspiration, where the Irish Republican Army (IRA) ended a thirty-year campaign of violence in the late 1990s.
The assumption here is that the British government took the brave decision to talk to those who were committing terrorist violence and therefore managed to bring them within the fold of the eventual political settlement. Thus, yesterday’s gunmen became today’s politicians, so the story goes.