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!


Gigabytes my arse.


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.


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.


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!



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






Empty promise?



Richard Kerbaj quotes me in last weekends Sunday Times article:


It’s a good scoop and I’m sure he has impeccable sources which makes the present situation all the more concerning.

Let’s be clear, if we are using extreme custody to deal with a national security threat there needs to be huge emphasis on getting the intelligence right. Intelligence gathering, dissemination and sharing on extremism were all revealed as woefully inadequate in my 2016 government review which identified such squeamishness and passivity at a corporate level in the prison service, I coined the phrase, ‘institutional timidity’ to describe it.

In my original proposal for selection for separation of the most highly subversive extremists, I suggested that this process ought to be judicially supervised. This was in anticipation of the usual hand-wringing that I envisaged if the decision making was devolved to risk averse officials who might lose sight of the imperative to take decisive action to protect the public.

Riskiness is implicit in how we manage ideologically destructive hate preachers. There are no perfect answers, only the least bad ways to manage a small but lethally potent threat – that is, the risk that credulous and suggestible prisoners are radicalised in custody and, so inspired, released to commit acts of terrorism.

The reminders of prison as an incubator of violent extremism are uncomfortably frequent. Only last week Benjamin Herman’s murderous attack in Liege was  widely attributed to his radicalisation in a Belgian prison. Some of the 2015 Charlie Hebdo attackers were reputedly radicalised in prison, as was the assailant in the Brussels Jewish museum atrocity in 2014. The list goes on. If it can happen there, it can certainly happen in our creaking prison system, reeling from an order and control crisis.

The separation of highly subversive extremists must by necessity be shrouded in secrecy. There are also good reasons for the public – including the adherents of these people – to know as little as possible about their removal from mainstream custody. Isolation can quickly neutralise the malign glamour of hate preachers and sever that psychologically vital link between the actor and his audience, allowing the possibility of new and better identities to be forged.

And of course isolation must always be proportionate to the threat and used for the purpose of offering support and interventions to allow the extremist the possibility of recanting toxic beliefs and behaviours. Moreover, who could argue that strong oversight and protections for people in a necessarily extreme form of custody must be exemplary, lest we kill the very ideals we hope to protect. There are lots of sharks in this water. These factors could explain the very gradual and measured build up in numbers that the article draws attention to. Maybe.

But still I wonder at the very low numbers in separation centres, one of which, in HMP Frankland, has been open now for nearly a year. We have a significant and rising number of people in custody for terrorist related offences and still hundreds more who are being monitored after showing signs of radicalisation. We have supposedly much improved multi-agency co-operation between the security service, police and prison intelligence services. The prison service has moved some deckchairs around and – one hopes with some ministerial nudging – done something to alleviate what I found was a lethal combination of corporate arrogance ineptitude and defensiveness in response to the threat posed by radical Islam. This threat is real. We ought to expect assertive and robust action and these units populated by the controlling minds who pose such a threat to security on either side of the prison walls. But the corporate heart of Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service has to be in it for separation to work. And we absolutely can’t have officials more concerned about the human rights of extremists than the staff, other prisoners, communities which might be targeted by them.

I was very aware of the considerable organisational resistance in the Prison Service hierarchy to the separation concept that Michael Gove endorsed. My worry is that this reluctance may have become entrenched given the cover of the ministerial churn that has cursed and undermined the ministry of Justice since as far back as 2010. This could explain the very low numbers. I hope I’m wrong. The new Home Secretary Sajid Javid gave an excellent and thoughtful speech marking the revamp of the UKs counter terrorism CONTEST strategy yesterday. He was clear on tackling violent extremism, ‘It is my first priority every day on this job.’ His department leads the cross-government effort to keep us all safe. We can’t have anybody or any department asleep at the wheel while the stakes remain so high.








Welcome to ‘Nornia’

There’s a mythical place you might have head of, just to the left of Scotland. It’s called ‘Nornia.’ The normal laws of reality and morality don’t seem to work here in this pretty multiverse of gunsmoke and mirrors.

Nornia’s recent rulers, bound together in a circular firing squad all lie dead, having killed each other simultaneously in a row over central heating. In their place, a white witch now reigns over a land of frozen grief promising only that in Nornia, for victims, it is always Winter and never Christmas.

So far, so CS Lewis. Lewis was born in Belfast and based his spellbinding chronicle series on the nearby Mourne mountains where he spent idyllic summers. The landscape moved and inspired him, ‘it made me feel that at any moment a giant might raise its head over the next ridge.’

This feels like a decent metaphor for what remains of the Northern Ireland peace process – toiling up endless blind summits towards a normality always just out of reach. On each crest, the same giant unappeasable face – victims.

