1 June 2023

Why does the Prevent counter-terrorism strategy ignore Northern Ireland?


Earlier this month, my organisation, the Counter Extremism Project put on an event to examine how to maintain the momentum of our national counter-radicalisation security strategy ‘Prevent’. The event was a response to an independent government review, which found this strand of our counter-terrorism plan severely wanting.

It may surprise readers to know that Prevent and its legal obligation for public authorities to pay ‘due regard’ to stopping people getting involved in terrorism does not apply at all in Northern Ireland. After all, it is one of the few places in the UK where violent extremism has an enduring and decades-long grip on society. But then, this is ‘Nornia’, where conventional approaches to counter-extremism do not apply.

The explanation is that Prevent was set up to counter radicalisation from international terrorism, not the domestic sort which died down in the Province after the Good Friday Agreement, but has never been fully extinguished. Indeed, new research by Queens University Belfast reveals ten areas across NI where paramilitary crime and the coercive control it exerts left ordinary people scared, intimidated and unsafe.

Most of those communities are at the bottom of league tables of socio-economic prosperity. Many of them, including Ardoyne and the Shankill in west and north Belfast, are still both psychologically and physically scarred by the Troubles. There is a complex legacy relationship with the Loyalist and Republican terrorists who once claimed their support as ‘community protectors’, but who have now moved on to the control of the drugs trade and other forms of criminality.  

Routinely, well over half of those interviewed by the ‘Communities in Transition’ survey said a better relationship with police including greater police presence would make them feel safer. This is precisely the opposite of what paramilitary crime bosses want, of course, because it would threaten their community control, status and income stream.

So it is not at all surprising that the working theory for the attempted murder of a senior police officer in Omagh in February is that dissident republican terrorists colluded with career criminals to take out an experienced and successful detective involved in recent drug-related organised crime and terrorism investigations. Terrorists and the polycriminals they have morphed into hate the rule of law, and normality is their enemy. Collusion is rational and inevitable.

But the semi-retired criminal extremists causing misery in poor working class areas cannot exert fear, control and intimidation on their own. They need a ready supply of young men to work as couriers, enforcers and dealers. According to the Queens survey, a third of those surveyed across the province felt that paramilitaries had too much influence with young people in their area. Young people are groomed into violence in areas where there is a huge legacy of resistance to authority or perceived sectarian domination, and where community resilience can easily be repurposed, especially when the money available beats anything in the legitimate economy.

In other parts of the UK, young people on the cusp of becoming radicalised into violence would be referred into the Prevent programme for screening and further intervention if necessary. In Northern Ireland these fears are outsourced, if at all, to a plethora of very well funded community organisations – some operated by former combatants and not always for the public good.

Last year, the former Stormont Justice Minister Naomi Long gave evidence in Parliament that there was a need to review funding procedures, governance and contracts for these non-state bodies, in order to ensure NI Executive departments did not end up ‘giving cover or status to current paramilitaries’. The Shawcross review of the GB Prevent programme earlier this year suggested identical problems with funding by the taxpayer of community groups for ‘capacity building’ that were poorly monitored, and often closely associated with Islamist organisations.

The reasons given by successive Conservative administrations that Prevent does not run in Northern Ireland is increasingly threadbare. Referrals to the scheme have seen potential Islamists being overtaken by extreme right-wing cases. The distinction between ‘domestic’ and ‘international’ terrorism no longer holds as all extremist ideologies are now mobilised by global influences.

The real reason that Prevent could never gain traction within Northern Ireland is because there is a hierarchy of violent extremism which cannot be disturbed because of the political demographics and cultural ambiguities of a place where violent extremism is not only tolerated, but glamourised. The largest political party in the NI Assembly, Sinn Fein, is inextricably, indeed proudly, linked to a terrorist organisation and police forces either side of the border believe it is still ultimately controlled by the IRA’s Army Council.

Having an effective national counter-terrorism strategy like Prevent running in Northern Ireland would be a normalising of its place in the UK and would also require Sinn Fein to tacitly accept that ideologically motivated violence, and the coercive control that goes with it, is wrong – two things that they are entirely incapable of doing or wanting. So we are left with a fudge of community groups and weak leadership from a moribund Executive and poor enforcement. All of which gives paramilitaries a free hand in the communities they torment. 

As long as this scourge remains concealed and contained within a few back streets of greater Belfast, Derry and north Armagh, a bifurcated approach can be maintained. But just as it is rational for loyalist and republican narco-paramilitaries to cooperate for territory and control while the money is being made, it is also possible for other connections to emerge that threaten national security on a wider stage.

The IRA brokered arms deals with Libya while being in charge of heroin distribution in Dublin. Loyalist terrorist groups like the UDA had long standing links with neo-fascist organisations in GB. It is entirely conceivable that Islamist extremists could make common cause with irridentist terrorist groups like the New IRA to attack targets in the UK.

This possibility is accelerated by illegal migration to both the UK and Ireland from places where IS have a presence, and the porosity of the Irish border with easy routes to GB. Far-right groups in the Republic who talk of a ‘new plantation’ – this time not from England and Scotland but Nigeria, Syria and Iraq – have opened up another worrying front. Bear in mind that Ireland has no equivalent of the Prevent strategy and until recently had no formal security service monitoring of the threat. 

North of the border all of these possibilities rely on a ready supply of violent and credulous young men and women and the free rein of terrorist godfathers turned organised crime bosses to convert them. Despite millions being thrown into community peace groups and paramilitary crime taskforces, a quarter of a century on from the Good Friday agreement there are still places where the glamour of violent extremism retains a hold and replenishes ancient hatreds. For as long as terrorism is venerated by political parties and diverting young people away from it is compromised by history, we will have a problem. And it won’t stay put.

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Professor Ian Acheson is Senior Advisor to the Counter Extremism Project.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.