Hard Brexit, hard border, hard men

Photo by Kevin Kosi on Pexels.com

Overlooking the Lunch Lounge cafe on Castlereagh Road in Loyalist East Belfast, three gunmen pose with automatic weapons and offer their unwavering support ‘For God and Ulster’. The mural is a reminder of darker days; the Troubles, when Northern Ireland was riven with sectarian hatred.

Amid the talk of no deal and hard borders, does Brexit really have the power to hand Northern Ireland’s future back to the gunmen?

History shows what would likely happen to any fixed infrastructure on the border. “If something looks like a target it will be treated as such,” says a spokesman for the Police Service for Northern Ireland (PSNI). A former Special Branch Officer agrees: “Any infrastructure on the border will be a target, without a shadow of a doubt.”

Rancour and division remain in Northern Ireland. The imperfect peace has left “a disappointing variety of normal” compared to the rest of the UK, in the words of one security expert. Certainly levels of violence are down: in 2018 there were 39 shootings and 17 bombings, both down slightly from the previous year, resulting in 50 casualties and two deaths. But while the allure of paramilitary groups has dimmed, as their capability and calling has reduced, they haven’t gone away you know, and the polarisation of politics means they have a greater audience for their messages. Young hot-heads will always listen to war stories.

Such talk is quickly dismissed by locals in the Lunch Lounge cafe.

“Brexit won’t make any difference to us,” says an octogenarian diner buttering a fruit scone. But not everyone is so sanguine. A lot will depend on whether Unionists perceive a threat to the union, says a security source. If they feel disenfranchised, Loyalist paramilitaries could be encouraged to take to the streets.

Those keen on maintaining, and defending, the link between Northern Ireland and Great Britain work in areas of national infrastructure – such as power generation and transportation – to a much greater degree than those with Nationalist sympathies. Concerted industrial action, albeit short of actual civil disobedience, could still cause headaches in Westminster.

Doug Beattie, a member of the Stormont Assembly for the Ulster Unionist Party, describes himself as an optimistic pessimist. Speaking in Portadown, a town once under the spell of the Loyalist Volunteer Force, he expresses support for the teaching of the Irish language, same-sex marriage and abortion. But his sunny disposition soon darkens.

Pointing out that 56 per cent of people in Northern Ireland voted for Remain in 2016, he fears both the DUP and Sinn Féin see advantages in whipping up tensions. “They’ve both done it before,” he says. The DUP play on the sovereignty issue, he believes, and Sinn Féin, a party historically cool towards the EU, senses another opportunity to push for a united Ireland, so gripes about leaving. They may even orchestrate civil disobedience in border towns such as Newry, Crossmaglen and Londonderry so as to agitate for a referendum, he warns.

“If we exit on a no deal basis then [Sinn Féin’s] call for a border poll will really take off. And it’s difficult to say they can’t have it. And if we do it for Northern Ireland, there’s a chance we may have to do it for Scotland. A no deal Brexit could see the breakup of the union.”

The Falls Road in Republican West Belfast holds a totemic position in the history of Britain’s involvement in the Troubles. Locals are wary of outsiders, and the Sinn Féin offices, still sporting the mural to Republican hero Bobby Sands – proclaiming ‘Our revenge will be the laughter of our children’ – are only accessed after much explanation and the unlocking of doors.

The party says there are only two ways to avoid a hard Brexit on the island of Ireland. First, the north (it does not use the term ‘Northern Ireland’) should be given special status and stay within the EU structures. The second way would be to unite the island after a referendum. Neither are remotely palatable for Unionists.

Sinn Féin’s leader, Mary Lou McDonald, said in a statement to the Telegraph: “Ireland’s people, Ireland’s economy and Ireland’s peace process all need to be protected as we go forward.

“We need to say clearly to the British that if they wish to Brexit then that’s a matter for themselves but any Brexit agreement needs to recognise, understand and protect the people, the economy and the peace process on this island.”

