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'We cannot ignore the threats to our society, we must learn to face them'

Co Down security expert Kingsley Donaldson - brother of Sir Jeffrey - has imagined how the dissident republican threat might manifest itself after Brexit for a new book. He tells Ivan Little why his mission is to focus people's minds

Playwright Sean O'Casey said it 93 years ago. The world, he wrote, "is in a terrible state of chassis". He put the doom-laden words into the mouth of one of his characters to close his 1924 play Juno and the Paycock, which centred on an Irish conflict.

But almost a century on, Captain Jack Boyle's despairing and drunken utterance can spring readily to mind for anyone thinking outside the Irish box as the world teeters from one crisis to another chassis.

Hardly a day goes by, it seems, without a new horror exploding around the globe, or just around the corner, making it easy for people to convince themselves that the world is on the verge of ripping itself apart.

Conflicts in the likes of Syria, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Sudan and Nigeria are comparatively well publicised and tensions in North Korea, China, Russia and Ukraine regularly hit the headlines, but few media outlets have picked up on a raft of rifts in other parts of the world, like those in Venezuela and the Philippines.

Nearer home, terror has come all too regularly to the streets of London, Manchester, Paris, Nice and Berlin, among other places, as suicide bombers, drivers who plough their vehicles into crowds and armed terrorists armed have claimed scores of lives. Add to the mix repeated attacks on cybersecurity, the exodus of refugees, climate change and the uncertainties over Donald Trump's foreign policies and it's little wonder that there's a growing sense of alarm on a worldwide scale.

But now Kingsley Donaldson, a former British soldier and Ministry of Defence strategist from Co Down, has co-authored a new book which he says is a wake-up call to a fast-evolving world over what challenges it may face over the next few years.

His publishers, Hodder & Stoughton, have called 2020: World of War a guide through the maze of global uncertainty, adding that it is a "fascinating look at the future, offering analysis and creative solutions for those who want to understand how decisions today will affect the world tomorrow".

Mr Donaldson, whose brother, Sir Jeffrey, is a DUP politician, was approached by the publishers last year with an idea for the book, which was inspired by a retired Army general's book, World War Three, which was written 40 years ago and looked ahead at what another global conflict might be like at the time.

Mr Donaldson, who is the director of the Causeway Institute for Peace-building and Conflict Resolution International, says: "I told them that I didn't think anyone would write a book based on an old-fashioned war involving one alliance against another alliance.

"Most major commentators don't believe that the next global conflict is going to be like that.

"They asked me if I would take on the project and I said I would.

"But in order to reflect the fact that any global conflict in the next five, or 15, years would have a disparate nature, I said the book would need to be done in a participative way with a wider group of experts and people from across the globe who have experience and interest in a number of the major areas of potential confrontation."

After the collaborative nature of the book was agreed upon, Mr Donaldson and his co-writer, Professor Paul Cornish, set about pulling all the strands together.

Like Mr Donaldson, Professor Cornish is a former soldier and he is regarded as a leading expert on global security.

Mr Donaldson says: "We decided to write about a number of potential scenarios that would illustrate the challenges.

"We didn't want this to be a book for academics. It's a book that is written in a way that is accessible. Our scenarios are there to help people to immerse themselves in the nature of the kind of challenges we will all face."

In the past, especially during the Cold War, the world order was simpler and easier to grasp as people were prepared by their governments for the possibility of a nuclear war and how it might manifest itself.

"At that time, people understood the nature of the enemy, where he came from, what he looked like and what he would be using and how he would behave and we could set our reactions appropriately. We don't have that luxury now," says Mr Donaldson, who insists that people's understanding of what is happening in the world nowadays is poor, even with the advent of the internet and the access to huge amounts of information online.

"And then you have 24-hour news," he says.

"But because of the speed of news coverage it doesn't give a great degree of criticality to any single issue."

Brexit will present immense challenges for the UK, according to Mr Donaldson and one of the scenarios in the book concentrates on what could happen after the exit from the EU and the impact that the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic could have.

Mr Donaldson says: "We look at what might happen if the border isn't dealt with sensibly and sensitively."

The authors project what threat might be posed by dissident republicans if the border question isn't resolved and politics fail.

In the writers' scenario, in a chapter entitled A Disunited Kingdom, the dissidents return to violence, killing police, and a "soft" border proves too difficult to monitor, leading to an increase in smuggling as well as the failure of a new visa system imposed on the UK by the EU.

Mr Donaldson says the scenario is not in the book to scaremonger, adding: "It's there to highlight what could go wrong and it's there to focus people's minds, so that they get things right."

The book also looks at what would happen if Scotland went down the route of independence.

"So, the Irish question is seen more widely in the totality of a UK challenge and not just on its own merits," says Mr Donaldson, who adds that on a more global level he understands why some people regard the world as a terrifying place, though he doesn't share the pessimism and says there's no need for panic.

"It might seem terrifying if you can't make sense of it. In the book we argue that one of the ways to deal with fear is to rationalise it and understand it and then begin to work your way through it," adds Mr Donaldson, but he doesn't foresee a third world war in the immediate future.

"People would naturally expect that to come from Russia, or China. But we don't think it's in either of their strategic interests to trigger a mass confrontation."

However, the book does question the global response to the threats facing virtually part of the world. Mr Donaldson says: "Governments can't just ignore the problems and hope they will go away. We argue that we need to invest a little more in critical analysts and strategists so that there is within government - and also within the military and wider commerce - more understanding and the ability to formulate proper policy as to how to deal with all the issues.

"But I don't believe we will ever see anything that can't be dealt with if we are responsible enough to think, evaluate and analyse and take the appropriate action."

Mr Donaldson says that much of the global terror threat "comes from a very finite number of sources".

And he adds: "We need to focus much more on those sources. At the practical level and at the strategic level, we need to ensure that countries in the Middle East have a clear and coherent policy of how to deal with Muslim extremism within their own population."

But how can so-called 'lone wolf' terrorists who've brought carnage to the likes Manchester and Westminster ever be defeated?

Mr Donaldson says: "All of those people have been radicalised by some experience of the extremist narrative, or some sense of belonging to this higher calling of a particular form of Islamism.

"That narrative needs to be dealt with, as well as dealing at the local level with intelligence-gathering, monitoring people and making sure that the police have the appropriate resources to do that."

Mr Donaldson hopes the book, on which he worked for 18 months, will lead to what he calls a "good, honest and brutal discussion" among the powers-that-be about the nature of the changing global threat and he says governments must look to the future.

"I think there's an imbalance and an over-focus on the day-to-day, 24/7 drumbeat of activity and not enough looking forward," he says.

He cites the shockwaves that swept officialdom after the Brexit vote as an example of a lack of foresight.

"There seemed to be such an assurance in most senior leaders' minds that the UK definitely wouldn't vote for Brexit that I think it was felt folly to undertake the kind of planning and thinking around what we would need to do if it happened.

"Time and resources should have been devoted to the consequences of a Yes vote."

  • 2020: World of War by Paul Cornish and Kingsley Donaldson is published by Hodder & Stoughton, priced £25. Mr Donaldson will be in conversation with Seamus McKee at the Crescent Arts Centre in Belfast tonight at 7.30pm (www.crescentarts.org)

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