A journey of a thousand miles begins with a bath.

I’ve wanted to start a blog for quite a while now but have always procrastinated. There’s surely always something better to do than sit poised over a laptop ready to empty the contents of your head online. But welcome anyway, sure it’s only your own time you’re wasting.

I’m a great man for a bath. I know it’s effectively stewing in your own juice but when I was a kid, we didn’t have a shower. Or central heating for that matter. In Winter, the warmest place was often in the bath. Where we didn’t keep coal – it’s not that sort of a blog. I have a great affection for immersion – if I do great thinking at all, it gets done under the suds.

So it came to me recently during a good soak that I ought to be saying more than 160 characters on the things that I think matter. Twitter is too often like putting your head into a bin liner full of wasps. I need a bit more latitude – even if I’m just talking to myself in the end. So here goes.

The strapline of this blog is ‘notes on and off the Plantation.’ To avoid any unfortunate misunderstanding, this has nothing to do with the deep south – rather the beautiful North of Ireland where I was born and grew up near the border in Fermanagh during the height of the Troubles. My folk have their roots in this ‘heaving country’ courtesy of the Plantation of Ulster in the seventeenth century – the organised colonisation of Ireland by King James 1st. Our turbulent history here on the frayed edges of the Union has shaped my world view to a great extent and I retain a deep interest in and empathy for the border people. I come from the Protestant minority community on the frontier and my outlook is firmly – but certainly not uncritically – Unionist.

Inevitably, I will write a lot about that defining experience in the context of current events but, as my English wife often points out, I have lived more years this side of the ditch than I did in Northern Ireland. I’ve spent a good 20 years in harness in the service of the criminal justice, security, counter terrorism and human rights business in England and I have quite a bit to say about all that as well. And don’t get me started on Jeremy Corbyn.

As I get better at sticking on the various widgets, I’ll invite you to give me some feedback – both village elders and village idiots are welcome – all have their place in the choir. And maybe you can help me decide which tribe is mine!

 

We need to talk about mental illness and violent extremism.

Britain Stabbings

Flower tributes at the entrance to Holt School in Wokingham, England, in memory of teacher James Furlong, a victim of a terror attack in nearby Reading, Monday June 22, 2020. A lone terror suspect remains in custody accused of killing three people and wounding three others in a Reading park on Saturday night. (Steve Parsons/PA via AP)

 

For those of you who can’t or won’t access the Sun Newspaper, here is the text of my op-ed piece in this morning’s edition. 


 

THE violent attack on people relaxing in a Reading park at the weekend has thrown the threat of violent extrem-ism back into the spotlight. The suspect, Libyan Khairi Saadallah, 25, is in custody and it is important we do nothing to deny him the right to a fair trial — the sort of civilised due process denied to victims of terror.
But it’s equally important not to be deterred from asking urgent questions about Saadallah’s alleged contact with the security services before the rampage on Saturday.
We know from acquaintances that this man was a heavy cannabis user. We are also told by associates that he suffers mental health problems. We know he was granted asylum here as a refugee and suffered post-traumatic stress disorder, probably related to his life in war-torn Libya.

We know next to nothing about the circumstances of most asylum seekers in this country, many of whom suffer the kinds of mental illness and social isolation that research has shown can be associated with extremist views and ideas. It is unfortunately not the first time that refugees to this country have enjoyed our shelter and hospitality before facing allegations of violence and destruction.

In 2018, the Parsons Green Tube bomber, teenage Iraqi asylum seeker Ahmed Hassan, was jailed for 34 years when a home-made device partially went off, injuring 51 people.
His foster parents and a tutor had repeatedly signalled concerns about his mental deterioration in the months leading up to his attack, yet the authorities failed to act.

The relationship between mental illness and violent extremism is fraught with problems that sometimes prevent us from taking action. There is a suspicion that the label “mental illness” is used by some countries to obscure uncomfortable truths about the ideological origins of terrorists. This is most often the charge levelled at European countries in the case of Islamist extremism.
Conversely, mental health campaigners will object with justification to the association, as the vast majority of people with mental health problems are no risk to others.
If they pose a risk, it is to themselves. I think we miss an opportunity here to be more straightforward about cause and effect. We might want to believe people capable of the most heinous and indiscriminate violence, meted out to innocent people sitting on a train, in a park, at an awards ceremony or enjoying a concert are by any civilised estimation insane.

In many cases, however, perpetrators believe they are acting rationally, in pursuit of legitimate aims or beliefs. In other cases, mental disorder has a role in making people susceptible to hateful ideas then murderous action. The research is contested but a study found lone-actor terrorists were more than 13 times more likely to be suffering mental illness. Mental illness can play a significant role in extremist offending.

It seems obvious we need more studies and more opportunities for our mental health services to play a role in safeguarding our national security. We don’t know whether the Reading suspect was known to mental health services. It remains to be seen if a failure of curiosity and process, as with Ahmed Hassan, will be a feature in this case. We need to join the dots — and quickly.

Justice Secretary Robert Buckland will be all too aware of the failures of process, supervision and risk assessment that led to two appalling Islamist lone-actor attacks at London Bridge and Streatham in the capital either side of Christmas. He has acted swiftly and decisively to stop terrorist prisoners being released early but the bigger challenge remains.

But how do we spot, track and stop the descent of people into violent extremism before they act?  A foolproof system would destroy our civil liberties — the very thing the terrorist wants. But we can and must do better. Otherwise, bright lives such as that of beloved history teacher James Furlong, who was killed at Reading, will continue to be snuffed out by dangerous nihilists hiding in plain sight.

Depraved indifference: George Floyd and the moral challenge to US law enforcement.

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There is no shortage of social media imagery to frame the convulsion of large sections of US society after the death in police custody of George Floyd. Minneapolis burning, the leader of the free world being hustled into the secure basement of a besieged White House, the viral video of three generations of African Americans anguished and despairing of what they see as a never-ending cycle of oppression and rage. Take your pick.

But it all boils down to merely nine minutes of what US prosecutors will surely call, ‘depraved indifference’  to the plight of one black man, restrained in handcuffs, face down in the road, shown by officers crowded around him while he died on video. It comes back to the chillingly blank expression on the face of the officer on grainy phone footage who, it seems clear, crushed his helpless captive’s airway, kneeling on his neck for almost three minutes after he was completely unresponsive. How is it possible this apparent moral degeneration, this wanton disregard, accelerated into some of the biggest race riots in America since the 1960s?

The use of violence by agents of the state is frequently commented upon by people who have neither experienced force nor ever used it. Violence is usually messy, often frightening  and unless spontaneous, is rarely equitable. When using force, those licenced by the state to do so, don’t fight fair. Why would they? Police officers the world over do not consent to be assaulted as a condition of their employment. So they are trained and equipped to use force to quickly and safely subdue any assailant. The legal statute that gives this effect in the state of Minnesota is admirably concise, ‘reasonable force may be used upon or toward the person of another without the other’s consent.’