The British government is keen to dampen any speculation of increased security preparation. The PSNI currently grades the threat from Dissident Republicans as ‘severe’ and says the government gave permission for an extra 300 officers to be recruited as a one-off because of the uncertainty around Brexit. Beyond that all the spokesman would say was “it’s a political decision. Everyone’s watching with bated breath”. The army and Northern Ireland Office would not discuss the issue.

However, security insiders suggest that rather than fixed infrastructure or a greater presence by the police or military, the security response to a no deal Brexit is expected to be more subtle. Intelligence-led work by the police, MI5, National Crime Agency and others is likely to increase in intensity, if not visibility. The check points were there to tackle terrorism, says Mr Beattie, “and even then they didn’t work”.

Like the rest of the UK, whichever way Brexit goes there will be people left feeling hard done by in Northern Ireland. The difference is that with the Stormont Assembly suspended for the last two years there are few political mechanisms through which the inevitable issues can be resolved. Border infrastructure in the event of a no deal Brexit is most unlikely, but civil disobedience, with the attendant risk of spiralling into greater violence, is not. Agendas abound, hidden and otherwise, and paramilitaries still lurk. As one security source says: “The devil continues his work in the shadows”.

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Spies like us

20150310-Spy_picThere were many interesting details in the report released by the British Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee on March 5th. Titled Women in the UK Intelligence Community and coinciding with International Women’s Day, it explored issues of diversity in Britain’s three intelligence agencies: SIS (the Secret Intelligence Service, also known as MI6 and focussed on overseas spying), MI5 (the domestic agency) and GCHQ, or Government Communications Headquarters; the cyber snoops. But the primary focus for the report, as the name suggests, is how to attract, promote and retain women.

Much of the attention given to the report, written by Labour MP Hazel Blears, centred on the suggestion that Mumsnet, a parents’ support website, be used as a forum for advertising recruitment opportunities. The Mumsnetters had great fun with this, see here.  But as a bid for diversity the Daily Mail was unimpressed, commenting: ‘Er, is she sure about that? Is Mumsnet not even more insufferably middle-class than Oxbridge these days?’.

Unfortunately, many of the more interesting details were overlooked by the media.  For example, the report states that women made up 36% of applicants and 44% of actual recruits to SIS last year.  I read two things from these statistics: first, proportionally more women passed the SIS selection process than men. Second, given the ideal gender split would, presumably, be 50/50, a 44% recruitment rate equates to 88% of the target figure.  As a frequent user of national rail services, I’d be whooping for joy if every train I took achieved something similar.

One of the biggest criticisms of all three agencies was described as the ‘permafrost of middle management’. The report observed: ‘while the top and bottom of the organisation understand and are committed to diversity, there is a tier at middle management level…that seems to have a very traditional male mentality and outlook’. (Although even this attracted the Daily Mail’s ungracious observation: “Of course! Top jobs always go to greasers and yea-sayers who can sniff the political wind”.)

The intelligence agencies are not the only government departments experiencing permafrost; the British army suffers likewise. Gender equality issues are a regular feature reported to the Chief of the General Staff’s Briefing Team, a rolling outreach programme offering a shortcut to the head of the organisation for the most serious or widespread gripes.  Partly as a response, in 2011 the Army Women’s Network (AWN) was created, immediately attracting some boringly predictable responses questioning the need for such a group in the online discussion forum of ARRSE, the (unofficial) army rumour service website. The AWN will be re-launched this summer.

There are clear differences in culture and role between the intelligence agencies and the army. But can these account for, let alone explain comments (on ARRSE) such as “I hear the first 50 to sign up [to the AWN] will be entered into a draw to win a pony. The runners up will receive some nice flowers and knitting patterns”? Is the military less likely to see as a concern issues traditionally thought of as concerning women only, such as childcare and glass ceilings, because it calls for selfless commitment and is built for extreme violence?

Responsibility for childcare is seen in the report (and anecdotally in the army) as the primary reason for a lack of women in senior leadership positions. (Although it is interesting to note that whereas 23% of FTSE 100 Board Members are women, the figure for Britain’s intelligence agencies’ Board members is 35%.) But is the continuation of the argument that childcare concerns in the workplace are holding women back itself an outdated concept?  Is not childcare a shared endeavour (in most cases) between two people, with the predominant model being a man and a woman? So why is the argument not put forward that men are equally vulnerable to career-damage because of childcare responsibilities?