They haven’t gone away, you know –  those thousands of people put in the ground as a result of our lethal little spasm of sectarian hatred. Those tens of thousands of mothers, fathers, daughters, sons marked forever by paramilitary violence that robbed them of love and peace. It had become almost fashionable to dismiss such people as inconvenient potholes on the road to future peace with justice.

The fault lines were exposed once again recently with the announcement by the local Catholic clergy that it would deny permission for a memorial to those injured in the 1985 Poppy Day massacre in Enniskillen to be erected on property it owns. Those who died in that atrocity happen to all have been Protestant – as that was the IRAs clear intent. It’s ironic that the Cenotaph they were buried in rubble beside contains the names of both Catholic and Protestant soldiers – just boys, really – who fought and died together in two world wars.

The reasons given for refusal, such as they are, range from obscure and surmountable health and safety concerns through traffic worries to a Narnia grade disquiet that the church would be left with the upkeep should the Protestant community somehow lose interest in the monument’s maintenance. Just for scale, we aren’t talking about the Arc de Triomphe here – it’s about the same size as a modest wardrobe.

It’s simply impossible to square these half-baked, nugatory objections with the enormous hurt caused by the bomb and its enduring legacy. The Enniskillen bomb was so barbaric that even the Kremlin condemned it at the time. I won’t speculate on the real reasons for this incomprehensible, wholly unnecessary and painful insult. I know that the Catholic church in Enniskillen has been at the forefront of reconciliation and peace building in the town. They even hosted the Queen in Enniskillen chapel on her historic visit to the town in 2012. It just makes this mean-spirited pronouncement all the more baffling.

The reaction to the outcry from the Protestant community over this behaviour by some republican commentators is rather telling. One dismissed it as ‘deeply sectarian’ and a manifestation of the ‘tyranny of victims.’ In Nornia, paramilitary killers are the victims and their hapless victims, gunned down in the name of Loyalism or Republicanism are their own perpetrators. In Nornia, those who now say they were fighting for ‘civil rights’ deprived countless civilians of their basic right to life without any apparent awareness of this depraved paradox. In Nornia tragedy is hid like a bricked up mine and that’s all right because we can build strong foundations on the bones of ‘tyrants’ with our fingers crossed and our eyes tight shut. In Nornia grief is another country we must never visit and never leave both at the same time. In Nornia, the nettles to be grasped are ten feet tall, blocking out the sun.

One memorial – many truths. We can keep the mine of our collective hurt blocked up or we can pull back those rotten boards and venture inside, in pursuit of ways of being towards each other which are compatible with the loss we have all suffered. I know what Aslan would do.



Separating extremists in prison – half the battle.

My letter in this morning’s Times. Without the sophisticated regime approach we recommended, physical separation alone won’t work.

Sir, Your report is right to point to the alarming threat posed by highly subversive extremists in our prisons (“Jailed extremists spread hate to hundreds of other inmates”, Apr 11). My review of Islamist extremism recommended the creation of these units to separate the most charismatic and unrepentant hate preachers from often highly suggestible captive audiences. Each relies on the other for validation and power. I was also clear to ministers that if the units were merely a security response they would fail. We need a full-spectrum approach to terrorism in jails as in the community. The conditions inside these units, their regimes and interventions offered must, as we said, have at their heart a “humanised” ethos. This is the best way to keep prison staff and society protected from very dangerous ideologues. National security is about much more than locks, bolts and bars. 
Ian Acheson

Leader of the independent government review of Islamist extremism in prisons in 2016

The pain? ‘It’s still there.’


I wrote these poems some years ago, trying to understand and maybe excise some of the grief and pain I carry with me from a childhood blighted by the Troubles. I’m not claiming any great talent but the writing of them certainly helped me come to terms with my feelings. I was put in mind of them again after watching Patrick Kielty’s powerful documentary about the murder of his Dad.

Motes and Planks is hopefully self-explanatory. The Begley in the title of the second poem is Thomas Begley, an IRA terrorist who killed himself and murdered nine innocent people when a bomb he was planting exploded prematurely in Belfast, 1993.

What we have done to each other cannot determine what we become.

Motes and planks

The trouble with badness
In these parts:
There’s just too much of it
To go around.
Bitterness squeezed out,
Around these shapely hills,
But never quite drained away –
The excess pooling, stagnating,
Soaked into your neighbours
Who, fair play to them,
Would never see you stuck
If your 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 damn little changed
Should 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.

Could you ever make room,
Standing round your well of sorrow?
Could you break that circle of mourning?
Brittle with age, but still serviceable,
And admit other foes
Who, maybe, bore the very essence
Of your heartbreak –
But, broken too, repent?
Would anything right get built
On such split ground?
Would anything hopeful stand
On plague dirt sifted
Of definitions, symbols – the clotted matter
That holds our dead closer to heaven
Than those who put them there?
Or must you stay on your bridge of bones,
Forever inviolate with rage,
With no landfall sighted either end.