So was there anything reasonable in the way that George Floyd was treated? Given his horrible fate, the question seems almost absurd, offensive even. But the events leading to his death, pieced together in a detailed reconstruction by the Washington Post, are disconcertingly mundane and unremarkable. His arrest outside a restaurant for allegedly using counterfeit currency to buy food from a restaurant was routine for the policing environment. By routine, I mean responding police officers approaching his car from the rear with their weapons drawn. Police officers were murdered on duty by criminals in the US at the rate of almost one a week in 2019. In the UK, the toll was one officer.

The subsequent events show a quickly restrained suspect refusing to comply with officers to be placed in the back of the police car. By the time George Floyd had lapsed into unconsciousness after pleading for his life, at least four officers surrounded him. Mr Floyd was going nowhere. He was face down on the ground, hands still cuffed at the rear as they had been from the start of his encounter with MPD. I can tell you from actual experience that even the most determined non-compliant suspect will find it impossible to demonstrate any meaningful resistance in that position with that many officers available. By any objective measurement, reason and humanity had left the scene.

Given all these facts, what was going on in the mind of the officer whose actions almost certainly killed Mr Floyd? Of course, we can only speculate while he prepares for the fair trial to which he is entitled. But I think it’s probably lazy – and no part of any defence, we can be sure – to suggest these were the actions of ‘just another racist cop.’ Ken Pennington, a retired police commander from Northern Ireland who lectures internationally on policing and public order, offers the thought that stress, adrenaline and panic may be playing a role here. The officer in question, simply, devastatingly, lost all of the fine motor skills and cognitive reasoning in the heat of the moment and became literally locked, blinded and deafened into an ultimately lethal course of action where dominance is the goal. Could one case of tunnel vision have caused the tsunami of outrage that is now overwhelming large parts of the country in chaos?

Even if this were true, how is it possible that the officers surrounding him took no action to stop their colleague Derek Chauvin’s grossly disproportionate assault on his helpless prisoner?  It’s worth mentioning here that in the UK, police. prison and other warranted officers could not justifiably and would not operationally have used the same degree of force in the same way against a detained person. Indeed, officers are specifically taught the dangers of ‘positional asphyxiation’ in the restraint of violent people. The knee on the neck tactic is specifically outlawed because of the huge risks attached. It’s grimly ironic that the death of Mr Floyd on camera is now likely to become an international object lesson for law enforcement students in how to kill someone while restraining them. The onlooking officers now fired and charged with complicity in Mr Floyd’s death must explain why they stood by in a clearly contained situation, listening to a citizen they are obliged to protect, even when in their custody after breaking the law, calling for his mother and crying repeatedly, ‘I can’t breathe.’ Bystander apathy, that psychological impairment of individuals to offer help to a victim when others are present certainly didn’t apply to the civilians on the street who forcefully pointed out that Mr Floyd was unresponsive during the nearly three minutes Mr Chavin’s knee remained pushed into his neck. It goes without saying that we pay and honour police officers precisely not to be impotent in the face of injustice and that moral imperative must apply to their own colleagues as much as the citizens they are sworn to protect.

None of these nuances matter to large numbers of African Americans and others who have boiled into the streets of cities across the US for six straight days of protest, riot, looting and destruction. But they must be examined carefully by the political elite, if only out of informed self interest. The ship may have been wrecked for a ha’porth of tar. Something as trivial as a failure of police training in de-escalation techniques could very well have resulted in a multi-state rebellion against law and order that will set back race relations for years and polarise a country that is already struggling with the Covid crisis. A teachable moment on positional asphyxia might have meant Mr Floyd still in custody and not in the ground. An officer putting a hand on a colleagues shoulder to get him to ease off after six long minutes when it must have been plain his prisoner wasn’t feigning distress could have snuffed out this latest manifestation of American carnage  In Northern Ireland, an over-reaction by authorities to peaceful civil rights protests was the precursor to thirty years of insurgency and thousands of deaths.

The easy targets are often not the right ones. The police in the US, as in countries around the world is not an intrinsically racist institution apart from society however much it suits the juvenile worldview of Antifa activists gleefully exploiting America’s grief and confusion. It is a product of society. But in Minneapolis, very few officers live in the communities they police. Fewer than average numbers of the force look like the people they interact with on a daily basis. Very real threats posed by the availability of firearms means the tactics and equipment of the police is more shock and awe and less neighbourhood engagement. This has spilled over into the policing of subsequent nationwide protests where counterproductive shows of force and a dearth of authentic community engagement has disfigured the performance of some (but not all) law enforcement response.

The way out of this will be an acknowledgement that a country that produces police officers who, using an example from just last year, parade a black suspect through the streets of a Texan town tethered by a rope to mounted officers needs direct and sustained Federal intervention to fundamentally re-evaluate the relationship between minority communities and law enforcement. To do otherwise risks the radicalisation of a generation of young black men, already at hugely disproportionate risk of incarceration, who see peaceful protest as futile and violent disorder as the currency of change. In the far right online chatrooms, armchair fascists talk about mobilising for a race war. You think this is fanciful? When was the last time you saw a white suspect killed online?

Ian Acheson is a visiting professor at the University of Staffordshire school of law, policing and forensics.

 

Text of my Daily Telegraph piece on HMP Whitemoor terror attack.

I realise that this article is behind the Telegraph’s paywall and many people have asked if I can reproduce it.  Sorry about the formatting weirdness. Here it is:

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On Thursday, the sort of terrorist incident I have been warning of for years came to pass in what should be one of our most secure prisons. A Muslim convert and a convicted Islamist terrorist, wearing fake suicide belts, are alleged to have attacked officers unlocking their cells at HMP Whitemoor. One member of staff was reported to have been repeatedly slashed and stabbed in the face and head. The subsequent heroism displayed by the staff who responded was extraordinary.

It is often said that acts of terrorism – and let’s be clear in advance of any mealy mouthed equivocation, that’s what this is – are in part a conversation with the state. It’s very important to figure out what these jihadists were saying in order to counter future attacks. Prison staff working with terrorists are highly vulnerable targets. This alleged attack looks premeditated, so what was the likely statement and who were the audience?

You can’t knock up a fake suicide belt in five minutes and if you’re already armed, there must have been some point to this particular tactic. Is it a coincidence that a previous resident of HMP Whitemoor, Usman Khan, who is quite likely to have networked with the attackers, also wore a fake suicide vest in his murderous rampage on London Bridge? Was this a symbolic act? Or was it more tactical – to push responding staff back in order to continue the attack to a gruesome and devastating conclusion? Moreover, was this latest incident related to complex internal prison politics or was there any relationship with external geopolitics?

