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Terrorism expert Ian Acheson on why he fears violent extremism will flourish in our jails

Ian Acheson tells Ivan Little about the reaction to his comments on the Streatham terror attack, why he's resisted invitations to move into politics and that he understands the psychology of what Arlene Foster went through


Ian Acheson

Ian Acheson

Ken McKay/ITV/REX/Shutterstock

The scene of the Enniskillen bomb seconds after the IRA blast

The scene of the Enniskillen bomb seconds after the IRA blast

Ian Acheson

Ian Acheson, the England-based counter-terrorism expert who gave countless interviews to newspapers and broadcasters across the world in the wake of this week's Islamist knife horror in London, can't disguise the emotion in his voice as he talks about another atrocity nearly three decades ago in Enniskillen.

For Ian is from the Co Fermanagh town and his father Mervyn was the first ambulance driver to arrive on the scene of the Remembrance Day bombing in November 1987 and had to dig friends, alive and dead, from the rubble with his bare hands after the no-warning IRA attack.

Ian who's also a poet, journalist, radio presenter, former prison governor and one-time prospective election candidates for the Ulster Unionists and New Labour, knew many of the 11 people killed on that dreadful day and he was so upset by the outrage that he flew home from his studies at Durham University to be with his family and friends.

He was at the Cenotaph shortly afterwards for the re-run of the aborted Remembrance Day ceremony which was attended by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, though he can't remember her presence.

The 51-year-old former Portora Royal School pupil says: "My abiding memory is looking down the street towards the courthouse and seeing an endless sea of flags from the Royal British Legion who had members there from every branch in Britain.

"It was an extremely moving show of solidarity and I am still moved by the fact that so many people seemed to care about us."

Ian went on to help Enniskillen Together, a charity which brought Protestant and Catholic children together in the town and he also led a trip to Romania.

Ian doesn't think his late father was ever the same after the massacre and he adds: "If you were an ambulance driver in Fermanagh in the Seventies and Eighties you would have seen a lot already, but Enniskillen had a devastating effect on him."

In a recent tweet Ian responded to a video of the aftermath of the attack which showed an ambulance after the bombing and he also addressed subsequent widely-reported attempts by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn to blame the bombing on Britain's 'occupation' of Northern Ireland.

In his tweet, Ian said: "If anybody is interested in why I find #Corbyn not only a risk to national security but also an odious fool, my father was driving that ambulance."


The scene of the Enniskillen bomb seconds after the IRA blast

The scene of the Enniskillen bomb seconds after the IRA blast

The scene of the Enniskillen bomb seconds after the IRA blast

Ian who describes himself on his Twitter page as an Irish unionist and 'not that big Ian' has had a remarkably varied career after leaving university, with his experiences of nearly 10 years in the prison service having made him a much sought after commentator on the way Britain's jails are run.

After Sudesh Amman was shot dead by police on Streatham High Road just after he was released from jail, Ian consistently argued on TV and radio that root and branch changes were urgently needed in the handling of Islamist and right-wing inmates by the prison system to protect people from extremists once they were released back into the community.

He told a radio interviewer this week: "I don't think if you were trying to construct an incubator for violent extremism and radicalisation you would do much more than create our current prison conditions where violent and credulous young men searching for excitement and meaning are in close proximity to highly charismatic Islamist and right-wing extremists who want to seduce them into a mindset that explains their grievances to them."

Within minutes of his first broadcast his phone was red hot.

"I had 150 calls that I couldn't even answer on the day," he explains.

"They came from Seattle to Germany and all points in between."

What made his interviews carry more weight than most was the fact that four years ago Ian carried out an independent review of Islamist extremism in prisons and his report found that there were "serious deficiencies in every aspect of the management of terrorist inmates". Only eight of his 69 recommendations were finally accepted.

Some of the Islamist prisoners who are currently in the British prison system represent threats similar to Amman and another freed terrorist, Usman Khan, who was responsible for the London Bridge killings last year, says Ian, whose life could have been so very different from the one he leads today.

After university, a none-too-successful stint in Coutts's bank in England ended with officials "telling me that they weren't even sure I could count".

At one point in the Maze I said I would like to walk down the H-blocks and talk to some prisoners. A senior officer said he would check if that was okay and I assumed he would ring up the control room but he actually went to the prisoners' O/C and asked if it was alright for me to go there

Ian tinkered with journalism for a time. He'd always enjoyed writing and submitted articles to his local newspaper, the Impartial Reporter, before contributing his weekly "sometimes funny" take on politics for BBC Radio Ulster's Across the Line programme, whose producer Mike Edgar later linked up with him to present a documentary.

