Monday, April 07, 2008

The importance of learning the right lessons from Northern Ireland

Ten years after the Good Friday agreement, I have very mixed feelings about the peace in Northern Ireland. Yes, on one hand, the terrorists are no longer bombing and shooting their way to the negotiating table. But on the other hand, the process has hugely empowered the extremists on both sides whilst pretty much destroying the moderates. Despite the peace agreement, many of the paramilitaries tied to Sinn Fein have not put down their weapons but have migrated to organised crime. The calm in Northern Ireland is a very uneasy one with "peace walls" dividing the protestant and catholic communities. As far as I'm concerned the jury is still out. As Charles Moore has so aptly put it:
The present peace is brittle. What has happened is not the creation of a modern plural polity, but of a subsidised statelet in which the warring gangs have, for the moment, been bought off. This is unstable, and unjust to all of those - the majority - who do not want to be defined by gang membership.
Many of those who call Northern Ireland a great success story are making the same mistake they made with Mugabe. When he came to power in 1980, there was a lot of hope among Western politicians that Mugabe would unite Zimbabwe's people and bring reconciliation. They turned a blind eye to his increasingly autocratic style, and they turned a blind eye to the massacre of over 20,000 in Matabeland. We were told all along that it was more important to encourage Mugabe than to condemn him. Twenty eight years later, we have helped to turn him into the dictator he is today.

What applies to Mugabe also applies to China, Iran, Hamas, Hezbollah, the Taleban and all the other autocratic regimes and assorted terrorist outfits. Talking to extremists sends a very dangerous message. Why bother with democracy when it's abundantly clear that the more ruthless and repressive you are, the more likely you are to get a place at the negotiating table?

Similar sentiments are echoed by Gary McKeone in the Independent