Dr. Tim Wilson trained as an historian specialising in political violence. His interest into this field originated from having been a community worker in both Belfast and London during the 1990s. Over the past 15 years Dr. Wilson has taught at Oxford, St Andrews and Queen’s, Belfast. He has written extensively upon the origins of the Northern Irish conflict research as well as more widely on state terror. His latest book Killing Strangers examines how anti-state violence has evolved in the West since the French Revolution.
In September 2016, Dr. Wilson was appointed Director of the University of St Andrews’s Handa Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence (CSTPV). In 2010, his first book, Frontiers of Violence was nominated for the Whitfield Prize.
Dr. Wilson has established himself as being a dedicated scholar on security studies, having written or contributed to wide range of books and articles. In an exclusive interview for Technical Politics, Nathan Wilson asks what security will look like Post-Brexit for the United Kingdom and what the future holds for Northern Ireland.
The Spectre of Renewed Sectarian Violence
NW: What are the main security challenges facing Northern Ireland post-Brexit?
TW: At heart, the underlying challenge is that Brexit has sharply refocused a harsh and unforgiving spotlight back on the contested identity of the province. Indeed, it’s hard to think of a process that could have been designed better to reinflame the old neuralgic question of whether this territory is, or should be, ‘really’ Irish or British.
So that’s a political question, of course – but one that throughout the 20th century led to periodic bouts of turmoil and bloodshed. In short, there’s a reactivated forcefield of tensions here – and trouble (i.e. actual violence) could emerge from several different points within it. That remains the primary challenge: just as it has always remained, with varying degrees, of intensity since 1921. Which reminds us of a rather significant – and contested – date looming this summer: the 100th anniversary of the foundation of Northern Ireland itself.
The secondary challenge is that the previous mechanisms and institutions that have been built up by the British and Irish governments since the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985 are now going to be strained by the macro-political crisis and general deterioration of relations between London and Dublin. So, it’s an uncertain outlook, to put it mildly.
NW: Do you expect Northern Ireland to see a dramatic increase in terrorism or security threats from sectarian violence or Irish Republican terrorism?
TW: By training, I am a historian. The 19th century philosopher Friedrich Schlegel described the historian as the ‘prophet facing backwards’. In short, we historians don’t do bold prophecy – because we study how often the future does not turn out as planned or expected.
But the historian should have something to say about the future because it is inextricably connected to the past and present. Looking backwards is not going to tell us exactly which security threat is going to kick off next – but, equally, it may be usefully suggestive in highlighting areas of danger and concern. Your question has wisely highlighted two – but we might add in Loyalist militancy as well. Many see 1966 – the 50th anniversary of both the Easter Rising and the Battle of the Somme – as a crucial milestone on the road to the later mayhem of the Troubles. And on that occasion it was the Loyalists who first helped destabilise Northern Ireland. We certainly should not underestimate the intensity of Loyalist anger just now over the erection of a ‘sea border’ by Boris Johnson against all his earlier promises. How can they not see that as a relegation of Northern Ireland to second class status within the United Kingdom? Whether that rage can be weaponised and against which specific targets are open questions. Loyalist organisation seems at a relatively low ebb – but then it does not take many people to kill enough people to scare just about everyone.
As far as one can read the very near-future, the security forces do seem very focused upon the threat from the (so-called) Republican ‘Dissidents’. I say so-called ‘Dissidents’ because ‘ultra traditionalists’ might be a more accurate term. They are persistent, they are dedicated – and have been excited by the possibilities that Brexit might bring (especially when it looked as if tempting targets in the shape of ‘hard’ customs infrastructure might be erected along the land border). But they are also highly divided between different factions. Recent revelations about how effectively an informer, Dennis McFadden, seems to have infiltrated the New IRA over 8 years will have hit their morale hard. There may also be a background feeling in the nationalist community that if the tides of history are running in the direction of a United Ireland anyway, does one need to turn to drive the Brits out? Such nationalist confidence might have a dampening effect on Republican violence – although, by the same token, it is likely to be unsettling to Loyalists.
Renewed sectarian violence lurks in the background as well: a prospect often underestimated by outside commentators. The danger here is that one type of instability can easily breed another.
NW: Is security in Northern Ireland best managed on a local Northern Irish or UK level?
