Belfast, June 1972. The slow burn civil war between Irish Republicans and British Unionists has been going for four years already, hundreds have already died.
A senior British diplomat is dispatched to the province to open a secret backchannel with the IRA. First, a ten-day secret truce is agreed so the sides can meet amid calm. Soon after two meetings take place in a leafy protestant suburb of Belfast, under extreme secrecy. At the second meeting, the following month, the IRA makes an impossible demand: the British must leave Ireland by 1975. The British negotiator makes it clear that this is a non-starter. The IRA, completely out of leverage, decides to draw blood the only way it can:
They make the meetings public.
It’s a public relations catastrophe for the British government, raising howls of alarm from Unionists in the province. The IRA’s betrayal sets back negotiations years, and opens up one of the bloodiest periods in the troubles.
The IRA leaked the meetings in impotent frustration after its impossible demands were summarily dismissed.
The anecdote is retold in Jonathan Powell’s gripping manual, Talking to Terrorists. Powell, who would become Tony Blair’s chief of staff and, two decades later, lead the negotiation that finally brought peace to Northern Ireland, has unique insight into this and a whole lot of other conflicts, and his book is well worth a read.
From this episode, the thing to take away is that leaking the talks wasn’t a sign of betrayal by the British government, or a sign of strength by the IRA. Just the opposite: the IRA leaked the meetings in impotent frustration after its impossible demands were summarily dismissed. The leak revealed its weakness, not its strength.
Powell notes that these kinds of situations are all too common in the early stage of pre-negotiation between warring parties. It happened in El Salvador a bunch of times in the 80s, it happened in Colombia early in its negotiation with FARC. In each case, there have been splits between hardliners who scoff at the idea of negotiating at all and moderates willing to explore possibilities. In each case, leaking secret talks is an easy recourse the hardliners have in seeking to derail the moderates’ advances.
Nihil sub sole novum
Outlawed, barred from travel, distrustful of all around them and prone to extremism by nature, insurgents reach the negotiating table after prolonged periods of isolation from the ideas considered mainstream in the outside world.
What I find really fascinating is the way Powell’s analysis of the insurgent side seems to apply much more naturally to the Venezuelan government than to the opposition.
Insurgents, Powell notes, are often marked by extreme ideological isolation and a kind of anachronistic provincialism. Outlawed, barred from travel, distrustful of all around them and prone to extremism by nature, insurgents reach the negotiating table after prolonged periods of isolation from the ideas considered mainstream in the outside world. Does that description sound more like Nicolás Maduro and Diosdado Cabello or Julio Borges and Freddy Guevara?
What’s frightening about reading Powell’s book is how well the negotiating processes he describes with actual warring insurgents applies to the Venezuelan case. But what makes it genuinely freaky is the realization that, in Venezuela, the roles are flipped: the extremists are the government, it’s the opposition that’s mainstream.