MATT Baggott is a nice guy and a capable officer but my blood ran cold when I heard him stating on RTE that policing alone could not deal with dissident violence in Northern Ireland.
"History would say there has never been a security solution to terrorism... ultimately there has to be persuasion and dialogue," he told Tommie Gorman, the station's northern editor.
What sort of signal does that send to the misguided fanatics who risk their lives and liberty wiring up bombs in garages or farm sheds along the border?
Baggott may have intended to send out a nuanced message but they will hear it as encouragement. It will boost their forlorn hopes of victory. They will take it as a sign that they cannot simply lose and if they persevere without compromising, they will eventually win through. That is the logical extension of Baggott's argument that dissident activity can only be ended by "persuasion and dialogue."
They will see it as a welcome change from the more confident and aggressive messages beamed out by Owen Paterson and Sinn Fein. Baggott himself had previously characterised them as criminals and the PSNI press office had followed his lead until recently. Now, they will conclude, he has changed his tune.
Baggott has been travelling in this new direction for about a fortnight. "There is ultimately not a policing solution to this. There is a community solution, there is a public solution, and there is a political dialogue that needs to take place," he said about 10 days ago.
Most people thought he was referring to a process of community dialogue to bring pressure on the dissidents and encourage co-operation with the police. Now he has spelt out what he meant – the only way to control the dissidents is to somehow persuade them to stop. That, he argued, was the way it had to be with all terrorist groups
That may be all right as a philosophical rumination on one of the quiet days Baggott says he takes to reflect on his role. Coming as a public statement from the head of a police service whose members are being targeted, it is altogether more dangerous. It becomes part of the equation and a factor in, rather than just a thought about, what the future may hold.
First of all, it is not true. Terrorist campaigns have been ended without negotiation or compromise by the state. We only have to think of the 1950s' IRA campaign which, the IRA admitted at the time, fell through for lack of support and under pressure of internment. There have been other examples of defeated insurrections worldwide. The Italian Red Brigades, for instance, mounted a more extensive campaign than the dissidents, murdering senior politicians like Aldo Moro and kidnapping an army Brigadier. They remained a problem for decades but fizzled out in the end.
There is no general rule on these things. The future is not set in stone as Baggott suggests. Nothing is inevitable.
That being said, it may sometimes be the best thing to talk to terrorists, and politicians would be foolish to make iron rules about it. Talk may well shorten their campaign, win some support away from them, cause a split or let a tired leadership off the hook. When that happens, part of the process of “persuasion” is pressure from the security forces. People become willing to talk in a serious way when they feel that they have nothing more to gain by violence.
That is what happened to the Provisional IRA – when they were convinced that there would never be a better time to quit, they ended their campaign in return for a deal they had previously rejected. Community pressure also played a part as it became clear to the Provos that Sinn Fein would only gain votes if the violence ceased. The leadership was also getting older and family men like Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams began to think about what sort of world their adult children would inhabit.
Personally, I don’t think the dissidents are at that place yet. They may negotiate on limited issues like the prisons but as far as they are concerned their campaign is still building and still has the potential to increase their leverage. They won’t want to cut a deal until they are convinced to the contrary. Even then they may prefer to go out defeated with their principles intact rather than compromise for what is on offer. Nobody knows yet – that has still to play out.
It makes sense to establish discreet and reliable channels of communications with the dissident leaderships in the hope that they can eventually be used to shorten the terror campaign. Such quiet diplomacy is one thing. Megaphone diplomacy on TV with the chief constable announcing that the terrorists can’t be beaten is something else.
That’s called putting your foot in it.