The purpose of terrorism is to terrorise and it’s my view that the Whitemoor attack was designed to protect the power and influence of Islamist extremism in the contested spaces of our high security prisons. While speculation is fraught with difficulty there is good reason to believe that this was a catastrophic failure of intelligence that came seconds from causing the murder of a front-line officer by terrorists.

It ought to be inconceivable in a modern, purpose-built, high security prison for this sort of attack to be planned without staff being aware of it. Whitemoor, which opened in 1992, was designed to house some of the country’s most dangerous offenders. But barely two years later, IRA terrorists escaped over the wall after conditioning staff to such an extent that they were able to smuggle in weapons and dig tunnels unobserved.

Is history repeating itself? We need to know, and we need an urgent, decisive response from the state.

In 2016, when I reported to the government on terrorism in prison and the capability of the prison service to manage it, I interviewed dozens of staff working with terrorists, including those working with Islamist extremists in HMP Whitemoor. The matter-of-factness of those men and women when discussing their vulnerability to being attacked and murdered while on duty was chilling. Many of the 69 recommendations I subsequently made to the Government concerned urgent and specific improvements to the physical and psychological protection of our prison officers, to allow them to have confidence that they would be able to do their jobs effectively.

To this day I have no idea whether and to what extent those recommendations have been adopted and what still needs to be done. But terrified and terrorised prison staff cannot do the profoundly important job we ask of them.

British prison officers work in one of the most hostile environments in Europe, in a system denuded of staff and devoid of visible corporate leadership. From rehabilitating young offenders to guarding extremists, our prison service is staggering under the weight of multiple problems, with the majority rooted in uncontrollable rates of violence. Is it any wonder that the service has such a truly awful record in retaining new recruits? It’s simply not enough for top brass to parrot specious nonsense about “not tolerating violence against hardworking staff” when the reality so clearly defies the rhetoric.

At Whitemoor, the state has been humiliated once again. The default corporate response to such outrages is depressingly familiar: “We must wait for further information.” “It’s too soon to speculate.” “We must not make knee-jerk responses.” “This was a rare and spontaneous incident.”

From where I sit, this simply isn’t good enough. I don’t want to be the person proved right when – God forbid – prison staff are murdered on duty and the rule of law in prisons is irredeemably broken.

This incident is a wake-up call. To paraphrase the IRA’s malign calculus, prison staff have to be lucky every day; the terrorists only have to be lucky once, to cause a devastating and morale-sapping failure of the state to protect its citizens, including those in uniform. I believe this heinous attack was trying in part to send out that very political challenge.

Government has to start paying attention – and acting – to protect staff before our prisons holding terrorists become ungovernable.

Professor Ian Acheson is a former prison governor and a senior advisor to the Counter Extremism Project

Simon Cottee’s article

I don’t know Simon Cottee and as far as I’m aware we’ve never crossed paths. Cottee is a senior lecturer at Kent University who writes widely on IS generation terrorism. He wrote an article relating to Usman Khan that I retweeted last night. The tweet provoked a furious reaction from some criminologists including people like Nick Hardwick and Ben Sharman, both of whom I often disagree with but whose views I respect and pay attention to. In the shady, shady world of crime and punishment it’s good, essential maybe, to engage with people who hold different perspectives. No one has a monopoly on the truth or righeousness in such a subjective discipline.

This short article’s headline – probably not written by the author if the usual conventions were followed – was provocative and in the circumstances of Usman Khan’s homicidal rampage, pretty unsparing. ‘Liberal Professors’ Deadly Delusions About Curing Terrorists.’ Cottee begins by imagining an unlikely counter-cultural satire where ‘well-meaning progressives’ from a University are rewarded for their wokeness and empathy for a convicted Jihadi by him going berserk and killing people at a workshop organised in his name.

Pretty strong stuff and an obvious caricature of the appalling destruction Khan wrought at the ‘Learning Together’ event in Fishmongers Hall where in a grotesque irony he murdered two young people involved in work to help prisoners develop through learning.
Cottee’s central argument is that criminological and educational theory has been captured by a pervasive worldview that has  brought us to the inevitable subversion of well-meaning but woolly and naïve attempts to reform people regarded by their helpers as mere constructs of victimhood and systemic discrimination without personal responsibility for their often outrageous cruelty. He says these theories are silent on the motivations of people who believe that they have theological permission to kill. By implication this do-gooder faction includes the operators of ‘Learning Together’ with their fateful decision to work with a ‘dangerous’ terrorist offender during his detention and after release. I’ve tried to paraphrase here as well as I can.
He concludes by attacking the notion that everybody wants or is capable of redemption especially those animated by Islamist ideological extremism where scripture trumps humanity. Again, this default position is, he says, a faulty article of faith which is accepted by most criminologists the world over without demur. His final paragraph is worth reproducing whole:
‘There is a certain type of liberal leftist, however, for whom the business of striking a balance between the rights of an offender and the common good of security will always be stacked in favour of the offender, so inflamed are they by the principled and purifying passion for defending the rights of the underdog. Satirists might hope to satirize them for this – for their detachment from harsh realities. But on Friday, reality intervened and delivered the harshest of all judgments.’

When I retweeted this – and we shouldn’t need to remind ourselves that a retweet is not an endorsement – I also said:
‘Excoriating critique of a left-liberal axis in control of criminology theory/practice and the discourse on rehabilitation whatever the crime. Trigger warnings abound!’
Given the fact that Saskia Jones and Jack Merritt are yet to be buried, I realise that this was glib and rather crass way to introduce his article and for that I’m sorry. But I’m afraid that’s the limit of my apology.

We need to hear from challenging, awkward and offensive voices across the political spectrum on criminal justice. The Twitter feed for ‘Foreign Policy,’ the website that published the article, has 1.1 million followers. This piece was in their ‘argument’ section, presumably a home for controversial and provocative views. The response to this thinkpiece – conflating many of the tweets back at me – was that it was insulting, inaccurate, superficial, childish, unrecognisable, mocking the dead and in one memorable epithet, ‘a turd.’ I’m putting aside for the moment the 27 people who liked what I said (and by extension the sentiments in the piece) and the 12 people who retweeted it. All of the negative responses have come from people who I know or (with good reason from their output) assume come from the criminology perspective he describes as ‘liberal progressive.’ A central accusation is that Cottee somehow tries to shift the blame for the murder of their two associates to ‘Learning Together.’

I wanted to do Ben, in particular, the courtesy of re-reading the article again (I didn’t blindly RT it the first time though). Unfortunately, Ben now joins me in having people close to him fall victim to terrorism and I completely empathise with his furious response to an article that he perceives misrepresents and mocks their value and traduces the work they were doing. While I empathise, I can’t agree with his position that the article is beyond the pale and I should delete reference to it.

