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Belgium terror: Northern Ireland's past proves that dismissing Brussels terrorists as 'sick' will get us nowhere

By Malachi O'Doherty

The first impulse of many on hearing news of the bombs in Brussels was to damn the bombers as 'sick', 'evil', 'twisted'.

That is similar to some of the language used about republican dissidents who killed prison officer Adrian Ismay.

On Nolan Live, Shaun Woodward, a former secretary of state for Northern Ireland described them as 'degenerate' and Paul Givan, a DUP MLA said they were 'subhuman'.

On that same programme I protested against the use of this language.

There are strategic as well as moral reasons why we shouldn't dismiss anyone, however cruel in such a way.

The first is that you are not going to get them to listen to you if you have already decided that they are beneath you, and wouldn't understand your superior compassion and intelligence.

There will be intelligence operatives and others trying to grasp what these people are up to, and none of them will be starting from the premise that they are 'evil' and 'sick'.

They will presume that they have motives, however bizarre, that in different circumstances they would be acting differently.

None of this should surprise anyone here.

One of the ironies pointed to on social media yesterday was that former IRA bomber Martina Anderson was rerouted away from Brussels, as part of the security crackdown, not because she was seen as a threat, but just as part of the general clampdown.

No one in Brussels is afraid of Ms Anderson any more.

And after the bombing of Adrian Ismay, much was made of how the dissidents in prison had smoked cigars to celebrate. But do we really believe that the reformed bombers of the Provisional IRA were much more mannered and restrained?

I have been in bars in Belfast where almost all the customers rose from their seats to cheer at the sound of a bomb going off.

The dissidents of today and the jihadis of IS like the Provos and UDA of the past can be trusted to have a high opinion of themselves too.

In the case of the dissidents, there is a logic, though we may not like it.

They want to preserve the flame of republican armed resistance.

They are not daft enough to think that they can overthrow the state and unite Ireland, but they want to keep the tradition of preparedness alive.

That's what the IRA was doing before the Troubles in the mid-1960s, when they only had a couple of dozen members in Belfast.

Brussels, like Paris in November, has been attacked by a group of jihadis, battle-hardened in Syria. These men have seen a lot of people die and do not have a high expectation of living long themselves.

And they want the West to get a taste of what their war is like, because they think we blithely vote for wars and as blithely stay out of them, never knowing the cost of the decisions we let our politicians take.

A response that says these people are 'subhuman' will be read as extending to thousands, perhaps millions of jihadis and their supporters and apologists.

It rings of a presumption that we are better than they, and they don't believe that.

Which leads to the question: how do we translate insight into their thinking, if we could gain it, into a strategic advantage over them?

The only thing that is going to work is intelligence gathering, and that is closed off in large part because the communities in which these guys live don't hand them over, feel included in our derision. Now where have we seen that before?

The lesson from Northern Ireland's past is that a community which feels estranged from the state will not be easy to penetrate. Therefore the state has to demonstrate to those communities that they are understood.

That starts by presuming they are human, galling and difficult as that might be.

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