The Labour challenger Owen Smith has scrambled to play down suggestions of “getting Islamic State round the table”.
Asked about the Syria conflict at a BBC Labour leadership hustings, Smith said solutions to such crisis “do come about through dialogue” and that resolving it needs “people round the table”.
He added: “All of the actors do need to be involved. But at the moment Isil (another name for Islamic State) are clearly not interest in negotiating.”
The comments sparked furore on social media, while the Jeremy Corbyn campaign called them “hasty and ill-considered”.
Pressed to expand after the hustings, Smith branded Isis a “violent terrorist organisation” that had “no prospect” of being involved in negotiations. But he repeated his view that this could change and concluded: “All political deals are eventually done through dialogue.”
A campaign spokesman later stated: “Owen is clear that there should be absolutely no negotiation with Daesh, or any terrorist group, until they renounce violence, cease all acts of terror and commit themselves to a peaceful settlement.
“Owen’s experience of helping to bring about peace in Northern Ireland is that eventually all parties who truly believe in delivering peace have to be around the table. In the Middle East at the moment that clearly doesn’t include – and may never include – Daesh.”
Asked the same question during the hustings, Corbyn said of Isis: “They are not going to be round the table.”
But if the Labour leader wisely kept to a strict line, it comes from experience.
In January, he made headlines when he called for “some route through” to Isis along the lines of the back channels the British Government maintained with the IRA.
Indeed, while “tea with Isis” may be a gaffe Smith will regret for some time, both men have a point about public and private dialogue.
Like it or not, as both have pointed out, the Government talked to the IRA. The US-backed Afghan government has talked to the Taliban. The US even reportedly talked to Isis in an attempt to save a hostage’s life.
But as Smith learnt today, the first rule of back channel talks is you don’t talk about the back channel talks.