Friday 28 July 2017

Comment: How school teachers, as well as unarmed police, can kick-start fight against terrorism

Newly promoted Assistant Commissioner Pat Leahy
Newly promoted Assistant Commissioner Pat Leahy

Declan Power

School teachers and religious leaders, as well as unarmed police, will become crucial tools in the battle to counter terrorism.

Since the spate of terror attacks throughout Europe, the focus has been largely on a hard-edged law enforcement.

However, best practice in countering terrorism has shown that if you first counter extremism in the community you may avoid suffering the worst excesses of terrorism.

What this means is that teachers, social workers, community activists and religious leaders are as much front-line responders in keeping our community safe as guards, paramedics and soldiers.

Counter-terrorism is a spectrum - we are always focusing at the end of that spectrum in this country.

It's time we focused at the start point of that spectrum, countering the contagion of extremism in the communities at risk.

In this case, it is the Muslim communities we are most concerned with. But countering extremism is something we need to develop a concerted and policy-led approach to throughout our society.

It's worth remembering that the most recent seizure of explosives by gardaí was from allegedly home-grown dissident terrorists. However, while a more immediate threat, we are better configured to handle this, as the recent arrests show.

This is why we now must adopt a 'fusion' approach. This means our Government commencing with a needs-based policy assessment on communities at risk of developing extremist attitudes and behaviour.

A policy and framework must be put in place that allows for training of public servants other than just our gardaí to recognise the seeds of extremism.

A joined-up approach between the Departments of Justice, Education, Social Welfare, the Revenue Commissioners and others, can see a much wider spread of those who deal with the public being able to recognise the early starting points of extremism.

But for this to work, there must be a strategy in place in how to counter extremism once it is recognised. This involves 'breaking the narrative'. This cannot be done without the members of the communities at risk being fully brought into this counter-extremism strategy.

Because we are a small island, with a small population with an even smaller Islamic population, we have a golden opportunity to develop a counter-extremism programme that could be a shining light of best practice to other jurisdictions.

Religious and community leaders, parents and siblings all can have a role to play here and an influence on developing this. This is about giving people a stake in mapping out their own futures and not foisting a cobbled-together security-heavy strategy that has no credibility or buy-in from the community.

Believe me, most Muslims in Ireland want their kids to become doctors and teachers, not bomb makers and jihadis. Irish Muslim citizens deserve to be protected from extremism as much as anyone else.

If what I am saying seems naive or idealistic, then remember we have a template to use that already works.

The headlines last week were dominated by calls for Dublin's Garda Armed Response Unit to be increased. But the real news that will significantly improve our national security is that newly promoted Assistant Commissioner Pat Leahy is to be allowed to roll out his home-grown Small Area Policing Strategy throughout the State.

He invented and honed this new initiative on community policing in Dublin's north-central division where it received a European Best Practice award. But more importantly, it received the endorsement of the local population and their public representatives.

Essentially, every small block and cluster of streets was given a designated garda to constantly patrol this small area and get to know the locals and their needs. The guard didn't just deal with crimes, he or she helped with social matters and intervened for locals when the city council needed reminding to collect the rubbish.

The guards appointed to this small area, however, were not just dealing with minor matters. Though dealing with a relatively small area, the guard was expected to know as much as possible about the people in this neighbourhood.

This ensured the guard was better informed at all levels and that specialist units turned to them for assistance when murders or more serious crimes were committed on their patch.

More importantly, the guard in the small patch built a liaison network with the people, local politicians, teachers and community activists. The information flow upward to the policing management at divisional level allowed for strategic decisions to be made based on timely, accurate and relevant information.

As a result, the people in these areas had a renewed relationship with their garda.

Now Asst Commissioner Leahy (pictured below) plans to map out every street in the State and ensure a guard is empowered to be the sheriff of that area.

By giving the guard more scope and ensuring they build a relationship that has real reach into the community, Leahy is giving more specialised police units a real asset to call on in times of emergency.

It is this kind of unglamorous but necessary relationship-building work among law enforcement, other arms of public service and the community that will contribute most to our long-term national security.

Declan Power is an independent security analyst and writer who has worked abroad on Counter Extremism and Terrorism projects for the European Union

Irish Independent

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