Which only the UN can resolve

It took thirty years from the outbreak of the "troubles" in Londonderry to get to the Good Friday agreement. Thirty years of bombings and shootings, often sectarian but sometimes indiscriminate. Thirty years of British politicians vowing to defeat the IRA and the UVF, and promising no deals with terrorists. Then, and only then, was there negotiation and peace - imperfect, yes, but infinitely better than the three decades previously. The question for the Western leaders today, even as nerves and emotions jangle in the aftermath of the Madrid atrocities, is whether it will take as long to realise that Al Quai'da cannot be defeated by the toughest of measures and, even worse, that national governments cannot protect their people from terrorism.

Political leaders always want to appear tough, and it is natural to demand revenge for outrages such as those committed in New York, Bali and Madrid, but the vital question is not whether tough action is justified but whether it is effective. The evidence is that it is counter productive. Repression of extremism by force does not work. I recall General Anthony Farrar-Hockley, then C-in-C Northern Ireland, telling a group in the House of Commons in the mid 1980s that there was no military solution to violence and terrorism in the province. The police and the army could, he said, improve the situation somewhat for a period but at heart it required a political solution. Eventually, after years of war weariness and an increasing awareness that neither side could impose a solution on the other, there was a solution and a peace of sorts in Northern Ireland.

We must not diminish the importance of Northern Ireland as an example. A year on from the invasion of Iraq, it has a great deal to teach the key players there - the "stakeholders" in current parlance. Northern Ireland may be a small in population when compared to Iraq but the ingredients are similar and the high price paid by the people of Northern Ireland over thirty years of the "troubles" is not often appreciated. Pro rata, per population, the equivalent number of terrorist deaths in Iraq would be around 55,000. For the record it would be 100,000 in Spain and 150,000 in Great Britain. It has been a horrendous burden, with few Ulster families left unscathed.

The question for Tony Blair is why, when he knows from his close experience of the complexities of Northern Ireland, that only by finding acceptable answers to the issues that provoke terrorism and which sustain terrorists can torture and killing be ended, does he support policies in Iraq, and against terrorism globally, which are counter productive. In Northern Ireland an overweening military presence, detention without trial, miscarriages of justice, the abandonment of jury trials, and special legislation perceived as repressive, all exacerbated the situation and recruited young people into the paramilitary organisations and they will do so in Iraq. The identification of the allies in Iraq with anti-Islamic policies makes all of our cities vulnerable.

In the end, negotiation with the leaders of those organisations, a willingness to accept a programme of constitutional change, the removal of provocative symbols, an acceptance on both sides of necessary compromises, the staged release of prisoners, and the emergence of party leaders prepared to work together across the political chasm, brought a formal end to the miserable decades of violence. There are still flurries of violence, but there is now an open political process in Northern Ireland and its people have a settled life unimaginable at the height of the troubles. The causes of the disease were tackled, not the symptoms.

Translating this to the broader situation requires a willingness to see the countries of Europe and North America as, for instance, Al-Quai'da sees them. I know from my work in Yemen and Palestine that, whereas we are certainly concerned about the situation at Guantanamo Bay, in Arab countries it is a huge running sore. Six hundred Muslim prisoners, incarcerated by the USA for over two years, with no access to lawyers and under no legal process, is a massive provocation. Similarly the situation in the Middle East is a huge catalyst for terrorism. It is seen by Islamic organisations as the brutal occupation of Palestinian land by Israel, with American support, and with the Palestinians increasingly forced into a walled ghetto. The appalling use of suicide bombers is regarded as the only remaining means of hitting back when every other means of expression has been ruthlessly blocked off. These are not easy issues to resolve but without doing so the encouragement for terrorist recruitment by Al Quai'da and other similar bodies will remain.

There are other symbols. It may well be justified to commemorate 11 September each year, but why is there no similar annual recognition of 3 December as the day 1984 on which an equivalent number of Indians in Bhopal died from the release of poison gas from Union Carbide - an American company? Such lack of equivalence may seem a minor point to us but in other regions it is seen as symptomatic of a different perception of human worth.

Slogans such as cracking down or waging war on terrorism are empty phrases. Extremism breeds extremism. A sea change in attitudes is needed. International terrorism requires international politics and not an ever increasing nationalistic response. Even the mighty USA cannot safeguard its own territory. Just as the UK government had eventually to admit its inability to impose a solution in Northern Ireland, so western government have to admit their impotence in the face of a terrorism which possesses no sovereignty and has no nation state. Al Quai'da and its surrogates do not kill for fun, they do it for a cause they see as just. Only the United Nations has the authority and the potential capacity to intervene. We need to strengthen the UN now, and to recognising its unique potential in peace making and peace keeping. We cannot afford to suffer thirty years of more 11 Septembers, more Balis and more Madrids.

14 March 2004