Between terror and talking, the place of 'negotiation' in colonial conflict

Hack, Karl (2011). Between terror and talking, the place of 'negotiation' in colonial conflict. Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, 39(4) pp. 539–549.



Over the last two decades there has been an increasing flow of publications on insurgency and counterinsurgency in European empires. This journal, for instance, issued a special edition in September 1993 on ‘Emergencies and Disorder in the European Empires after 1945’. Its preface finished by highlighting recurrent themes for further, comparative study, including differing legal structures, subversive security organisation, ‘the grim but recurrent issue of brutality and torture’, and the ‘technical problems of negotiation (including the tricky matter of amnesty …) in order to bring emergencies to a close’.

Despite this call to action, comparative studies of these and other ‘recurrent themes’ have remained thin on the ground. Only a relatively narrow range of technical areas have attracted significant academic attention, notably policing, and the nature and limits of attempts to win ‘hearts and minds’.

By contrast, the third area that recent events have brought to the fore is less overtly dramatic, often conducted in secret or at least behind closed doors, and so has remained relatively neglected. This other area is ‘negotiation (including the tricky matter of amnesty …) in order to bring emergencies to a close’. Yet from the 1990s onwards, negotiation took centre-stage in Ireland, Iraq and to a lesser extent in Afghanistan. In Northern Ireland, on-off negotiations and posturings throughout the 1990s would culminate, in May 2007, with that former scourge of the IRA (Democratic Unionist Party leader Ian Paisley), becoming First Minister with an ex-IRA commander (Martin McGuiness) as his Deputy Minister. In Iraq, the decisive moment came in 2006 when local Sunni tribes formed the ‘Anbar Awakening’, and took sides with that country’s government. In Afghanistan, key players increasingly sought to talk to Taliban and tribal leaders, after fighting flared up again from 2003. In all these cases, there was and is a complex colonial past, and past examples of negotiating tactics, which informed events. In each case, Britain as an imperial and colonising power was implicated in that past, which provided a repertoire of negotiating tactics, and a legacy of memories and prejudices for all sides. There is, therefore, a real justification for looking at colonial examples of ‘negotiating with the enemy’.

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