"That was called the Forgotten Frontier," says Ian. "It was about Castlederg and the terrorist onslaught there, particularly against the unionist community. I think it had the distinction of being the only documentary that was ever censured by the council in Strabane for telling what I considered to be an inconvenient truth."

Ian toyed with the idea of joining the RUC but was talked out of it by relatives who were in the force and instead he applied for and was accepted onto a graduate trainee course with the prison service across the water.

He rose to the rank of governor where he had to cope with a number of serious incidents in jails including hostage negotiations and the threats posed by IRA terrorists behind bars.

Working from service's headquarters, he had an input into an investigation into the armed escape of five IRA men and an armed robber from Whitemoor prison in Cambridgeshire in the early Nineties.

One of the tasks was to establish if anything could be learnt from the experiences of the prison service in Northern Ireland to stop terrorist inmates manipulating staff.

Even though Ian was from the province, what he saw on his visits to the Maze shocked him even more than he ever imagined they could.

He says: "It was extraordinary to see how little control staff had over a terrorist prison. I'd been governor of Wandsworth prison in England where we were totally in charge of 1,600 prisoners.

"At one point in the Maze I said I would like to walk down the H-blocks and talk to some prisoners. A senior officer said he would check if that was okay and I assumed he would ring up the control room but he actually went to the prisoners' O/C and asked if it was alright for me to go there."

Ian's criticisms of the prison service in England and Wales have been scathing. "I've called their approach a mixture of arrogance and ineptitude. They think they can manage the Daesh generation and network of Jihadists the same way they quite badly managed the IRA prisoners in Britain in the Nineties.

"What has been happening today has been foreseeable. And overseeing all that is the instability in general which is not confined to lower category prisons where governors are struggling day to day to manage all those other threats from organised crime to drugs and the violence that's associated with them.

"Then there's overcrowding and insufficient numbers of staff which is creating an environment where violent extremism will flourish."

In the wake of Streatham, the Government has announced it is introducing legislation to end the early release of Islamist prisoners. But Ian is cautious, though he accepts it's right the public should demand substantial sentences for terrorist offenders to reflect the gravity of their crimes.

He says: "We shouldn't react with ill-thought through legislation. It's not about the quantity of years you add to a prisoner's sentence, it's the quality of the interventions and confinement which is much more important. If you don't do anything with these people they are going to come out as bad if not worse than they were when they went in.

"Prisons are ideal places to magnify grievances and alienation to provide networks for people to reinforce beliefs and enable them to descend to the dehumanisation that is required to let the likes of Amman and Khan to do what they did.

"We've got to change the way we manage terrorists in custody. We've got to become much more assertive and that was never the case in Northern Ireland. The Maze was just a great big concrete box to keep people in and nothing was done with the prisoners at all. In fact, there would have been resistance to moves like that.

"But after the Maze escape, what kept people in prison I would say was the certainty that they would be shot dead by the Army if they tried to go over the top again."

On leaving the prison service Ian was appointed director of the international prison charity Prisoners Abroad, supporting British citizens detained overseas.

He later worked for the Government's Youth Justice Board and moved to the Home Office, and in 2016 he was appointed as executive director and chief operating officer for the Equality and Human Rights Commission.

He has now left public service to set up his own business - and though he's been approached to become a politician he has so far resisted.

He says: "I am proud to say that I am an Irish unionist and while I am related to Arlene Foster's husband and I completely disagree with a lot of how the DUP see the world I think I understand her psychology after all that she went through.

"David Trimble once had a surreal conversation with me about me standing in an election in Fermanagh and South Tyrone. He told me I would be a great MP but it never happened.

"I was also about to become a New Labour candidate in an unwinnable seat in the Blairite years but I dropped out after I was told what to say and think about some very important issues including Iraq and fox-hunting."

Ian, who is married with two sons, has had articles published in the Spectator magazine about his experiences of growing up amid the Troubles in Fermanagh - and about Brexit. He has also had poetry published.

He still has relatives in Northern Ireland and has done some advocacy work for the South East Fermanagh Foundation, who campaign on behalf of victims of the Troubles.

"I've been supremely lucky to have avoided the personal trauma that many people endured like the family of Paul Maxwell, the young Enniskillen boy who was killed along with Lord Mountbatten in Mullaghmore," he says. "I used to play with his brother.

"My wife will tell me that I am still slightly changed around the time of the Enniskillen anniversary every year. I don't think of myself as a terribly emotional person but It just brings back those feelings from 1987 after I heard the news in Durham and felt that I had to go home."

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