politics : culture : economics

Turks, Kurds and the high price of peace

In Ireland, Turkey on June 21, 2010 at 9:44 am

Last week, in a short piece I wrote about Bloody Sunday, I promised to follow up by outlining the key terms of the peace settlement that brought an end to the violent campaign of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and most other terrorist groups in Northern Ireland.

My purpose here is to illustrate three crucial facts in relation to Turkey’s Kurdish question. First, that profound transformation in these conflicts is possible. Second, that such transformation requires political skills, leadership and perseverance over not just years but decades. And third, that people in Turkey are far from ready for the kind of compromises that a lasting settlement in the southeast is likely to involve.

Of course the events of recent days, in which PKK violence has flared again, make talking about peace settlements seem somewhat fanciful. But as Turkey risks whipping itself up into a predictable, understandable and wholly unhelpful frenzy, it is worth remembering the following. If the Kurdish question is ever to be solved, it will ultimately be through stuttering political advances rather than decisive military victory. That will remain the case no matter how many deaths occur on either side in the coming weeks, months and years.


The dynamics of the conflict in Northern Ireland differ from those in the southeast of Turkey in a number of significant respects. (Importantly, two states are inextricably involved. Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom, but a long-standing ‘nationalist’ tradition wishes to unite it with the Republic of Ireland which occupies the rest of the island of Ireland.) Nevertheless, there are broad similarities that make comparison between Northern Ireland and Turkey instructive. For one thing, the basic trade-off that underpinned the Northern Ireland peace process will surely be required in Turkey too.

In Northern Ireland the trade-off was between (i) nationalist (including IRA) acceptance that the constitutional position of the region within the UK can only ever change through democratic means, and (ii) the creation of regional power-sharing arrangements to ensure that nationalists could play an active role in political life despite their minority status. I think that it’s already understood that some variation on this theme will be required in southeast Turkey. Similar thinking, admittedly of a very broad-brush nature, lay behind the current government’s tentative and short-lived ‘Kurdish opening’.

But as the fate of that policy makes clear, in these situations the devil is in the detail. And the details are often deeply unpalatable if a political consensus hasn’t been built around the idea that peace will involve difficult compromises (which will inevitably be felt by many—and spun by others—as weakness, betrayal and surrender).

To illustrate this, let me list a number of the key steps that were taken in Northern Ireland since the Belfast Agreement was signed in 1998. How many would be countenanced in Turkey?

  1. Both the UK and Irish governments formally recognised Northern Ireland’s right to determine its constitutional position through democratic means. This means that the UK agrees it will ‘lose’ Northern Ireland to a united Ireland if a majority in the region want that. (They don’t.)
  2. Political decision-making was devolved from the central UK government to elaborate local political structures whereby power is shared between unionists (who want to remain in the UK) and nationalists (who want a united Ireland).
  3. This shift to local power-sharing means that politicians with a terrorist background are involved in government at the highest level. The most notorious example is Martin McGuinness, a former senior IRA leader, who was appointed as minister of education in 1999. The nearest thing to a Turkish analogy for this would be Abdullah Öcalan being granted control of schools policy in the southeast.
  4. A legal obligation was placed on all public bodies to carry out their functions with a view to ensuring equality of opportunity for all citizens in Northern Ireland, regardless of their background.
  5. The UK agreed to scale back its military presence in the region, reducing troop numbers and closing military installations.
  6. The region’s police force was overhauled (it had long been viewed by nationalists as an oppressive arm of unionism). More recently, policing and security issues have been transferred from the UK to Northern Ireland’s local control. This was a deeply controversial move as it means that former terrorists who have switched to politics now have a say in the region’s security policy.
  7. A significant number of terrorist prisoners were released. These included high-profile killers such as Patrick Magee who in 1984 came close to killing the UK’s prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, and her cabinet of ministers when he bombed a hotel they were staying in.


