Why a stagnating Stormont is allowing dangerous extremist ideologies to fester
Social media will be a fertile breeding ground for sectarianism as long as the Assembly remains shuttered, writes cyber-security expert David Ibsen
For 20 years, Northern Ireland has been a model for peace and post-conflict reconciliation. As of last weekend, it has, however, collected a more dubious distinction: Northern Ireland has technically achieved the world record for the number of consecutive days a country has existed in peacetime without a functioning government, eclipsing Belgium, which went government-less for 589 days back in 2010 and 2011.
One key difference from the Belgian situation is that Northern Ireland is part of the wider UK political framework, so, strictly-speaking, it has a government. The local political class can be relieved they will dodge a Guinness World Record for political ineptitude on a technicality.
Nonetheless, this political vacuum in Northern Ireland is inexorably being filled by a resurgence of extreme voices, as agitators seek to take advantage of Stormont's empty benches. This is translating into a growth in street-level violence, civil unrest and paramilitary influence.
Today, rabble-rousers in Northern Ireland have an array of modern tools with which they can spread their extremist ideology. Research by the Counter Extremism Project (CEP) has revealed that, in the online world, the spread of violent, hate-driven ideology happens relentlessly and around the clock and that tech companies are unwilling to meaningfully address the problem without pressure from government and law enforcement agencies.
Our worry is that not enough attention is being paid in Northern Ireland to the peculiarities of sectarian extremism on social media platforms, forums and other online spaces.
There is greater potential for extremist ideology to spread online between strangers, rather than through geographically bound communities. This issue, however, has been left completely unexplored in the Northern Ireland context.
A persistent lack of governmental legitimacy not only makes extremism more likely, but also makes the task of effectively countering it online more urgent and harder to achieve. The online recruiting ground today is more fertile for extremist points of view than at any time since the Troubles.
Both nationalist and unionist communities in Northern Ireland have been subjected to persistent economic hardship over many decades, fuelling sentiments of disenfranchisement.
Dissatisfaction is amplified by the current power and legitimacy vacuum and extremism is left to thrive.
In nationalist areas that never signed on to the long-term survival of Northern Ireland, opportunists are riding on a long-held sense of injustice that has been exacerbated by the Brexit vote.
The nationalist community voted 88% for Remain, yet they are being taken out of the European Union. Tensions are expected to hit boiling point in the likely scenario of border checks being imposed after March 2019.
The dismissive attitude of Brexit-supporting politicians in Britain exacerbates nationalist frustrations and threatens to reignite the violent activism of the past.
In loyalist communities, the new brand of online extremism has been characterised by an emerging far-Right ideology. This has more closely mimicked the extremism that is being seen throughout the UK.
Generation Identity, for instance, has held a protest roughly every two months in Belfast since last August and has been growing its online following in the region.
Far-Right activists in eastern Europe have been targeting British social media, promoting groups like Britain First, who caused a stir with their Belfast rally last year that led to the arrest of two of their leaders.
This new form of far-Right extremism and its attendant tactics of online advocacy supported by international co-ordination risks exacerbating tensions between all communities in Northern Ireland and bringing back the type of tension and violence that was all-too-common in the past.
Community-rooted violent organisations and international extremist groups like Generation Identity share a focus on spreading their message and encouraging young people to share their world views through social media.
It is possible to track the spread of extremist content online. CEP used its own proprietary hashing technology, eGLYPH, and an online web crawler to monitor YouTube for the uploading of illegal content.
In just a three-month period, focusing on Islamist extremism, last year, the tool detected 1,348 video uploads by Isis and sympathisers, which garnered 163,391 views. Some 91% of these Isis videos were uploaded more than once.
The question is: are the security authorities really keeping up with more sophisticated methods employed by online extremists?
Are they prepared for the next generation of technologies and what they make possible?
The growing trend shows that extremist groups are becoming a lot more direct in their mission and stated intent.
Internet providers and platforms not only need to be on guard for such content appearing on their sites, but also must be mindful that online social networks allow extremists to engage individuals with little effort, or mobilisation.
Thus far, the Independent Reporting Commission (IRC), set up under the Fresh Start Agreement, have shown no sign of tackling online extremism as part of their work to end paramilitary influence in Northern Ireland.
A good start would be to follow the lead of Westminster and put in place legislation forcing tech companies to remove extremist content specifically aimed at exacerbating tensions in Northern Ireland.
Governments around the world are cracking down on tech companies who see themselves as outside the laws governing behaviour in the "real" world.
Northern Ireland needs to follow suit, to tell these companies that they cannot profit from providing a platform for extremists looking to resurrect the violence of the past.
To do so, however, Northern Ireland's political leaders must put aside their political differences for the sake of their communities and finally form a devolved government.
Without one, Northern Ireland's past could become its future.
David Ibsen is executive director of the Counter Extremism Project, a not-for-profit, international policy organisation formed to combat the growing threat from extremist ideologies. For more details see www.counterextremism.com