30 January 2015

Op-Ed by Minister Fitzgerald on Ireland's role in the EU fight against terrorism

Ireland isn’t immune to international terrorism - We have to work closely and effectively with all our European partners in dealing with this threat

January 30th 2015

(An edited version of this Op-Ed appeared in today's Irish Independent)

Yesterday's meeting in Riga with my European colleagues on the Justice and Home Affairs Council  took place under the dark shadow of the recent terrorist events in Paris and Brussels.

These events are the latest and the most serious manifestations of the threat posed to European Security by international terrorism.  The phenomenon of individuals travelling to conflict areas in the Middle East and the threat they may pose to national security on their return has been thrown into sharp relief.

The hope generated by the Arab Spring in 2010 has in most cases receded and been replaced with internecine fighting and appalling bloodshed. Nowhere is this more evident than in Syria, where a vacuum caused by a lack of effective governance has been filled by malign forces. Awash with weapons and misguided foreign fighters the environment offers fertile ground for combat training and radicalisation. The chaos has been swiftly exploited by organisations such as the Islamic State (IS) movement, intent on its own particular extremist agenda. 

The rise of Islamic State (IS) has greatly exacerbated the threat posed. A reflection of that is that it is now estimated that 80% of European foreign fighters are aligned with IS. These Europeans, whom, we must recall, are from stable and tolerant democracies, have not been slow to engage in the savagery now synonymous with IS.  The public and depraved murder of innocent people who fall into their hands is testament to this; the shocking attacks in Paris are a product of it.

Under discussion at the meeting in Riga will be crucial issues such as efforts to reduce the supply of illegal firearms throughout Europe; enhancing the sharing and scope of intelligence information; stepping up the detection and screening of travel movements of suspected foreign fighters and the promotion of initiatives aimed at improving cooperation with non EU States affected by this phenomenon.

The availability of high powered firearms remains a serious concern. Many years after the conflicts in the Balkans, that area remains a major source of such weaponry. The EU will continue to contribute to the fight to counter illicit trafficking in firearms  in this region and around the world.

Many of the measures to be discussed at the Council will centre on police cooperation and intelligence sharing. This is vital.  On occasions, the subject of intelligence gathering has proved a controversial one and there has been much comment, some of it sensationalised, about mass surveillance and the threat to personal privacy. I would like to dispel suggestions that there is any form of mass surveillance in place in this State.

However, the unpleasant truth of the matter is that those who would seek to undermine and destroy our democratic societies use all means possible to carry out their objectives. They have not been slow to exploit the opportunities that modern means of communications offer.  It is therefore essential that EU law enforcement and intelligence agencies have the tools to respond to and deal with this threat.

I believe the majority of citizens would accept that there should be a balance between personal privacy and public safety once the measures in place are legal and proportionate. What is at stake here after all is our own safety and that of our families. Of course there has to be a debate as to what is proportional and balanced, but it is a dangerous delusion to think that freedom demands that the privacy of the communications of terrorists plotting attacks must be respected.

The role the internet plays in radicalising people has long been recognised.   Addressing this aspect of the threat requires a multi faceted approach. The challenge is considerable. There is no shortage of radical content online.
While these platforms have revolutionised communications for the good, their negative sides must also be acknowledged.   

The online messages conveyed are often graphic and distorted versions of the truth, not least in terms of how the Islamic faith is portrayed. The availability of a credible online counter-narrative to the extremist message is key to conveying the true nature of Islam; an enlightened and peace loving religion. It is to the great credit of the Islamic community in Ireland that they have embarked on such a project.

In the wider context, the Government will seek to work with all relevant stakeholders to develop further initiatives in the online environment.
That is not to say that legitimate rights to freedom of speech need be compromised. Our democratic values must always be preserved. To do otherwise would simply play into the hands of the extremists.  

While Ireland may not be a primary target for international terrorism and there is no information to suggest a specific threat, we cannot regard ourselves as immune. We have to work closely and effectively with all our European partners in dealing with this threat and that is exactly what will be happening at the Riga meeting.

In doing so as representatives of multi cultural and democratic societies, I have no doubt we will re-affirm that the threat to our way of life does not come from particular religions or communities.  It comes from terrorists, who alone must bear the responsibility for their dreadful deeds.