The views expressed are author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of CSARN.
The vast majority of us from all communities across the UK condemn terrorism and the horror it creates. Moreover, if we suspect that someone is involved in planning an incident we are encouraged to report our suspicions to prevent terrorist atrocities occurring. Again the vast majority of us would do this without hesitation. This information flow from individuals and our many and diverse communities across the country has undoubtedly helped to prevent extremist acts, saving a countless number of lives and life-changing injuries.
But what about extreme protesters and those who advocate 'direct action'? Are we as inclined as a society to condemn extreme protest and to warn others if we suspect direct action is being planned? Direct action attacking our critical infrastructure, either physically or using cyber intrusion, can be as catastrophic as a terrorist attack. For those of us involved with CSARN this may be quite obvious. But is it so obvious to most people and especially to our media? I don't think it is. And as a result the risk of direct action to us all is substantial and growing.
Allow me to give just a handful of many examples. Recently Greenpeace protesters chained themselves to the Leiv Eiriksson Oil drilling platform. Others invaded the Tricastin nuclear power station in France. The protesters describe nuclear power stations as 'dangerous'. But perhaps they fail to understand that invading a nuclear power station's control room is as dangerous, perhaps even more so, than the forceful entry of an aircraft's cockpit. If a nuclear power station's controls are accessed by protesters a catastrophe could well occur. Likewise, chaining one's self to an oil drilling platform creates extreme danger for the workers, the protesters and their rescuers. Such action could also cause an environmental disaster. Here in the UK we have seen direct action targeting coal power stations, such as Drax in Yorkshire and its transport facilities. In 2013 protesters climbed London’s Shard tower, unauthorised, apparently as part of a protest against nearby Shell. This extremely dangerous trespass was greeted with cheers and humour by large sections of the media. Would there have been such a reaction had an emergency services worker been killed in the process of a rescue? Absolutely no thought was made about this possibility. And today we have the situation at Balcombe, Sussex where Cuadrilla has built an exploratory drilling well. Direct action is being threatened and indeed has already been attempted. One of the most serious incidents so far that I am aware of is the alleged tampering of brakes of a service vehicle. This incident alone could have caused death or serious injury to Cuadrilla workers and contractors, the police, or indeed other protestors. And yet how was this alleged act of sabotage reported in the media? Well it was hardly reported at all, and where is was it was reported as little more than a schoolboy prank. Is this the fault of the media? Partly it is. But perhaps we could be doing more in industry and security to communicate the difference between peaceful argument and debate on the one hand and the total unacceptability of extreme protest and direct action on the other.
All citizens have the right to peacefully protest, argue their case, lobby MPs to influence and change the law, and indeed run for public office at the local, national or European levels of governance. But direct action is wholly different. In addition to threatening the lives and wellbeing of many it creates an anti-democratic environment where decisions made by elected politicians become subservient to violence - threatened or real.
The current situation at Balcombe brings this issue into focus. The conclusion of the
Royal Society's world-leading and wholly independent report on shale gas extraction and hydraulic fracturing is very clear: "Shale gas extraction using hydraulic fracturing can be safely undertaken providing best practice techniques are used and providing proper regulation is in place." As someone who originally trained as an environmental physicist I fully concur with this view. Moreover, the UK is the most tightly regulated place it the world for hydraulic fracturing; nowhere has greater levels of inspection or regulation. Of course those who disagree with my humble view or the vastly more eminent Royal Society are fully entitled to do so. They are free to debate, argue against its findings and present other evidence; that's what democracy is about. Indeed Cuadrilla is engaging in debate and consultation with the entire community. But it seems that rather than arguing and debating the science it is the extreme protesters and advocates of direct action that appear to be leading the Balcombe protests.
Those of us engaged in infrastructure resilience need to communicate the substantial life-threatening danger posed by extreme protesters and advocates of direct action. Are we a bit nervous and reluctant to compare an advocate of direct action with a terrorist? I think we are. We should not however be afraid to make this point, providing we make the clear distinction between the absolute right to protest, argue and profoundly disagree on the one hand and advocating direct action on the other. The former is to be welcomed, the latter utterly condemned in the same way as we condemn terrorism. There is no 'grey' area between the two. Indeed the UK was one of the first countries to recognise the sharp difference between vigorous debate and direct action. The red lines of the floor of the House of Commons were placed there precisely to remind us of the clear dividing line between opposition to a policy on the one hand and attempting to change policy using violence on the other.
Sadly this situation will get worse unless the media changes its position and communicates the great similarity between direct action and terrorism. For the media to do this we need to be making this point clearly to those who report and indeed those newspapers and websites that romanticise direct action, thereby making it an 'attractive' form of terrorism. I can't read the minds of those who advocate direct action; some of them I am sure have 'good' intentions, while others may simply not care or indeed want to cause harm and injury. But at the end of the day their intentions matter little because direct action can lead to a situation identical to a terrorist attack. The motives of the direct activist and the terrorist may or may not be different but the outcome of their actions can be precisely the same. And this situation may get worse if direct activists attempt to manipulate control systems via the internet, in the same way as terrorists and rouge states such as Iran and Syria have done recently to the countries that supply us with our oil and gas. Moreover, as we know terrorists achieve their 'success' not just with physical attacks but also by creating a climate of fear for a vastly greater number of people than those caught up directly in their atrocities. We must prevent advocates of direct action from creating fear and distress for those who work in the industry or other members of the community. Furthermore, those who prey on vulnerable members of our society in order to encourage them to take direct action are no different to those terrorists who do precisely the same with vulnerable people in order to groom them to conduct terrorist atrocities.
It is vital that those who peacefully protest and disagree with our views are encouraged to identify individuals who threaten or pose a risk to life. They will not do this unless the real danger of direct action is identified and reported in the media. This requires us in industry and critical infrastructure resilience to clearly identify the substantial threat posed by extreme protesters and advocates of direct action while at the same time welcoming peaceful debate and discussion. This will not happen overnight. But it's a process that needs to quickly begin before a real tragedy occurs.