We need to have a serious, uncensored and urgent conversation about the safety, suitability and appropriateness of interventions and programmes including Learning Together for terrorist offenders. Not in six months time and not shut down by sentiment. This is no easily dismissable hit job. Cottee himself references a similar educational programme in his own University and recognises the value of such courses and the benefits for all involved. The chain of decisions and risk assessments that led a very dangerous violent extremist to become a ‘poster boy’ for the organisation must fall under the most forensic scrutiny if for no other reason than to ensure other convicted terrorists are safe to continue working with people like Jack and  Saskia in the various agencies contracted, enabled or otherwise facilitated by HM Prison and Probation Service to have access to them.

Moreover, I have also  been concerned, as Cottee is, with the online preponderance of voices on crime reform that are institutionally and academically on the left or progressive side of the political spectrum. They  certainly predominate the discourse on Twitter. Now that’s easy for me to object to as I’m one of the few voices on the other side of the ideological divide but I still think the concern is valid. I’ve watched uneasily as prison reform charities elide into prisoner advocacy services. Nothing wrong with that of course, but the two are different animals and boundless compassion can sometimes cloud judgement. It also misunderstands public sentiment. I’m very concerned about the ‘closed shop’ character of what I’ll call the commanding heights of the CJ industry in this country (and it is an industry) with senior managers shuttling seamlessly between NGOs, public and private prisons and MoJ and other public sinecures without the diversity necessary for healthy organisations, debate and policy. I share serious doubts about the quality of in-house HMPPS programme development and the tendency of Cambridge University to be seemingly over represented in commissioned research and Prison Service senior management development. I have personal experience of this as a graduate of the Cambridge Criminology course and a subject of its doctrine. (spoiler: I really enjoyed my time there)

So when I come across another academic who captures some of these misgivings, I’m likely to share his thinking. I’ve seen recent examples online of criminologists literally trying to cancel the views of others because they deviate from the cosy consensus Coffee lampoons. That’s not healthy. Everyone who has the interests of prison reform at heart – and I accept there are very different routes to the same destination – should celebrate challenge even in difficult times.

Finally, I can’t see any inconsistency in pointing out that the state, not NGOs is accountable for the risk management of dangerous people on licence and retweeting (remember that’s all I did) a piece that you could infer if you were looking hard to be offended was trying to transfer that risk elsewhere. But it’s inevitable and right that ‘Learning Together’s’ operation is looked at carefully in the weeks and months ahead. This doesn’t imply that everything the charity did is worthless – that’s absurd and patently untrue. It doesn’t invalidate the superb, often unsung work small NGOs do to help people in prison change their lives and stop making victims. I’ve consistently argued for greater funds for precisely this type of work. But it’s not out of bounds, I’m afraid, nor is any other critique of the current culture of venerating rehabilitation in our discourse on prison and prisoners. I will continue to give voice to those awkward views if I think they are useful, interesting or provocative.

In view of the sensitivity of this issue, I’m not going to respond to any more communication on it or specifically mention Learning Together this side of the election. You are free to absolutely disagree with everything I’ve written, my motives, my integrity, whatever – that’s the beauty of Twitter. But I won’t be responding on this. Perhaps a period of silence is something we can all agree on.

Gigabytes my arse.

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It was good to be able to hear about John McDonnell’s great broadband giveaway this morning on the car radio on the school run. If I’d tried to listen at home on my laptop, here on the edge of Dartmoor, the chances are I’d still be in that buffering hell that is the lot of the estimated one million rural broadband users still marooned in the country’s not spots for internet and mobile.

I’d love to be able to tell you that out here in the willy-wags I’ve graduated to copper wire, for God’s sake. I can’t even do that. The nice people from Openreach who I have on speed dial (from a landline only, mobiles don’t apply yet) told me recently that my exchange, a building that pre-dates the Moon shot had only recently started upgrading wires installed after world war two. Because of the shortage of copper then they used aluminium and these wires become very brittle and break over the years, plunging us hayseeds further into pre-modernity with depressing regularity.

So allow your country cousins a wry smile at the competing ideas announced this morning for wiring up Britain. We’ve heard it all before, waiting overnight for one episode of Masterchef to download on iPlayer. The £200m Rural Gigabit Connectivity (RGC) programme – remember that one anyone – announced in 2017 and reheated again last year? Gigabit? Gigabit?? On a very good day I can get 2.5 Mbps download. This at least provides some comic relief when talking to the very cheerful people at my provider, Plusnet, who often can’t believe their own equipment when they record my line speed.

John McDonnell’s idea to nationalise our UK infrastructure business – BT’s sort of, nothing to do with us, Guv, hybrid, Openreach Ltd, the four horsemen of the notspotalypse has been universally derided this morning. But the people doing the sneering in SW1, bathed in Gigs and Gs or whatever can usually get from one end of a Netflix box set to the other in the same geological timescale. I’ve normally no time for the comrade but he’s on the money here when he talks about the need for radical intervention in our cosy comms sector cartel. Openreach and mobile providers have failed abysmally to deliver for those of us stupid enough to live in the British countryside with the apparently insane temerity to try to work from home.

I can’t fault the engineers on the ground. They have been unfailingly helpful in fixing the reliably failing bits of infrastructure that keep us – just – connected to the outside world. But their masters run a rapacious private sector monopoly that is plainly not interested in helping small – read expensive – rural communities have decent connectivity. The closet analogy to splitting infrastructure from delivery is of course the UK railway system, currently being run by other national carriers such as Deutche Bahn who wouldn’t dream of inflicting such mad vandalism on their own countries. Network Rail, in charge of the rails, are at least not a commercial company unlike Openreach. But, as with the provision of the internet, there is the much vaunted illusion of choice. I can select from a plethora of broadband providers from EE to Virgin just like you. The price might differ but the reality for each one of those companies struggling along the heath robinson network to my house is that I can any colour as long as it’s slooooooow.

And don’t start me on mobile phone coverage. It’s still a thing of wonder where I live. Neighbours often observe me running up the very steep hill at the back of my property, normally swearing, desperately waving my mobile phone at the sky. This happens when I ask my bank to pay someone new and they oblige by sending me an SMS message one time passcode in case I’m a Nigerian prince on the make or whatever. But I have zero network coverage where I am so cue the race against time to capture the sodding code and hare back down to my computer to beat the security lock out from Santander. You might be salivating over 5G where you are but out here it’s a minor miracle to receive a text message sent to you in the same week.

All of this utter frustration does have serious consequences for policy makers and rural communities. I’ve heard of several house sales falling through locally because incomers have discovered just how awful our connectivity is. Rural communities depend on new blood to keep them sustainable. Local businesses on Dartmoor have perilously small margins as it is, often depending on seasonal trade that needs marketing and quick response times. Farmers must diversify as farming becomes ever less profitable with the average age of those who work the south west uplands heading towards 60. I’d just like to get through one episode of Better Call Saul without growing a beard. All of these needs require equitable service from a bloated telecoms industry awash with cash and gamed to extract the maximum amount of revenue for the least amount of effort.