TW: You need both – and the active cooperation and assistance of the Republic of Ireland as well. UK technical know-how and the deep pockets of its taxpayers are invaluable: left to its own devices, Northern Ireland is a rather small place with limited resources. But, equally, you need the huge local knowledge that the police have – of who the key power brokers and players are within specific communities. Blanket approaches don’t work – the policing of the 2012 Flag Protests was not stupid. In general terms, the PSNI let the loyalists riot, took lots of photos: and then rounded them up quietly over the weeks that followed the disturbances being to ebb. The judicial ruling that the police should have been more proactive in arresting ringleaders at the heart of the trouble seemed to me to smack of operational naivete.
NW: Is the UK, as a whole, more secure outside or within the EU as regards terrorism?
TW: Less secure, for sure. Reports in December from the BBC suggested the UK was losing access to the SIS2 European database of criminal activity. Of course, one hopes that high level threat information is still being circulated. But given how often relatively small-scale criminal activity and terrorist threats turn out to be organically linked, any disruption to information sharing has to be bad news. Quite apart from the general decline in trust with governments across the Channel – security professionals may (and I hope will) resist the leaching of mistrust from political elites into their own arenas. But it’s hard to see how they can do so entirely. And the whole fantasy of perfectly controlling borders to keep the terrorists out is delusional. The UK will have to remain an outward-facing economy open to business with the world because structural forces demand it. We can’t just pull up the drawbridge. And in any case the terrorists are our own and amongst us already: they’re often a homegrown phenomenon, at least to some degree.
NW: In the immediate future, what do you think holds the greatest threat to the United Kingdom? And why?
TW: Surely, the answer has to be pandemics. If they could kill a third of the population in the Black Death of 1349, then they could theoretically do so again. Our biology is no different from our ancestors’, after all.
NW: What do you believe the future of terrorism and political violence will look like?
TW: Opposite tendencies, I think. Clearly, technological developments and the ‘internet of things’ breed new attack possibilities. The live-streaming of the Christchurch mosque massacre in real time was a new low back in early 2019.
We’ve also seen the first amateur drone attacks in recent years. We’ll surely see many more. Driverless cars and ships could also be controlled for malevolent purposes. Still, many of these threats may be ‘hybrid’ – that is they will use new technologies but in relatively primitive ways. The drone flying at Gatwick Airport at the end of 2018 was a case in point – not a terrorist attack, mercifully, but an impressive creator of disruption, all the same: over 200,000 passengers were inconvenienced.
At the same time, many attacks have just become more and more primitive – car-ramming and knife attacks being the obvious examples. They also seem to be a little more diffuse – the Reading park stabbings in 2020 are a case in point. That’s a long way from central London where such terrorist attacks are usually staged. The point that seems often overlooked is that in an age of camera phones even primitive attacks can reach an audience that decades ago needed to be much more elaborate to achieve notoriety.
NW: What is one thing that no one is talking about, but you believe needs to be discussed within Security Studies?
TW: I’m afraid my answer there is very predictable indeed. We need more knowledge of history. A British government that was full of educated people who had studied the Irish Question between of 1912-1923 would likely not have been so surprised at how often, and how deeply, Brexit came to revolve around the Irish border and its attendant security concerns after 2016.
History doesn’t always teach self-evident and obvious lessons – but without it, Security Studies is just flying blind. Short-termism rules – or what the leading historian of intelligence, Chris Andrew calls ‘Historical Attention Deficit Disorder’ or HADD, for short. The classic case study is the overreaction of the US government after the shock of 9/11. The Bush regime was convinced that it was facing a threat so unprecedented that history was no use or guide whatsoever. Amnesia was worn as a badge of honour. They had no interest at all in why their predecessors had banned torture, and so on.
By their ahistorical indifference, and by following the overwhelming temptations of the moment, they efficiently created the very monsters they were trying to slay. In October 2001, the US government faced a few hundred Al-Qaeda fighters: most of them in Afghanistan. How many more are there fighting now?
Dr. Wilson’s most recent book, ‘Killing Strangers: How political violence became modern’ (Oxford University Press 2020) explores the state of modern terrorism through the lenses of history and technological development.
It will be very interesting to see how the UK responds to its Post-Brexit dilemmas, and what happens to Northern Ireland, matters that should be of central interest to Security Studies scholars with an academic interest in the country.
Nathan Wilson is a student of philosophy and politics at the University of Stirling, specialising in International Politics and Political Violence within the Asia-Pacific region. He previously studied abroad at Lingnan University in Hong Kong.