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700 days of failure and 1 day of success

Mark Devenport | 17:07 UK time, Friday, 20 August 2010

That's how the former talks chairman, George Mitchell, described his time at Castle Buildings at Stormont when he announced a fresh round of direct negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians. Senator Mitchell's point was the need for patience. He pointed out that his efforts had often been branded a failure during his twenty two months in Northern Ireland.

When the Middle East talks get going on September 2nd it will be fascinating to see whether the facilitators continue to draw on the NI example.

Locally rather lower level exchanges have been on the agenda, as the Secretary of State Owen Paterson did his best play a straight bat to the BBC's Today programme on the topic of the alleged contacts between the British and Irish governments and dissident republicans. Mr Paterson ruled out "meaningful talks, serious discussions, real negotiations" with those engaged in violence. However he was altogether more coy when questioned about any "contacts" with such groups, responding that he wouldn't be drawn on "operational matters".

That last statement will only add credibility to Martin McGuinness's claim that talks with the dissidents have been continuing for some time. The DUP's Gregory Campbell has demanded "straight answers". Alliance's Stephen Farry argues that any contacts must be limited: "engagement can play a role in terms of the state or intermediaries working with communities to prevent or reverse in particular vulnerable young people getting swept into a life of violence. At a broader level, efforts to explore means by which groups can end their violence could be beneficial, but again this cannot be characterised as or become negotiations with mutual trade-offs."

Over in the latest edition of the Spectator Magazine Jenny McCartney isn't impressed by those who believe the only way to deal with terrorism is to enter talks. She chides Tony Blair's former Chief of Staff Jonathan Powell for backing NI style negotiations with the Taliban, continuing "one is tempted to think that if Beelzebub were to make an impromptu appearance on earth, the first thing he would see would be Jonathan Powell walking purposefully towards him, clearing his throat for a chat." She says that Mr Powell's "talking cure" is "based on the notion that the settlement reached in Northern Ireland was an unalloyed triumph. Having grown up in Northern Ireland during the worst of the Troubles, I would not recognise it as such."

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