And people notice these things. Voters who might just take a punt on a political party that seems serious about the intervention needed to sustain our rural communities and not see them shrivel for lack of decent telecommunications. Of course, there are more serious and pressing issues – crime, housing, hospitals, all of these priorities must be addressed. But the internet is increasingly part of the essential economic and social glue that holds us together here in the UKs own flyover country. Politicians who not only understand this but who also look like they can actually hold Big Comms feet to the fire to deliver will pull in the votes in the next election. I wouldn’t vote for McDonnell’s party if he wired me up personally but that’s another story. He’s surely captured the agenda here today.

I’m very lucky to live in a beautiful place. I can see Peregrine falcons from my office window. Just don’t ask me to send you a picture of one before you retire. Prime Minister, we’re suffering out here in the buffering.

Sinn Fein’s superiority complex.

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Sinn Fein did quite a brave thing back in 2017. It invited Professor Peter Shirlow from Liverpool University, an Ulster Protestant from the Unionist tradition, to address its Ard Fheis, or annual conference.

Shirlow agreed on the basis that his speech was not pre-cleared and delivered what must have been at times some very uncomfortable home truths to the rank and file of Ireland’s republican purists. He asked them to contemplate heresy – whether a party that fetishizes equality was in fact, itself alone, bigoted. He told them straight: ‘to think Unionism is sectarian is inherently sectarian.

The antics of Sinn Fein’s national leader, Mary Lou McDonald, parading behind a banner declaring, ‘England, get out of Ireland’ in the New York St Patrick’s day parade called to mind Shirlow’s blunt warning to the faithful:

‘If your identity is non-negotiable and if it has no failings, then you will believe that you are stigma free…You will remain captured within the prison of your own superiority.’

It’s true, this obnoxious banner has survived various iterations down the years. If you’re looking for historical subtlety (or even grammatical sense) in the mawkish, easily fleeced mentality of ‘Oirish’ America, you’ll be sadly disappointed. Despite Ulster’s Protestants being in the north east of Ireland longer than white people have been in North America, despite the emigrant descendants of that people giving so much to the founding of the modern United States, they have been airbrushed out of the narrative replaced by ignorance and partiality. In the US on the feast day of a Briton who came to Ireland and is one of the few unifying symbols on our contested island, you can have any colour as long as it’s revolutionary green.

The ‘England get out of Ireland’ banner is emblematic of the shallowness of Sinn Fein’s commitment to the constitutional arrangements of the Belfast Agreement. What it actually translates to, as Mary Lou is all too aware, is ‘colonists get out of Ireland.’ You can measure the fury at being caught wrong footed by the scale of the dog-piling by the parties graceless legions of social media warriors otherwise known as ‘Shinnerbots.’  Sinn Fein’s tactical priorities are based on permanently undermining, caricaturing, wrong footing and antagonising a large minority of Irish citizens who don’t think like them.  It’s what they do – helped, it must be said by the clod-hopping stupidity of Loyalist Ultras. They are usually cute enough to stay just the right side of credulity to out manoeuvre their Unionist neighbours . What the banner episode reveals is that when the balaclava slips, the party that justified and still celebrates 40 years of horrific IRA terrorism is still chained to its own bigoted past, unable and unwilling to see nearly one million Irish Protestants – those colonists – as fully rounded people with a valid British identity.

England isn’t in Ireland in any politically meaningful way. Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom and will remain so providing the freely given consent of its population. Britain is in part of Ireland because as uncomfortable as it is to Sinn Fein, they were forced to accept those democratic facts on the ground and give up violence in exchange for being allowed into devolved power.  This was the historic constitutional settlement of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. There are however, plenty of English people in Ireland, north and south of the border. Over 300,000 live in Ireland, bring up children in Ireland, pay taxes in Ireland and contribute hugely to civic society. But all this is casually thrown under the bus when there’s a bit of republican tin rattling to be done stateside, where credulous donors don’t ask inconvenient questions.

None of this would be half as embarrassing for the Shinners if they openly flaunted this bigotry and employed the ‘river to the sea’ rhetoric that too many of their base either side of the Atlantic (to say nothing of the old guard shadow leadership) would still cleave to if push came to shove. But ‘one settler, one bullet’ politics, upgraded to ‘Armalite and ballot box’ is a bit too Bakelite for the snowflake age. So, as Gerry Adams memorably put it, when caught by a journalist in an unguarded moment, equality is now Sinn Fein’s weapon of choice.

‘The point is to actually break these bastards – that’s the point. And what’s going to break them is equality. That’s what’s going to break them – equality….that’s what we need to keep the focus on – that’s the Trojan horse of the entire republican strategy is to reach out to people on the basis of equality.’

The ‘bastards’ to be broken, by the way, are Unionists in Northern Ireland who have been very successfully portrayed by republicans en masse as antediluvian dinosaurs, the Millwall FC of modern politics opposed to everything, composed of homophobic sectarian mouthbreathers. The DUPs fundamentalist fringe have been typecast as ‘any Unionist’ in an act of breathtaking hubris. Mind you, this is the party that with a straight face appointed convicted IRA bomber, Martina Anderson as their first ‘Director of unionist outreach.’

This prejudice isn’t quite naked but all too often now, Sinn Fein is being caught in the headlights of public opinion with its moral superiority round its ankles. You can’t credibly argue for Irish unity built on a prospectus of othering, belittling and excluding anyone who thinks differently. You can’t lecture Unionists on human rights being the political afterbirth of a terrorist organisation that murdered hundreds of its neighbours in cold blood for being the wrong sort of Irish. Or is inclusion just a delusion?

There are good people in Sinn Fein and there are brave people. Irish unity is an intriguing and honourable possibility. But one built on weaponised equality and ethno-national superiority isn’t going to fly anywhere hopeful whatever the plastic Paddies along the Hudson river think. It’s time for those in the party less chained to the past to assert control and accept that promoting an authentic Ireland of equals might require some serious internal housekeeping. Ironically, so long as Sinn Fein remains snared in what Shirlow called the ‘identity trap,’ unable and unwilling to confront its own institutionalised bigotry, they, rather than the DUP, will remain the guarantors of the Union.

In the meantime, Unionists are going nowhere. In every sense.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Search me.

Something has changed at the Ministry of Justice Press office. Maybe the last gaffer finally got that news anchor job in North Korea. Slowly but surely, the new person in charge has tried to move the performance needle from reactive and evasive verbiage to something more akin to a media strategy.

We’ve recently seen a blizzard of multi-platform announcements – everything from the prisons minister reflecting on a shift at Wormwood Scrubs to drone and organised crime task forces.  The methods are modern, the messages are upbeat. Progress on prisons from a cosmically low base  – at least measured in retweets – is now a thing.

