From Terrorist to Statesman? Martin McGuinness dies at age 66

Strangely, the terrorist campaign of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) is largely seen as ancient history outside of the United Kingdom and Ireland in spite of having ended only two decades ago. A conflict that dragged on for decades has left lasting wounds that still fester in Northern Ireland and among the victims of violence on all sides. But the end of the violent conflict came with the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 when all sides agreed to abandon violent struggle and shift to a political process.

Martin McGuinness was a key player in the peace process that led to the Agreement. A commander in the IRA with blood on his hands from several terrorist attacks, McGuinness decided that violent struggle was ultimately futile and became an integral part of the peace process, eventually working with his long-time enemies to form the first post-Agreement government in Northern Ireland.

The death of Mr. McGuinness reminds us that intractable conflicts can be brought to an end. A struggle that lasted from the establishment of English rule and endured for centuries eventually ended when all sides determined that the violent struggle no longer offered the chance of victory. The IRA abandoned armed struggle and moved to a political process. At the same time, the British and Irish governments agreed to work with terrorists and to accept people with blood on their hands into government. Both sides accepted the necessity of compromise to work out a peaceful settlement.

In a world where protracted conflicts are regrettably common, the Irish case offers some hope, and a few potential lessons. One is that it is easier to work with groups that don’t have maximalist demands. The IRA wanted a free, united Irish state on the whole of the island of Ireland. They were fine with leaving England to the English. That such a goal is not pursued through politics, as opposed to violence, is a shift in tactics, but not in aims.

Another lesson is that you can talk to some terrorists, but they have to be willing to talk to you. A hurting stalemate helps both sides see that there is value to abandoning violence. The IRA could not gain their goals through violence, but the UK government could not defeat the IRA. In the end, compromise suited both sides.

There are more lessons, of course, but as we look at other conflicts, the willingness of groups to compromise is a key part of bringing a conflict to an end. In negotiations, peace is possible, but only when it is seen as preferable to endless conflict.



  1. Under what kinds of conditions are terrorist organizations likely to seek a negotiated end to the conflict? Are terrorist organizations with specific, political, ends easier to work with than ones with broad, global agendas? What does this imply about the tendency to treat all terrorist organizations in the same manner in the post-9/11 period?
  2. There is an axiom among many leaders that goes “Never negotiate with terrorists.” In the case of the IRA, negotiating with terrorists ended the conflict. Was the IRA a special case, or does this case offer lessons for other conflicts?
  3. The Good Friday Agreement ended the conflict. At the same time, this was achieved by allowing terrorists to escape justice for their crimes. Is the idea of allowing terrorists amnesty for their crimes compatible with international legal requirements that those who target civilians be held accountable for their crimes? Would the Good Friday Agreement have been compatible with the International Criminal Court if the ICC had existed at the time?