George Santanaya’s maxim that ‘those who fail to learn from the mistakes of their predecessors are destined to repeat them’ has a corollary. We should use the successes of the past and repeat our behaviour with the problems of today. In particular, can we replicate the negotiating behaviour which brought about the Irish peace agreement to effect a negotiated settlement in the Middle East, and stop the carnage of Paris on 13/11, perpetrated by ISIS?
For several decades the IRA used terrorist tactics to create fear in Ireland. They did so in the hope that they could force the UK Government to the negotiating table. They were ruthless. But they did at least telephone through a warning of an impending bomb. Although it was furiously denied at the time, there were, in fact, ongoing “back door” talks between representatives of the UK government and senior IRA commanders throughout the height of “the Troubles”. Channels of communication were kept open and these finally led to a peace settlement and the Good Friday Agreement. There are still incidents here and there, of course, but the campaign proper has stopped and the ceasefire holds.
Interestingly, it was not the war that won the peace, rather than the peace that won the war; peace and subsequent negotiations in which, much to the chagrin of extremists on either side of the fence, concessions were made. Some of these concessions stick in the throat of those more wedded to their cause than most, but nothing is more certain than this: if you want to secure peace, there has to be magnanimity.
When the Allies won the “Great War” – the one that was supposed to end all wars – they imposed the Treaty of Versailles, which amongst other things, required “Germany (to) accept the responsibility of Germany and her allies for causing all the loss and damage”. This article, article 231, later became known as the War Guilt clause. Reparations were set at 132 billion Marks which, in today’s money, is the equivalent of US $442 billion. John Maynard Keynes opined that the reparations figure was excessive and predicted that the treaty was too harsh – he described it as a “Carthaginian peace”. The result? The rise of Nazism in the nineteen twenties and thirties and the subsequent Second World War. We think Keynes got it just about right.
The twenty-first century has oened dramatically and I venture that historians, looking back through the prism of hindsight and a hundred years, will treat this so-called “Golden Age” as a period of darkness and despair. Most of the world seems to starve whilst a few are wealthy beyond their wildest imaginings and superstition, often masquerading as religion, seems to inform the behaviour of millions. Add to this the fact that the so-called civilised world had a couple of military adventures in the Gulf and Middle East; we won, so that was OK and we successfully got rid of a couple of bad people, Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi, so all was well and life carried on. Except it wasn’t and it didn’t – at least not in the way that we wanted. Vacuums need to be filled and filled they were by ISIS.
We know that in the real world you can’t negotiate with ISIS any more than you could have arrested Jihadi John and tried him in a court of law, as Jeremy Corbyn would have preferred. But what effect does violence and terrorism have on the propensity to negotiate? Are ISIS using terrorist tactics to bring the West to the negotiating table? Can we bomb ISIS to the negotiating table? If not, are the only options to bomb them to extinction or leave them to roam free? Does the terrorism waged by ISIS and similar organisations like Hezbollah, Hamas, al Qaeda and al Nusra on the West and on each other make the victims of that terrorism more inclined to want to negotiate?
We would argue that that the difference between the peace deal in Ireland and the Middle East situation is a difference of culture, rooted in ethnicity. The players in the Irish situation came from a common background, divided by religion perhaps, but sharing a Western cultural upbringing. We need to realise that the differences of ethnicity between ourselves and our terrorising Middle Eastern opponents are so profound that we may never be able to sit down at the same table, because the concept of sitting down at the table is not part of the ISIS mindset. Liberal minded intellectuals who bray for ‘a diplomatic solution’ to the conflicts in Syria, Israel, Libya and Nigeria are deluded.
It is peculiar that we think so, and that ISIS thinks so. Maybe on some things we do share…
Robin Copland and Stephen White