Except we still have to be a wee bit cynical about some of these whizzy new announcements. Take this morning’s activity. The MoJ have announced the roll-out of ‘dedicated search teams’ across the country to clamp down on the appalling and rampant drugs problem that renders prisons so violent tat most are unable to fulfil their primary function of rehabilitation.

Now on the face of it, this is surely good news. Anybody who follows me will know that I have repeatedly stated that lofty, high minded ideals for reforming prisons will continue to sink without trace in an environment devoid of authority and safety where it’s often easier to get drugs than a bar of soap. I have probably achieved, ‘mad aunt in the attic’ status for my obsession with the obviousness of this link. So any initiative to break the lucrative high gain/low risk stranglehold of the jail drugs economy has got to be good, yes?

Well yes, but. Here are some inconvenient facts left out of the Secretary of State’s announcement. Dedicated Search Teams aren’t exactly new. In fact they were invented following the escape of IRA prisoners from HMP Whitemoor in 1994 where staff had been so completely intimidated and conditioned by their terrorist charges, searching never inconvenienced their work in digging a tunnel out of a supposedly escape-proof prison. A subsequent escape attempt from HMP Parkhurst prompted a fundamental review of prison security by Sir John Learmont that recommended Dedicated Search Teams be established across the High Security Estate and some Category B prisons. In due course, most prisons established a team of officers, supernumerary to the daily headcount whose job it was to search areas and people at unpredictable times and directed by intelligence. On the landings at Wandsworth where I was Head of Security 100 years ago, this specialist team of officers became known as ‘the burglars.’ They wore distinctive outfits and developed an almost 6th sense over time to find drugs, hooch, weapons and other contraband. The chance of getting, trading, using such items was never eliminated, of course, but it was suppressed to such an extent that safety and purpose could be maintained encouraging prisoners to find other and better ways of doing their bird.

Almost all of this well-established and hard-won security capability was destroyed by one of the greatest acts of organisational vandalism to hit the prison service in 2014. The process of ‘benchmarking,’ designed by officials to meet swingeing Treasury resource cuts resulted in many prisons having their security departments effectively hollowed out. The capability to gather and process intelligence, the skills and capacity to action it on the ground was cut to ribbons. A highly effective specialist task was devolved into ‘business as usual’ to ever fewer staff on the wings whose main business now became getting from one end of the day to the other without being hurt.

Added to this was what MoJ Press spinners used to call the ‘gamechanger’ of the appearance of novel psychoactive substances (NPS). It certainly was a gamechanger in the sense that Government cuts took nearly half the home team off the pitch leaving landings wide open to a burgeoning and sophisticated drugs economy that is now endemic and entrenched fuelling record breaking levels of brutality and despair. It’s going to take a hell of a lot of shifting and blood on the carpet to take back this carelessly lost ground.

So enter ‘100’ specially trained staff coming at some point in the future to cover the remaining prison estate of England and Wales to try to replace the capacity that was deliberately removed four years earlier by HM Prison Service. You could make this up but you’d probably need to be drunk first. I hope the new technology includes a Tardis because otherwise the tyre budget is going to be a shocker. If we subtract the High Security Estate and the private sector who may or may not be included in this initiative, that’s leaves about 100 establishments of all types, the majority being the local and category B local prisons where the drugs/violence nexus is most pronounced. That leaves a hell of a lot of prison establishments where the chances of being busted by the arrival of one of these mobile (?) search teams will be slightly greater than me being taken for High Tea by Beyonce.

Getting to grips with the drugs crisis in prisons means several key things that I just don’t think this ‘strategy’ can deliver. The certainty of detection and the certainty of severe consequences are deterrents that can only be created by suitable and sufficient capability at every prison in this country, which means the restoration of properly resourced security departments and a dedicated search team in each establishment trained and empowered to track down mobiles, weapons, drugs and other threats. Life must be made impossible for the organised crime gangs now operating on either side of the prison walls with impunity using a creative and relentless mix of internal and external pressure including the confiscation of all assets of crime could do much to to offset the costs of these teams.

For some years now the corporate hierarchy of the Prison Service has sneered at the necessity of robust security in prisons, preferring to spend its time virtue signalling specious fads that they must have known couldn’t survive first contact with the disordered prison establishments they have presided over. The profile and status of Security as a professional career within the corporate Prison Service hierarchy until very recently had been in decline since 2003. Many senior post-holders at Prison Service Headquarters with ‘security’ in their title had absolutely no operational experience. There hasn’t been a national security conference for years, probably because those competent professionals left in the business across the prison estate couldn’t fill a church hall.

If we want the squalor, brutality, indolence and despair to be the high water mark of 21st British penal policy, then we can continue to tinker at the edges of this security crisis. Security for staff and prisoners must be restored decisively and quickly. Safety is the foundation of doing everything good in prisons and doing it well.   I don’t doubt for a moment that David Gauke and Rory Stewart understand this. I’m genuinely convinced of their sincerity in tackling the appalling operational, political and fiscal inheritance they’ve been handed. Progress is being made, no doubt. But please, MoJ, let’s not have any more brightly wrapped empty presents like this.

 

 

Spraying for peace? The sequel.

IN DEFENCE OF VIOLENCE

280 characters won’t do justice to any considered reaction to the issue of PAVA incapacitant spray to prison staff. I’ve decided to make a lengthier and, I hope, more measured response to the release of the pilot study findings that have been used by the Ministry of Justice in support of the national roll out of this controversial weapon.

Having read the report, my view hasn’t changed. PAVA, if used correctly and lawfully is a justified defensive response to the wholly exceptional conditions that prevail inside our profoundly disordered prison system.

I am probably one of the few commentators on this issue who has carried both PAVA and the only other defensive weapon issued to most front-line staff, the extendable baton – as a volunteer police officer. Does this fact make my views any more persuasive than the majority I have come across in the Twittersphere? Maybe not. But that experience certainly informs my thinking on the causes and consequences of spontaneous violence as it illuminates the benefits – and the risks – of equipping prison officers with the same tactical options.

I’ve also been rather depressed by a form of confirmation bias on the issue I have observed in people who would otherwise condemn that sort of lazy thinking. This has been apparent in the selective use of a report to confirm to them that PAVA has no observable effect in reducing violence and worse, represents a descent into authoritarianism. The draft report itself bears some responsibility for these easy conclusions, curious formatting aside. Almost every benefit – and there are many reported both by staff and prisoners – has been artfully obscured by a countervailing risk of almost the same value. Senior managers have also weighed in – although the weight we should give to the opinions of this largely discredited cadre of mandarins, many of whom with either nil or very distant operational experience – is questionable. Take this learned contribution:

‘Senior leaders have expressed concern that PAVA is incongruent with our relational management style and rehabilitative aspirations and their impact could be mitigated through the introduction of this tool.’

