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Fighting ISIS: learning from the Irish experience?

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The attacks on the civilian population in Paris have once again posed the question of how to respond to terrorism and of how to deal with its perpetrators.  The attacks have focused attention on these issues in a way that similar recent attacks in Beirut, Baghdad, Istanbul, Egypt and Yemen have not, thus exposing the fragile and limited basis of global compassion.  We do not know the names of the people who were killed in the other cities, largely because the Western press does not, generally speaking, name people killed other than in attacks in Europe and the United States.

Terrorist attacks in November in Paris or Beirut – spot the difference

Inside BataclanThere is also the predictable and by now almost inevitable arc to media coverage. It begins with the understandable horror at the murderous violence, proceeds to the hunt for the perpetrators and to an examination of possible intelligence failures by the security forces and finally moves to speculate about what the motives of the attackers might be. The problem is that by the time media coverage reaches this point public attention has moved on and this kind of coverage is limited in terms of the media outlets in which it features.  It also largely fails to move much beyond the parameters of crime and criminality. This discussion tends to be led largely by a new species of experts, those in risk analysis or terrorism. They are generally retired police officers or former intelligence operatives, some of whom you might have anticipated would be disqualified as “experts” on the grounds that if they had been doing their jobs properly when they were working the attacks might have been foiled.  Their key theme is the inevitability of further attacks and their solutions are more intelligence gathering, more surveillance and more resources for the security services. Their solutions fall resolutely in the criminal and military frame of reference.

Been here before?

This response raises serious issues for criminologists. Is the prism of crime and criminality necessarily the best guide to understandingArndale bomb, Manchester 2011 and responding to these attacks and to their perpetrators?  It is a debate that has a sense of deja vu to many Irish people and in particular those of us who lived through the 1970s. Then the panic was about the IRA and its bombings of innocent civilians. The concern, most strikingly, was about terrorism on what British commentators referred to as “the mainland”. Brutal sectarian murders in Belfast received little attention compared to the bombings in Guildford and Birmingham. 

State Violence

The official policy was – as it is now - three pronged. Use the might of the security state against terrorists, isolate them politically through appealing to “moderate elements”, and undermine their ideological basis through preventing the radicalisation of vulnerable young people. In Northern Ireland the might of the state was unleashed through the introduction of internment, the policy of extra judicial killings through a shoot-to-kill policy, the torturing of suspects, the jailing of innocent people for crimes they did not commit, and state collusion in sectarian killings through collaboration with extremist protestant organizations.

The Myth of the Moderate Middle

The notion that there was a moderate centre that could be mobilised against the IRA proved a chimera.  Whatever chance it had of emerging and gaining traction was constantly undermined by the activities of the security forces and by the actions of the British government, mainly that of Margret Thatcher.  We can see this in the speed and consistency with which “moderate’ nationalist parties were deserted by the electorate in Northern Ireland and they moved on to less “moderate” parties culminating most strikingly in the demise of the SDLP and the replacement of John Hume as an iconic figure by Gerry Adams and by Sinn Fein as the main representatives of nationalists and republicans in Northern Ireland. 

Blighted Cultural Heritage?

The radicalisation that was alleged to take place in the schools and other locations of cultural transmission was in this case focused on Irish history. There had to be something wrong with the history that was being taught so people like liberal intellectual Conor Cruise O’Brien, in an early outbreak of what was later to become revisionist history, began to argue that the republican tradition that had gained cultural pre-eminence in the new state was one that was rooted in the glorification of violence.  This tradition lives on with people like John Bruton who argues that the violence didn’t work and, like the 1916 rebellion, was unnecessary in the fight for Irish freedom. The British were apparently going to give us Home Rule anyway. The fact that this would have meant a major departure from the pattern in colonial situations didn’t seem to be a relevant issue. 

Equally at issue in Ireland was the notion popularised, allegedly, by Patrick Pearse of the need for a blood sacrifice to win freedom. Dying for Ireland was a good thing. This was applied to the IRA even though they were more interested in killing for Ireland than dying for it. This was tied into Catholic and Irish religious notions of redemption and an apocalyptic version of history. But to see it as a distinctive characteristic of Irish republicans and so as something that needed to be combatted by the teaching of “better” history may have made for good rhetoric but it makes for bad history. The notion of blood sacrifice was all the rage in Europe of the time and was a guiding idea in World War One, though it is one on which recent celebrations of that war have been noticeably quiet. It was also a notion that the more privileged officer class were to promote and to which young working class men were expected to subscribe. They didn’t. Most of the young Irish men joined the war for economic reasons and tried to hold on to their blood rather than shed it.

From Northern Ireland to ISIS

Women grieving in Beirut 2015The same set of concerns animate discussion about ISIS. Their fighters are supposed to be beyond the sphere of rational debate. They are supposed to be committed to and indoctrinated by an extreme and wrongheaded version of Islam, one that wants no truck with western secularism. The problem here is that interviews with captured ISIS fighters show this is not the case. Most of them are significantly ignorant about key aspects of their movements ideology, such as Islam, Sharia Law and Jihad. What motivates them has little to do with extreme beliefs but to the disruption of their lives, their families and their communities by being caught up in what seem to be endless wars. They want some relief from the insecure and undignified lives that war and almost a decade or more of relentless bombing has forced on them. Setting up a secure state in which they can live secure lives is what they want*

Perhaps the key point about the three-pronged approach to the IRA is that it failed.  They became more militarily sophisticated, more secure in Catholic communities and able to survive the ideological onslaught from the establishment in the Republic. There is little evidence to suggest that the situation with ISIS will be any different.  Military strikes and drone attacks almost inevitably kill more civilians than combatants and are the most effective recruiting sergeants that the movement has. Equally the propaganda that such attacks provide for ISIS is sufficient to inspire a small segment of the huge diaspora of Muslims in Europe into further terrorist actions. A policy of criminalisation simply didn’t work with the IRA and is unlikely to work with ISIS.

And where is criminology in all of this?

So has criminology anything to offer? Not if it remains within its conventional mode and adopts the framework of Western states and western policies. But it does have another tradition to draw from. It is one that is generally neglected by conventional criminology even though its ideas animate concepts like restorative justice. It is peace-making criminology. It recognises the structural forces that produce crime and violence but at the heart of it is the notion of discussion as the one of the means to end human suffering.  Put simply, in the current context we have to talk to ISIS to see what they want and what they will settle for. If the Irish experience is anything to go by, it will be far less than what their official policies would seem to demand. Officials of the British state were talking to the IRA through various backdoors mechanisms from early in the 1970s and it was the commitment of politicians like Thatcher to a policy of criminalisation that prevented these discussions from coming to fruition at a much earlier stage and saving a lot of lives.  Eventually they did and the killing ended. If the Irish experience is anything to go by, we need to talk to ISIS and if the Irish experience is anything to go by, we probably already are.

* See L. Wilson (2015). “What I Discovered From Interviewing Imprisoned ISIS Fighters”, The Nation, 16th October.


Ciaran McCullagh was formerly a lecturer in sociology in University College Cork. He continues to write on crime and on the media.


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