It’s slow business for global terrorists these days with all the targets banged up under Covid house arrest. But there’s one place in the United Kingdom where it has been pretty much business as usual for violent extremism. Northern Ireland’s police service has just released its security assessment for 2020. This contains some startling information for a place with roughly the same population as Hampshire.
Last year there were 39 shooting incidents and two security related deaths, the same number as in 2019. The number of bombings – which include viable devices defused by the army – actually rose year on year to 17, with 8 happening in Belfast. Imagine this happening in Southampton.
There was better news on what are euphemistically referred to as 'punishment shootings'. These are often by-appointment mutilations where self-appointed community sadists deal with alleged antisocial behaviour with a bullet in the arm, knee or some other hopefully non-lethal bit of you. This, and IRA bombs through the Troubles, has ensured that Northern Ireland has the best trauma surgeons in the world. There’s not much in the way of quality control over loyalist and republican executioners though, so lethal mistakes do regrettably occur. We can also be thankful that this year’s haul didn’t include any maimed children. You look for progress where you can, these days.
It also appears that the various bewildering dissident republican franchises of the IRA show no signs of going bust. There were 79 arrests under terrorism legislation in 2020 and 13 people were subsequently charged. This is, to be fair, a sharp decline on the previous year and ten of those charged were from a single case related to the New IRA. Not to be outdone, the Continuity IRA also saw seven of its members sentenced to a total of 33 years in prison during this reporting period, for a plot that involved targeting prison governors, police officers, obtaining explosives and the training of people in the manufacture of pipe bombs.
They would have liked, no doubt, to make use of the 2,160 rounds of ammunition or the 1.1kg of explosives recovered by the police last year in Northern Ireland – both up on previous years. These people must have thanked their lucky stars they weren’t sentenced in Great Britain. The criminal justice system in Northern Ireland is not renowned for a punitive or deterrent approach to violent extremism, as many frustrated PSNI detectives can attest.
Northern Ireland in many ways is increasingly becoming a semi-detached part of the United Kingdom and these depressing statistics might seem to reinforce the sense of difference and abnormality if the province is compared with the rest of the country. Brexit has undoubtedly accentuated the split, a fact now being exploited by campaigners for an Irish unity poll. The reality, however, is more complex and nuanced. The carnage of the Troubles is now a fading ghost except in the minds of those left suffering without justice. Polls repeatedly show that local people of all political persuasions are far less interested in the relentless and divisive agitation for reunification.
The constitutional question is much less important than jobs, health and the environment. The Irish Taoiseach, Michel Martin has resisted calls from Sinn Fein to ally himself explicitly with the push for a border poll, realising, correctly, that a shared island of two traditions and building interdependence is a far better way to achieve a reconciled island.
This approach should be encouraged by anyone who wishes Northern Ireland and its long-suffering population well. It connects very well to the earlier dismal security statistics. There is no reason why terrorism should exist on the island of Ireland anymore. There’s no mandate for it and it is largely reduced to a few squalid streets where goons who should have been in prison long ago continue to torture communities and commit child abuse by shooting victims or grooming them into the next generation of fanatics. We should be entirely done with indulging such nihilists or trying to buy them off. An all-out, all-Ireland assault on violent extremism is long overdue. Twenty-two years after a peace settlement is too long for security statistics to still exist.