Conflict resolution isn’t a one-size-fits-all endeavour. I am not suggesting for a moment that this is the list of measures that Turkey will need in order to resolve the Kurdish question. But they provide a sense of the kind of lengths to which politicians needed to go to secure peace in Northern Ireland (and of the kind of leadership that was required to bring their constituencies with them). Turkey’s problem isn’t so much that it isn’t ready to implement a list of measures like those above. It’s that it isn’t ready for the messy political work of formulating or negotiating a list like this in the first place.

In the long term, what Turkey really needs in relation to the Kurdish question is what it most sorely lacks—debate, dialogue and the exchange of ideas. This is needed in two distinct areas. First, in the development and discussion of Turkish government policy. Politicians, the media and civil society need much greater leeway to analyse and debate the Kurdish question. Second, similar freedom of debate is required on the Kurdish side. Those who have been been pursuing a terrorist strategy in the PKK for decades will not simply drop it—strong and sustained Kurdish political leadership will be needed and should be allowed to develop. (A third related point is that channels of communication—however indirect, however informal, however unacknowledged—will be required between the Turkish state and all shades of Kurdish opinion.)

I am not naive enough to suggest that all of these threads of action can just be wished into existence, that everyone can suddenly learn to sit down and hammer out their differences. On the contrary. My point is that it will take many years—and probably decades—to develop the kind of rudimentary trust and sophisticated politics that will be required to underpin a sustainable peace process. The sooner that work starts, the better.

  1. I am somewhat ill-equipped to comment, as I know nothing (!) about the Kurdish/Turkish question and a lot about the Northern Ireland conflict. Please forgive therefore, if I speak out of turn. NI peace negotiations, alas, would never have taken on any form of seriousness, had the IRA by that stage not been virtually on its knees. US funding was seriously drying up,and British intelligence had made any form of inter-nationalist communication virtually impossible. Negotiations had been on-going for decades, but as you rightly point out, the conditio sine qua non was for Britain to pull back and be content wih the role of an honest broker rather than a player. Whether or not these issues (weakening of own position, technical supremacy, and political change of heart at the negotiating table) play a role in the Turkish/Kurdish conflict I am not qualified to decide.

  2. I don’t think that many people want to look at the Kurdish issue like this. As long as state paranoid sets the standards, nothing will change.

  3. I think you’re too fatalistic, Hans. Of course the odds are heavily, mercilessly, stacked against progress. But even in the last day or two there have been significantly different political perspectives on offer, some of which offer (some) hope of (some) progress in the long months and years ahead. My view is that those voices need to be supported with the best arguments going – if we throw our hands up and say that nothing will change, then the state paranoia you mention will have won by default.

  4. Everyone in Ireland grows up with democracy so there is an inbuilt understanding and respect for it (in spite of cronyism and other problems). In SE Turkey the ağa system has a far larger role in everyday life than democracy from far-off Ankara. One of the key factors in Northern Ireland was the idea that the terrorist could make more headway as a politician and so needed to do things that were wanted by the people, not necessarily by the paramilitary bosses. I’m not sure that impetus exists in SE Turkey. Why try to win over the people when you can bribe the ağa and control the village that way? Why try to become an acceptable public face to Ankara? With SE Turkey impoverished and uneducated the voices of the ordinary people are not heard, unlike the educated and vocal people in Northern Ireland.
    In short I think it will take a lot of fundamental changes to the social infrastructure in SE Turkey before the kind of changes talked about above can become effective. It may take decades.

    • I tend to agree with Catherine but want to add two things:
      1) when PKK members surrended a couple of months ago they were inprisoned after strong public pressure. And many elected majors and council members as well. It’s the public pressure which dehumanize the image of Kurds.
      2) secondly: there is no such nationalism in Turkey as in Ireland but ultra-nationalism sets the tone. If you read some forums in The Netherlands, Belgium and Germany, you see a nasty war of words between Kurds and Turks. And especially in Belgium here are regular street fights between Kurds and Turks. I am not fatalistic but very pessimistic.

  5. […] Back to Northern Ireland In Ireland, Turkey on July 12, 2010 at 9:29 am I have an op-ed piece in Today’s Zaman today, drawing on developments in Northern Ireland during the 1980s. (This builds on an Istanbul Notes post from a couple of weeks ago: Turks, Kurds and the high price of peace.) […]

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