Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 30 August 2014

Don’t snub al-Qaida in talks, says Tony Blair's IRA negotiator

Western governments should not rule out talks with al-Qaida, Tony Blair's chief negotiator with the IRA has said.

Jonathan Powell, who was Mr Blair's chief of staff, acknowledged that finding anyone from the terrorist network to negotiate with would be difficult.

But in an interview with the BBC’s Today programme, he insisted that no group should be regarded as being “beyond the pale”.

“I think no group should be beyond talking to, including al Qaida. Of course one has to be realistic about talking to a group like that would mean,” he said.

“It would be a very long process of discussion, assuming you could ever find the leadership of such a group.”

In practice, he said that negotiations were more likely to take place with al-Qaida-affiliated groups, such as Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines or Shahab in Somalia, rather than the central leadership.

“Those are the people you will be talking to rather than, probably, Osama bin Laden at the centre,” he said.

Mr Powell suggested that opening talks with the Taliban in Afghanistan could prove easier, although again he warned that it would be a lengthy process.

Mr Powell played a key role at the heart of Northern Ireland’s peace process, acting as Tony Blair’s main point of contact between republicans and the Government — and was often viewed with suspicion by unionists.

On Wednesday, it was revealed in a new book by historian Mary-Alice Clancy' that George Bush’s administration viewed Mr Powell’s attitude towards Sinn Fein and the IRA during the peace process as “absolutely insane”.

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