Lessons of the past prove the road to lasting peace is a long and rocky one
Published 25/03/2016 | 02:30
Brussels, essentially the capital of the EU, has joined Paris, Ankara and Istanbul as the latest terrorist site. London and Madrid have also been victims in the past. Targeting strategic transport hubs to maximise destruction and civilian casualties is a hallmark of terrorism. Although on this island we have been spared the attention of Isil, we, of all Europeans, have a unique understanding of the barbarity of terrorism from the conflict in Northern Ireland.
To be liberated from that conflict is a constant source of relief. And yet occasionally we see the remnants of it, for example, by the recent killing of prison officer Adrian Ismay when a bomb was placed under his car by republicans
Eighteen years ago, on Good Friday, we as a community, north and south, began a journey of reconciliation and political change which led to peace. It was a rocky road with many false dawns, setbacks and political realignments. Although the final negotiations leading to the political settlement took six months, it was to take nearly 10 years, until 2008, before the political institutions and power-sharing executive was to be stabilised and the IRA arsenal was finally "put beyond use". So to translate the agreement into a real peace was a slow burn and a complex challenge to the security forces north and south.
Ironically, the greatest atrocity happened post-agreement at Omagh in August 1998, when the real IRA detonated a car bomb killing 31 people, including a woman pregnant with twins. After the Good Friday Agreement, security had been relaxed throughout Northern Ireland; a demilitarisation which inevitably exposed citizens to greater risk. Those close to the talks were devastated by guilt.
Had all our work been in vain? Had we, as politicians, been seduced and, in turn, lured people into a false sense of security? It was a horrendous feeling of responsibility, one which I am sure is being felt by European leaders and intelligence agencies post Paris and Brussels. They are facing the reality of hundreds, maybe thousands, of Isil terrorists embedded in Europe; an enemy within, plotting mayhem and death.
The Syrian refugee crisis has complicated the security threat because mass movements of people provide ample cover for terrorists to cross borders into Europe. This is a tragedy for genuine refugees fleeing war and seeking protection in Europe, who then find the EU response diminished by the necessary security and border control measures linked to the terrorist threat. The result is that people, including politicians, are conflating the terrorist threat with the refugee crisis.
Europe and its leaders have been hopelessly divided. Five years after the start of the Syrian conflict and the deaths of over 400,000 people, Europe is struggling to frame a political and diplomatic response to the exodus of millions of refugees.
The situation has exposed deep ideological and moral differences among member states. Far right, anti-immigrant movements and political parties are gaining popular support in countries like France, UK and Germany. Terrorist attacks such as those on Paris and Brussels will heighten tensions even more. Already, the Schengen free travel arrangements are under pressure with moves by individual states to close borders and re-introduce border controls. What is worse, the perpetrators of Paris and Brussels have turned out in the main to be European citizens, homegrown jihadis, radicalised by the ideology of Isil and highly motivated to the cause on their return to Europe.
Since 9/11, we have lived through over a decade of anti-terrorist wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and Libya. The so-called Arab Spring across North African countries has resulted in instability, civil war and the rise of Isil across the whole region. The fledgling peace negotiations on Syria represent a glimmer of hope that diplomacy can overcome the horror and futility of war.
The French and US presidents this week have stressed the imperative of international unity but to date there has been little evidence of this.
Individual EU countries are divided on the way forward for collective action on refugee reception and distribution. The UK is poised to leave the European Union following a referendum which is too close to call and will not be helped by the Brussels attacks and worsening security threat.
The defence spokesperson for Ukip was quick out of the traps an hour after the Brussels attacks to blame the passport-free travel arrangements under Schengen as a contributor.
The truth is that Europe and, in particular Belgium, has been unable to neutralise the threat posed by jihadis embedded in European societies, who have protective networks and the technology to carry out terrorist attacks.
Europe must adapt to frame a commensurate response. Declarations about our liberal values of freedom and an open society will not save lives. The first duty of democratically elected governments is to protect their own citizens from harm. All of us will have to accept more curtailment of our traditional freedoms to counter this common enemy.
For a start, a Europe-wide clampdown on returning jihadi combatants from Syria and elsewhere should be introduced.
Any EU citizen who travels to fight for Isil should have their passports cancelled and either b e denied re-entry or placed in detention. Anything less is reckless. Serious penalties should apply for such extra-jurisdictional military activities.
What has emerged in Belgium is a seemingly official complacency about the dangers posed by a community of radical jihadis, numbering 440 at the last count, living freely in Molenbeek, Brussels. There has been a failure of cooperation and integration of intelligence. Innocent EU citizens have paid the price for this incompetence. If there is one lesson from Paris and Brussels this is it and it must change.
Against this backdrop of terrorism, on this weekend of commemoration of the 1916 Rising, one cannot avoid qualms that official Ireland, despite good intentions, may be bestowing retrospective legitimacy on the IRA campaign of violence.
Without wishing to rain on anyone's parade, could we have over-reached, to the point of undue glorification of republican violence and blood sacrifice in Ireland, which tragically cost thousands of innocent lives?