It’s hard to take any of this corporate worthiness seriously, set against the current prison world of endemic brutality, squalor and broken regimes. One of the reasons ‘rehabilitative aspirations’ remain aspirations is because of rampant, record breaking normalised violence across a prison system these people are accountable for running. ‘Relational management style’ probably means what an officer could do to build rapport with offenders, using the hole in their face, if only there were sufficient numbers of them to create safety, authority and order on the landing and prisoners weren’t off their faces on Spice.

Another factor in the deployment of PAVA that has stricken many commentators is that it might actually hurt. This may be down to a simple misunderstanding about the dynamics of violence seldom encountered, to be fair, in the Senior Common Rooms of academia. In any situation where  force is applied, primarily to defend yourself or others from being attacked, the proportionality of the response is fundamental to safely and legally achieving the aim. This principle isn’t just about curtailing excessive force, however. While you shouldn’t bring a baton to a verbal argument, equally, you don’t bring a water pistol to a knife fight. Unless it’s filled with something that you’re bloody sure will make the assailant drop his blade. Of course PAVA hurts, that’s precisely its purpose – to overcome a threat that can’t be countered by other means and in the case of prison staff to sit in the midst of interpersonal communications, control and restraint and a potentially lethal steel baton with enough kinetic energy potential in its tip to put you in a coma for life or worse. The effects of PAVA are well understood, short-lived and have no long-term adverse physical consequences. It is a deeply unpleasant experience – I’ve had a face full of the similar CS gas – but it is patently not like getting stabbed or strangled or even dying through positional asphyxia brought on by badly applied C&R.

I’ve also noticed that some of my fellow commentators have seized on the reports ‘evidence’ that merely drawing PAVA – far from controlling a situation was in fact making things worse. Yes, that’s true. In nearly 6% of reported incidents across the four pilot sites. Meaning that in 94% of cases it helped to control the violence or if you want to be super-pedantic it had a neutral impact. That’s decent odds when other options have been exhausted (while still leaving you the option to actually deploy it). Ah, but have those options really been exhausted? The report also suggests that there is a concern that equipping staff with PAVA will make them rely on it for conflict resolution sooner than existing force options would otherwise be applied. The evidence from the test sites – not noticeably referred to by those on the other side of the argument – was different. This response from this officer was typical.

“I feel a lot more safe, just because, if you’re on your own and words aren’t working with them, it’s a big lad who could overpower you, it makes you a lot more confident going into a confrontation”

It also exposes some of the criticism of PAVA as being driven more by ideology or sectional interest than an understanding of the prison world as it is. That world is fearful, outnumbered staff working in conditions where aggressive confrontation is the norm – an oppositional culture, fuelled by an absence of authority and firm control, aggravated by indecent conditions and the presence of a drugs economy as buoyant as it is destructive.

Inevitably, those few and often very inexperienced staff are also completely unable to protect the weak and the vulnerable as they are too busy looking after themselves. In my operational experience on the landings, confidence was the currency in what is, was and ever more shall be a predatory environment. We might all wish it different. We might all wish for Unicorns. Confident staff, however, can mitigate much of this malign predation. Confident staff can restore and maintain a culture of safety which is absolutely vital for anything else hopeful to flourish. Confidence works and the overwhelming response of staff in the trials was that carrying PAVA allowed them to feel more in control of their environment. Every little helps.

My takeaway from the conclusion is a different one from those who seem determined that PAVA is always and in all circumstances a bad idea:

We can conclude from this that the implementation of policies which seeks to support officers in addressing violence have a beneficial psychological effect on staff, making them feel more confident. Broadly speaking PAVA is effective as an incapacitant and disabled most prisoners who were sprayed with it’

The PAVA detractors instead seize on the fact that the project ‘was unable to conclusively demonstrate that PAVA had any direct impact on levels of prison violence. Overall violence levels continued to rise across all of the pilot (and comparator) sites during the period, continuing previous trends.’

But PAVA by itself could never achieve this effect and is not intended to do so. That’s far too grandiose an expectation for a smal tin of hurty solvent. It is merely designed to fit into the hole in the officers tactical response options to violence somewhere between talking and a potentially lethal baton strike. The ever-rising rates of assault, self harm and disorder is something we can all agree requires a much more strategic approach. The other initiatives discussed in the report, such as body worn cameras and the case worker initiative, combined with PAVA ought to have an impact on safety over time as part of (but not all of) a full spectrum response to violence reduction. But in the meantime, officers are being assaulted at an unsustainable rate (and consequentially leaving the service at an unsustainable rate) and this presents the Government with a ‘here and now’ problem their own disastrous staff culling policies have largely created.

In order to create a prison system where PAVA spray is unnecessary, we need to take back control of the unsafe, ungoverned spaces that make this addition to the armoury an unfortunate necessity. As I wrote in February this year, “Control in prisons is not – and never has been – maintained by force. Control is the thing that prevents force having to be used much in the first place. As John Podmore, one of the most experienced former prison Governors in the country puts it, ‘if we have to lay hands on, we’ve failed.’ To put it another way, use of force, like PAVA spray is what gets used after a failure of control. Control is formed and held by a complex set of factors that rely primarily on the right number of staff able to do the job with confidence. That job is to operate predictable, purposeful and calm regimes which allow prisoners to be busy tackling their offending behaviour and preparing for release through training, employment and learning.”

Finally, let’s return to confirmation bias. If the cap fits – haven’t I just done what many of the people I’m calling out from the other side of the argument did? I’ve picked out the bits of this unsatisfactory report to fit my case. Maybe. But if anyone cares to read my previous posting on the subject, ‘spraying for peace?’ I hope they might see a more nuanced approach. PAVA is not without risk. Cross contamination, loss of weapon to prisoners, unlawful or disproportionate use, creating a barrier between staff and prisoners, encouraging a more coercive approach to compliance, reducing legitimacy, impact on people under the influence of NPS – I’ve certainly thought about all of these and I think they are valid concerns. But while the study examines them, there is no compelling evidence that any of these detriments have happened to an extent or severity across the pilot sites that would cancel out the very clear benefits. In today’s prison system, every response is risky. But the perils of doing nothing at all to meaningfully and quickly protect the buckling front line are stark and obvious.

@SamuelVimes10 – an operational prison professional with a pithy take on the current corporate culture hit the nail on the head recently when he spoke about senior people ‘shifting their feet uneasily’ when the notion of security, order and control comes up. I see that attitude quite often in the more strident prison commentators who I fear have no real operational understanding of the brute realities of life inside and who often see prison staff (if seen at all) as somewhat two-dimensional bit parts in the theatre of their boundless compassion. Moreover, the vital priorities of safety and security for the upper echelons of the corporate prison service had until very recently been subordinate, almost rendered invisible, by adherence to and association with more ‘fashionable’ virtues. I call this ‘the men’ syndrome. This dereliction has had predictable results – usually resulting in ‘the men’ getting an ever shittier end of the stick in terms of their basic safety and future life chances.  If we are in a place where weaponising officers is seen as necessary, this management failure to pay attention to and deal with rising violence is at least as much to blame as anything else. In the absence of the real game-changer – suitable and sufficient staff to run safe and decent regimes – we owe a duty of care to those left holding the line. We can’t spray our way out of the current predicament but used lawfully and properly,  PAVA just might help prison staff get back on the front foot, where we need them – helping to turn difficult and damaged offenders back into people with potential.

