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Patrick Mercer MP: The counter-terrorism lessons we should learn from Northern Ireland

Patrick_mercer Patrick Mercer has been MP for Newark since 2001 and is a former shadow minister for homeland security. A former army officer, he now chairs the Counter-Terrorism Sub-Committee of the Home Affairs Select Committee and considers the lessons that can be learned from Northern Ireland as we seek to tackle Islamic terrorism.

Under the auspices of the Home Affairs Select Committee, I now chair the Counter-Terrorism Sub-Committee and we have been looking into the government’s counter-terrorism strategy.  This strategy is referred to as Project CONTEST and contains four strands which are largely self-explanatory: Prevent, Prepare, Protect and Pursue.  We will be preparing a report on this strategy and nothing I say here, clearly, must pre-judge this, but there are some overarching comments that I think need to be made.

I spent a lot of my youth trying to counter the efforts of the IRA in Ulster.  A number of governments and the security apparatus made some bad mistakes during that campaign, the experiment of internment being the most disastrous.  But we also got quite a lot of things right and I sometimes wonder why we do not look more carefully at those lessons and see how far we can apply them too the different but parallel problem of countering today’s threat from the terrorist.

First, our liberties are paramount.  If they are circumscribed then our enemies win – and that is why the attempt by this Government to extend the period of detention without charge beyond 28 days was potentially disastrous.  Clearly, a period of detention up to 56 days was not, in reality, internment – but that is what our enemies would have called it and this sort of campaign is all about perception. 

The consequences of getting it wrong in Ulster in the Seventies were:

  • alienation of the very population whom we were trying to reassure;
  • a huge boost to our enemies recruiting efforts; and
  • the drying up of intelligence sources. 

Exactly the same will happen again although the situation and the people involved are different. 

Next, we still have not addressed the problem of complacency. Axiomatically, terrorists use terror – and terror can be inspired by relatively low level activity.  For instance, the ritual execution of Theo Van Gogh in Amsterdam in 2004 sent frissons of horror throughout Dutch society.  All that the terrorist needed was a sharp knife, a video camera and a bit of resolve.  From the enemy’s point of view, a Twin Towers attack was splendid, but the death of one individual in clever and horrifying circumstances is almost as good.

So, whilst our enemies are only occasionally visible, it is easy to forget them and then they can strike whilst our guard is down. We are not good at telling people exactly what the threat is, making sure, for instance, that people are alert to terrorist reconnaissance and tactics and to their M.O. generally.  Certainly, there are a few, desultory poster campaigns and general warnings about not leaving your bags lying around in the Tube; but the enduring lesson of Northern Ireland is that if the terrorist believes that he is constantly being observed by ordinary people, then life becomes considerably more difficult for him to operate.

We need an urgent and vital campaign broadcast on television, radio and through the newspapers in order to make life that much more difficult for those who would damage us.  Clearly, it would have to be carefully balanced in order not to make parts of society feel that they are being victimised, but again, we made this work in Ulster. 

Lastly, I believe that the very considerable successes of our security services should be celebrated. Obviously, when a plot has been foiled and arrests made then many issues remain sub judice, but that aside, allowing people to know how successful they have been reassures the population, deters our enemies and, above all, should allow complacency to be overcome.

Our progress against this new and evolving threat has, I believe, been slow.  Now, though, it seems as if there is a security apparatus at last that will enable us to counter most of the threats that we have to face.  But there is the rub: we can only counter most of the threats, not all of them, and one day soon – just like we have seen in Mumbai and Lahore – it will be our turn.  Much can be done to prevent it and I hope that this Government is ready for the consequences.


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