Sunday 25 February 2018

Security should override privacy concerns, says Flanagan

Our Foreign Affairs Minister tells Carol Hunt that Isil terrorists represent the greatest threat to world order today

Today, for the first time ever, a diverse group of our country's Islamic leaders have called for Irish Muslims to come together and march against the ideology and actions of the terrorist group known as Isil.

It's a welcome and brave gesture, one that will, as the organisers hope, "demonstrate collectively that hatred and violence can never be legitimised in the name of Islam". There has been much criticism in the media about the supposed reluctance of Islamic leaders to robustly condemn the actions of Isil and other radical Islamic terrorists groups.

Yet many Islamic leaders worldwide have repeatedly and unambiguously voiced their disgust and horror at the crimes being committed, supposedly in the name of Allah and Islam. Regrettably though, the intolerant ranting of "radicals" - such as Anjem Choudary, the ex-socialist turned Islamic fundamentalist, who gleefully insists that Ireland is a legitimate target for terrorist attacks because of US involvement at Shannon Airport - make for better headlines than concerned clerics sadly denouncing atrocities carried out in their name.

Later today, however, on Dublin's O'Connell Street, the word is that "Muslim leaders will sign a declaration of peace in which Isil will be condemned and the root causes of such radicalisation will be highlighted".

President Michael D Higgins spoke out last week of how the radicalisation of socially isolated young men "turning to extremism as they seek purpose and identity" is fast becoming "one of the most significant global threats".

Does this happen in Ireland? Dr Ali Selim of the Islamic Cultural Centre believes that there is no extremism here and the Irish Council of Immans have said that extremism is not an issue pertinent to Ireland.

However, Dr Shaykh Umar Al-Qadri, Imam at the Al-Mustafa mosque in Blanchardstown, is so concerned about the rise of extremism that he has set up the Irish Muslim Peace and Integration Council with other Imams, promoting tolerance and plurality. And it is this group which has organised today's march. A study late last year found that Ireland has the second highest per capita rate of Muslims going to fight in Syria out of a survey of 25 countries.

A few days ago, after news spread of a suspected Isil terrorist arrested in Dublin, Foreign Affairs Minister Charlie Flanagan described the possible infiltration of Isil terrorists into Ireland as "a matter of great concern". Last week, he also confirmed that there were potential terrorists living in Ireland - but said that "Ireland is very low in terms of a threat".

Is he scaremongering? Making a meal of a problem that doesn't exist? How real is the possibility of Ireland either harbouring Isil terrorists or becoming a target for so-called 'lone wolf' attacks?

Last week, I met Mr Flanagan to discuss the problem of Isil in Ireland and elsewhere. He has been alternately criticised in some quarters for either not taking the problem seriously enough or - as when he talked of the annihilation of Christians in the Middle East - of being "anti-Muslim".

But how big of a threat is Isil to our way of life?

"It represents a huge global threat - a threat to the world order - of huge proportions. In that regard we need to be vigilant. At international level, among the EU foreign ministers, this issue has not been off the agenda."

Does he believe that the threat we face is similar to the war against Nazism?

"Yes. There can be little doubt of Isil's ambitions to export its violence and terror to Europe. We can't be complacent about the need for action to confront these threats," Flanagan continues. "There are a range of actions that we must keep under review such as security responses to deny terrorists the opportunity to attack civilians."

So, what, if anything, are you doing? Flanagan answers: "At international level, my priorities are with EU colleagues and the security and safety of citizens applicable to Ireland - for instance in regard to passenger travel data, an issue where EU countries should agree to share appropriate information about suspects coming either into the EU union or within the union".

But, wouldn't there be issues of privacy involved in that? Flanagan is convinced the need for vigilance overrides any rights to privacy.

"This is currently being debated at the European parliament - and I'm calling on all Irish MEPs to deal with this issue as a matter of urgency. This is a security issue and one which should over-ride any privacy protection concerns that may be applicable."

What about the threat at home, here in Ireland. Is it exaggerated? Surely we need to ensure that Irish Muslims are not treated with the same hostility Irish nationals faced in the UK and elsewhere during the years of IRA terrorism?

Like our Irish Muslim leaders, Mr Flanagan is quick to point out that "the behaviour of a small number of extremists doesn't reflect the views of the majority". But, he does concede that "there are a small number of people here who support extremism and their activities are closely monitored by the gardai".

Some believe that the Muslim community "doesn't tend to integrate into Irish life as well as other immigrant groups". What responsibility does the minister think Irish Muslim leaders have in combating extremism and aiding their communities to integrate well into their adopted country?

He tells me that it is "essential that community leaders play an important role in ensuring that individuals are dissuaded from travelling to conflict areas - we estimate about 40 Irish people have travelled so far."

In regard to preventing radicalisation of people in Ireland he says that "education, communicating with people, offering support, solidarity, inclusivity, good community relations - a good neighbourhood approach helps to assist in the creation of a positive counter narrative to the extremism".

This will become even more important when refugees that we have agreed to accept (mainly from Syria and Eritrea) arrive. Which all sounds well and dandy but what else are we doing?

"An Garda Siochana are keeping the level of threat from international terrorism under continuous review in light of ongoing developments.

"In tandem with that, the gardai operate a community relations programme, engaging with all minority communities in the State, through the Racial Inter-Cultural and Diversity Office."

But what about dialogue? The Archbishop of Canterbury has suggested that religious leaders need to open up informal back channels with Isil - in the same way that religious leaders talked to the IRA when governments and media refused to. This may lead to a type of 'Good Friday Agreement' between Isil and the West.

Flanagan does not agree.

When I ask if negotiating with Isil is a possibility, he is blunt: "I don't think these people are in the business of negotiation."

But if we can't negotiate then what are we left with? This is the question which the EU will need to answer in the not so distant future as Isil spreads its terror closer and closer to our borders.

In the meantime, keep calm but stay vigilant would seem to be the mantra.


Sunday Independent

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