Still not convinced? Let’s leave the last word to offenders in the most violent prison in the pilot study. People who will see the business end this new instrument of state violence (let’s call a spade a spade, please) up close and personal and who can be counted on for a straight answer. They are recorded as saying that when equipped with PAVA, ‘staff are more prioritising of safety, less punitive, and have increased their visibility on the wings over the course of the pilot period, which has raised their [prisoners] feelings of safety.’

My submission to the Northern Ireland Legacy consultation: Motes and Beams.

Motes and Beams

The trouble with badness
In these parts:
There’s just too much of it
To go around.
Bitterness squeezed out,
Around our shapely hills,
But never quite drained away –
The excess pooling, stagnating,

Soaked into the hems                                                                                                                          Of your neighbours lives
Who, fair play to them,
Would never see you stuck
If the Massey broke down,
Or if, misjudging the weather,
You needed the silage in quick

But who:

When push came to shove here, long ago,
Turned a blind eye
(Maybe bruised shut?)
To  the causes and effects
Of townland assassination,
To the covert decisions
On life and death
Your kin were subject to
For merely staying put.

The busy mandate of peace,
Intruding in these parts
Where too much was observed
But too little altered
Would well be cautious –
Traversing sacred ground,
Looking for a hand to shake,
To make things right again.
You’d maybe take it just to square things
With the man upstairs.
But the man next door?
That’s another story.

Come on Arlene!

 

Arlene-Foster-at-the-Ulster-Final

You might have missed an interesting game a week ago today. No not that one! Over in the historic nine counties of the province of Ulster, another game changer happened, almost without notice on this side of the pond.

Arlene Foster, the defacto Deputy Prime Minister of the UK parliament, took herself across our drowsing international frontier to the Irish Republic to sit as an invited guest of the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) at the Ulster senior foorball final. The game was between Fermanagh and Donegal and played in Monaghan– counties straddling the border which define both the intimacy and otherness of our troubled past.

Arlene hails from and still lives in Fermanagh – a place singled out for devastating violence by the IRA on its Protestant inhabitants, both in and out of uniform. The people who tried to murder her father and who caused horror when they blew up a school bus full of children she was on in the 80s almost certainly used the proximity and porosity of the border to carry out their dirty work. During the Troubles, the GAA was a cold house for Protestants. The infamous rule 21 in the constitution of the organisation, repealed in 2001, forbade anyone who served in the British armed forces or police from being a member, an activity so lethally dangerous anyway, it was hardly worth the paper it was written on. For many Protestants in Fermanagh and elsewhere, this cemented the view that the GAA was a sectarian organisation, openly hostile to their identity and heritage. This could be seen and still remains today in the naming of GAA football grounds after convicted IRA terrorists, many of whom played football on the grounds they are venerated in.

Now, add the Sabbath to this inauspicious backdrop. Times are a-changing but in rural pockets of Northern Ireland, where the party she leads still draws heavily for electoral support, Sundays are still too special for politics – even politics by sport. I’m just old enough to remember Sunday playground parks being chained up in staunchly Protestant areas of NI lest the pious childer were contaminated by the earthly delights of a swing. While we might sneer at such bizarre practices now, many of Arlene Foster’s older MPs and assembly members will have been as exercised by the day of her encounter as the thing itself – remember how they held up urgent political negotiations between Conservatives and DUP after last May’s election? And we haven’t even got into the Kremlinology of Foster standing respectfully as the crowd belted out Ireland’s national anthem – Amhrán na bhFiann – The Soldiers Song.

So her visit to the GAA match was lined with the sharp toothed traps of history and religiosity. There were consequently many reasons for her to have politely demurred the invitation but she did not and this in itself has huge significance.

Arlene Foster is frequently caricatured – often cruelly so – by a lazy commentariat on either side of the Irish Sea that enthusiastically propagates the idea she is the living embodiment of all the antediluvian traditions and views that make many of her party elders unattractive and inexplicable. To be fair, many of her critics haven’t endured a large part of their lives where people wanted to murder you and yours for the ‘crime’ of chosing your own your identity. It does things to your head. It’s frequently said that if Foster had different skin colour or ethnicity much of the relentless trolling she receives  – from the allegedly progressive left – would cause outrage. But the DUP aren’t often on the side of progressive politics and this in itself is all the permission needed for an ideological free-fire zone often assisted, it must be said, by the party joining in to shoot itself in both feet on social issues.

But in accepting an invitation to sit as a spectator alongside Michelle O’Neill – Sinn Fein’s leader in the North – Arlene has demonstrated a bravery and single-mindedness which could be the start of something very significant. The GAA has changed – it no longer overtly asserts itself as Irish Nationalism at play. Small but increasing numbers of Protestants now play and participate in Gaelic culture emphasising the duality of our identities on the island. It is not yet fully reformed but there are clear overtures and a determination to take sectarianism off the field of play. This was movingly apparent following the terrorist murder in Omagh in 2011 of PC Ronan Kerr – a gifted Gaelic footballer whose funeral featured a mixed guard of honour formed of his grieving team mates and police colleagues.

Sundays are also changing – the majority of people in Northern Ireland, as in the rest of the island and the UK treat the day very much like any other, with added shopping. Whether for good or ill, it’s certainly a better environment than one blighted by bomb-damaged stores, control zones and military checkpoints. The church still captures the imagination and not always in a good way but the days of blind deference to the Old Testament are dead and buried.

So Arlene Foster’s decision to attend this Sunday match was in many ways a gesture of almost defiant modernity which will probably be lost on those determined to hold her to the socially conservative values that have defined traditional DUP politics. She went to support her own county team, stood for the Irish national anthem and left, I am sure, not one iota less British than when she went in. I’m convinced she understands the demographic writing on the wall for Northern Irish Unionism – either it is more inclusive or it is toast. Strong, confident Unionism is a space where people can speak, act and play across our old dividing lines and then go home happy. She has extended a hand towards the cultures valued and venerated by her southern neighbours and this – witness the warm reception of the crowd to her arrival – was firmly grasped. Selfies with Michelle O’Neill does not a settlement make and there ishuge pressure to get the institutions of government going again. But in Northern Ireland, where the past is always just in front of you, such giant little gestures gladden the heart.

Ian Acheson was born and bred in County Fermanagh at the height of the Troubles