The ‘Glass-Ceiling Index‘ published this week in The Economist, combining data on higher education, labour-force participation, pay, child-care costs, maternity rights and representation in senior jobs, suggests the Nordic countries are the best places to be a working woman, although data from intelligence agencies were not included. Britain came 22nd.

Je suis inquiet

The attacks in Paris on Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket reignited the debate about freedom of speech and tolerance for the beliefs of others.  One issue that received less attention is how far an open society should surrender freedoms it values highly in the name of security.

An illuminating exchange took place on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on 13th January between presenter Justin Webb and the UK’s Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg.  It showed that even at the highest level of government there is a reluctance to offer the public clear views about how to tackle terrorism in the modern world. Part of being a leader involves clarifying complex issues so that the public can understand better the choices they are asked to make.

Mr Clegg refused to answer whether he thinks some conversations on social media should be inaccessible to the security agencies for ever.  Vacillating on this crucial point and providing opaque explanations elsewhere, he did not engender a strong sense that he understood many in society are confused, worried and seeking leadership.  His reluctance to hold and defend a clear position also implied the government has not debated this issue at length and that confident and considered, albeit conflicting, positions had been taken.

It’s a long post (unedited to provide the overall context) but stick with it; this affects us all. The momentum in the war of ideas currently lies with those that wish us harm.

Justin Webb: Are you happy being in a position of disagreement not just with the Prime Minister but with the head of MI5 as well? The head of MI5 saying recently in his speech his sharpest concern, as he put it, is the gap between the challenging threat and the growing availability of capabilities to address it.

Nick Clegg: So just to be very clear, actually I met the head of MI5 yesterday and I’ve obviously spoken to him and the head of the agencies on numerous occasions.  The problem they’ve identified, which is a very real one and one we are acting on, is how to access data, how to, if necessary, on the back of a warrant from the Foreign Secretary or the Home Secretary, intrude on the communications between people who mean to do us harm, even where those communications originate from overseas or foreign internet service providers or communication service providers. That is the thing that the agencies have identified as being the biggest problem. That, by the way, is why we legislated, with my active support earlier in the summer, emergency or fast-track legislation, to kind of fill that gap because there was a problem that, as they put it, a lot of that communication would go dark if we didn’t have access to that data.

JW: But he’s [Andrew Parker – the head of MI5, the UK’s domestic spying agency] still worried about it going dark, without that, in the future and without necessarily that bill. Now, are you comfortable, or did he say to you that he is comfortable with your position on a lack of activity…

NC: Well let’s be clear. The one component of the various measures that have been floated that I have objected to, the so-called snooper’s charter, would do absolutely nothing to deal with this issue of how we, as a country, have access to data which originates overseas but which might relate to people who want to do us harm, because let’s remember what the snooper’s charter was about, was about storing the social media activity and the web sites visited by every single man, woman and child in this country; by everyone, and, by the way, by millions and millions of people, so that’s huge amounts of data…

JW: But not accessing it without a warrant.

NC: No, no, no, but it was about, exactly, but it doesn’t deal with the issue which we are having to grapple with, which is how, for instance, to make sure that your mobile, tablet or your phone is properly related to an IP address, just like your mobile phone is related to a telephone number, which, by the way, is another thing that we have acted on, in fact we’re legislating on as we speak right now. The point I make is that, you know, sometimes people sort of think if we pass the snooper’s charter everyone will be utterly safe and if you don’t pass it everybody utterly unsafe. It isn’t like that.

JW: But that’s not the point Andrew Parker is making.

NC: You have to make a judgment, don’t you, about the balance between security and liberty and the workability of these proposals.

JW: Can I just get this straight. What you are saying is there should be circumstances where people can have entirely private conversations via social media on the internet, that are inaccessible for ever to the security services. That is what you think is important.

NC: No, this has, this is where the great confusion lies, this has nothing to do with, as your question has implied, this has nothing to do with our right, which, of course, we should retain, as a state we always retain the right to steam open envelopes, to listen to telephone conversations…

JW: But that’s what Andrew Parker is saying he can’t do in the future.

NC: As I’m saying, a snooper’s charter is not the answer to that. The snooper’s charter, let’s be very clear, or what was dubbed the snooper’s charter, was one component among several measures, most of which we have acted on in whole or part, let’s repeat because it’s very important this, because I think it does cross a line in my view, it is not a proportionate response to that particular problem and, by the way, many experts say it’s not a particularly workable proposition either. What it would do is it would say that you, every single person listening to this programme now, every website they visit over the last year, every social media interaction they have will be stored by somebody. That doesn’t deal with the issue of how we make sure that when people mean to do us harm, which was the subject, quite rightly, of what the Prime Minister was talking about yesterday, we could retain the ability…

JW: But are you saying it shouldn’t be stored? That’s the point, isn’t it, that there should be some areas that are properly dark forever?

NC: It’s not about dark. It’s about do I think that scooping up vast amounts of information on millions of people, children, grand mothers, grand parents, elderly people who are doing nothing more offensive than visiting garden centre web sites, do I think that is a sensible use of our resources and our time, and does it address the issue which you, quite rightly, identify, the agency, quite rightly identify, which is as technology mutates, as this globalized industry becomes more and more global, how do we make sure that we continue to have the reach into those dark spaces so that terrorists cannot hide from us.

JW: But are you saying we should be able to or we shouldn’t be able to? I’m not understanding from you whether you accept, which some civil libertarians say, we absolutely should have the ability to communicate with each other in a way that is inaccessible, or, as Andrew Parker and others say, no we shouldn’t.

NC: With respect you’re confusing the right that the state has, always has done and should retain…

JW: No, I’m not talking about a right, I’m talking about the practical possibilities of doing it and what Andrew Parker wants is to be given, he thinks he does have the practical possibilities to do it, he wants to be given the right to do it.

NC: Right, let me explain again. The problem of what Andrew Parker calls things going dark, is because so much of the industry on which we depend for communications, particularly modern communications, aren’t located in this country. They are servers on the other side of the planet. They are internet service providers based in California. And the absolute heart of this issue is how do we, given that we can only have jurisdiction over our own affairs in Great Britain, make sure that we work well with those internet service providers so that they give us access to information where that helps to keep us safe. And we’ve done a number of things as I said, we’re actually legislating right now under the new terrorism bill to do that.

JW: I’m still not clear about whether you accept that people should be able to communicate in total privacy or not, just yes or no, should they be or should they not?

NC: Right, the snooper’s charter was nothing to do with…

JW: No, should they be or should they not? Never mind about the snooper’s charter.

NC: Privacy is a qualified right. If someone wants to do us harm we should be able to break their privacy and go after their communications…if you just let me finish the sentence I’ll explain to you why I think you’ve got this confused. The snooper’s charter wasn’t about intercepting communications it was about storing a record of all your social media activity of every website you’ve visited, and here’s the key thing: of every single individual in this country. Of people who would never dream of doing anyone else any harm, who would never dream of becoming a terrorist or even have anything to do with extremist ideologies. So the question we need to ask ourselves, in a free, open society as we defend our values against the abhorrent attacks we saw in Paris, is where do you draw the line? Look, I’ll give you an example. If you want to we could make ourselves a lot safer in this great city of London by imposing a curfew so no-one can leave the house after 9 o’clock. We don’t do that because that would be offensive to our values as a free and open society…[talked over by JW below}

JW: So, one of those values is that we can have conversations in total privacy?

NC: ..and what I’m saying is you strike the right balance, you take the actions to keep us physically safer through the fast-track legislation that we’re already proceeding with, but at the same time you valiantly defend and you are vigilant about things which might encroach on the basic freedom for people to go about their everyday business, particularly if they’re innocent of any wrong-doing whatsoever.